It is towards 1572 that Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 - 1592) undertakes to dictate the Essais , which occupy it until its death. Two years earlier, it sold its responsibility of advise at the Parliament of Bordeaux and was withdrawn in its castle of the Périgord. Not that it is devoted exclusively to the Essais : while managing its field, Montaigne plays its part of catholic gentleman in various military or political episodes of the wars of religion. He travels, is elected then re-elected mayor of Bordeaux, is used finally as intermediary between the king Henri III and the chief Protesting Henri of Navarre (future Henri IV). The Essais nourish as much of this experiment that readings of the Humaniste in the “retirement” of its “bookstore”. Montaigne publishes books I and II in Bordeaux in 1580, then increases them and book III in the Parisian edition of 1588 associates to them. It then continues to enrich its text for a new edition. Of this work two sometimes divergent witnesses remain: a specimen of the Tests covered of additions of the hand of Montaigne (known as specimen of Bordeaux) and the posthumous edition of 1595.
A fragmentary writingWith the imitation of the Greek Plutarque (46 - 120), Montaigne conceives his Essais like a “badly united marquetry”, and asserts their disorder like guarantees his freedom and of its “good foy”. This disorder also comes in the way even in which the Essais are written: Montaigne thinks aloud, a scribe (there were three successive) takes its dictation. Preferring with the didactic organization and the rhetoric of the pedants a “poetic pace, with jumps and gambades”, it put on the mixture and diversity. A hundred and seven Essais thus strike by their variety and contrasts which animate them. If shortest (in particular with book I) are hardly that notes of reading, juxtaposing on one or two pages some anecdotes briefly with accompanying notes, others form true philosophical tests, of stoical inspiration (“That to philosophize is to learn how to die”, I, 20) or skeptic (“Apology for Raimond Sebond”, II, 12), increasingly nourished personal confidences (“Of vanity”, III, 9; “From the experiment”, III, 13).
The variety of the forms that of the subjects answers: Montaigne, affecting “speech indifferently of all that is presented to its fantasy”, passes without transition from the “cannibals” (I, 31) to the “divine ordinances” (I, 32), of the “scents” (I, 60) to the “prayers” (I, 61). Some misleading titles mask the most daring chapters: “Habit of the island of ECA” (II, 3) discusses the legitimacy of the suicide; “Of the resemblance of the children to the fathers” (II, 37) attacks the doctors; “On worms of Virgile” (III, 5) conceals the confessions of Montaigne on its experiment of the love and sexuality; “Of the stage coaches” (III, 6) denounces the cruelty of the conquistadors… Not less various are the innumerable sources than Montaigne makes dialog, confronting the traditional authorities of humanism with its individual experiment: if Plutarque and Sénèque remain its authors of predilection, historians and poets hardly are solicited: hundreds of quotations in prose or worms, French and Latin, often pleasantly diverted, compose a text with several voices. Far from constituting a free ornament or a paralyzing authority, this intertexte omnipresent illustrates or requests always a personal reflection: “I do not say the others, explains Montaigne, if not for all the more saying itself. ”
“Know yourself”The unit of the Essais lies in the original step which makes philosophical investigation the mirror of the author: “It is me whom I paint. ” Whatever the covered subject, the objectives is the self-knowledge, the evaluation of its own judgment, the deepening of its inclinations: “Lately that I retiray at moy, deliberated as much as I pourroy, me mesler of another thing to only pass in rest, and separately, this little which remains me of life: it me sembloit to be able to make more great favor with my spirit, only to leave it in full idleness, to discuss soy mesmes, and arrester and to rasseoir in soy” (I, 8). Beyond this project without precedent, which reveals us the tastes and the opinions of a gentleman périgourdin of XVIe century, like its most secret practices and its manias, the genius of Montaigne is to clarify the universal dimension of such a self-portrait: insofar as “each man carries the whole form of the human condition”, implementation of the precept the socratic “Know yourself” leads to a vertiginous exploration of the enigmas of our condition, in its misery, its vanity, its inconstancy, its dignity too.
Humanistic by its taste of the ancient letters, Montaigne is more still with the philosophical direction, by its high idea of the human person and the respect which is owe him. Its nonviolent pedagogy, misant on the dialog and curiosity, its courageous denunciations of the Colonialism incipient or the Chasse with the witches oppose to all the forms of silly thing, control, fanaticism or cruelty an opening to the other and a spirit of tolerance which make sometimes to this “honest man” our contemporary. This relativism justifies the relation free from dogmatism that Montaigne inaugurates with its reader: calling itself in question its clean dires, underlining the contingency of its “moods and opinions”, prone to the “swing” and the universal vicissitude (“I do not paint the being, I paint the passage”), Montaigne leaves us an opened work, whose incompletion seems an invitation to continue the investigation and the dialog.
- Exemplary digitized of the original edition (1580) of the Tests (Books I and II), on the site of the humanistic Virtual libraries.
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