Assaying the self: montaigne's essays some considerations

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Montaigne is a French (does that matter?) "Renaissance humanist"!  Like all historical categorizations this label, "Renaissance humanist", is both useful and reductive.  In our discussions we must try to determine just what this term "humanist" meant in Montaigne's case. For now, let us stipulate, Montaigne's subject is "human being" in the particular: the particular human being "Montaigne". 


  • Because Montaigne takes himself as the subject of The Essays, they might be compared to Augustine's Confessions.  Yet, the comparison is revealing precisely in that it is ultimately inappropriate. Montaigne is not Augustine; The Essays are not The Confessions

  • While Montaigne's work presents "himself" it is no "biography" in any standard sense.  Indeed, he tells his readers that because the subject is himself, the subject is "vain". 

  • Though The Essays are the earliest work we read this year, you may find them the most "Modern" -- at least on first consideration.  This tells us as much about "Modernity" as about Montaigne!

READING ASSIGNMENTS: We will read The Essays more or less in order.  Nonetheless, I want to focus our discussions thematically.  (Hence, not every section read for a given day will be discussed on that day.) 


  • Bk I: To the Reader (yes, again!) & essays 1, 20, 27. 

  • Bk II: 1. 

  • Bk I: 26 paragraphs 1-10 (yes, again!)


  • Bk I: 30, 32, 39, 56. 

  • Bk II: 5, 32, 35. 

  • Bk III: 5. 


  • Bk III: 2, 3, 11, 13. 


The questions below should guide your reading.  (They follow the progress of the reading assignments.)  However, Montaigne returns over and over to an issue with an expanded or contradictory (??) re-considerations.  I suggest you sketch brief answers with page references.  Always feel free to, indeed I encourage you to, discuss the questions and the readings among yourselves before class. 


  1. What point(s) does Montaigne make by the examples in I:1 showing that "We reach the same ends by discrepant means"?  To whom does or do the point(s) apply? 

  2. How does Montaigne use the "Stoics" in I: 1?  What is his specific point about clemency and honor?  Can you derive a more general point about the applicability of doctrinaire principles to human behavior? 

  3. The title of I:20, "To philosophize is to learn how to die", comes from Plato via Cicero.  What does Montaigne mean?  How does he differ from Cicero?  Plato?  (See editor's footnote.) 

  4. Beginning with "Perhaps it is a case of . . . "(pp21.2) and ending with "We do not know where death awaits us . . . . "(pp24.2) Montaigne presents an argument by "sic et non".  What purpose does it serve? does he resolve anything in this section? 

  5. Beginning with "It is true that, in all things, if Nature . . . . " (pp24.3) and ending with "Those are the good counsels of Nature our Mother."(pp35.5) Montaigne meditates on the relationship between life and death:  i.e. death as an interruption of activities; the horrifying appearance of death; the relationship between death and life; and a recognition of the physical 'naturalness' of death.  What is his point?  (Take note of the cover illustration!)

  6. How does the material covered in question 8. reflect back on the philosophic considerations of death by Cicero and Plato in question 4.? Why must we "rip the mask off things as well as people"?  How does Montaigne's being a Christian alter what he will find behind the mask of man?

  7. How does even the title of I:27 reflect back on and explicate I:1?  How do the first two paragraphs cooperate to qualify or even undermine both common sense and philosophic reason?  What are his consequent conclusions reported in subsequent paragraphs? 

  8. How does Montaigne's critique of common sense and philosophic reason relate to traditional scriptural evidences given for personal belief in Christianity?  How does this relate to theological controversies? 

  9. What does Montaigne have to say about "the freedom of personal choice and private selection"?  What are -- as you see them -- the implications of Montaigne's views on "vain glory and curiosity"?  (What is rationalism?  What is fideism?) 

  10. What does Montaigne mean by "inconstancy"?  What dimension of human being does Montaigne see as leading us to be "inconstant"?  What externality leads us to be "inconstant"? 

  11. How does Montaigne use the analogy of the sailor and the wind in the penultimate paragraph of II:1?  What would be the implications of swapping "every wind" for his use of "no wind"? 

  12. How does Montaigne make use of his "sources"/"authorities"?  Does this square with what he says in I:26, paragraphs 1-10?  What relationships exist between Montaigne's sources and his Essays


  1. What point does Montainge make by comparing education with farming?  How does this lead to his comments about "teachers"?  on Socrates?  How does Montaigne use the metaphor of digestion? 

  2. Which "professions" does Montaigne think education benefits?  Which does it not?  What then is its purpose? 

  3. List the binary oppositions Montaigne builds on the distinction between "erudition" and "action"; "knowing" and "judging"; etc.?  What is his point?  What other term does he eventually ally to "virtue"? 

  4. What can be learned through "conversation among men"?  How does this relate to reading history?  to the issues in question 3.? 

  5. How does Montainge characterize philosophy in I:26?  What is the lesson of "the highest virtue"?  What is the "express sign of wisdom"?

  6. What point(s) does Montainge make in his disquisition on "eloquence"?  How does this relate this to "judgement"?  What point(s) does he make by describing his own education? 

  7. What are Montaigne's various complaints about "schoolmasters" and "colleges"?  Describe the schooling Montaigne recommends?  How does the Honors Program compare to Montaigne's model? 


  1. How does Montaigne's view of "constancy" ground his understanding of "repenting"?  Why does Montaigne "rarely repent"?  Is he justified? 

  2. How does Montaigne relate "outward show" and "inward disposition"?  Given this, who can judge us?  Who can we judge? 

  3. How does Montaigne see as the relationship between a man's "master-form" and his "education"?  Is the "master-form" universal? 

  4. What role does "age" play in Montainge's repenting?  In the meaning of The Essays?  How does he use Socrates to illustrate his point? 

  5. There is really only one tri-partite question for III:3: What are the "three kinds of kinds of social intercourse"?  What are Montaigne's preferences, and why?  And, do we agree? 

  6. Then again, “How is reading related to judgment?”  judgment to reason?  Which is better suited to direct us through life, judgement or reason?

  7. In III:11 Montaigne comments on the calendar revisions, judging cases of witchcraft, and having sex with the lame?  Is there a point? 

  8. How does Montaigne contrast reason with experience?  How does this relate to our "need to interpret"?  When do we reach certainty? 

  9. What value does Montaigne attach to the study of legal systems and political science?  the laws of nature and natural science?  What does this tell us about the capacities and operations of reason? 

  10. For Montaigne what is "judgement"?  How does he relate his wisdom to that of Socrates?  What has he learned from these "assays of my life”?

  11. What is the import of Montaigne's discussion of bodily regimen?  of "habituation”?  Why is Montaigne the moralist so concerned with physical health? 

  12. What does Montaigne mean by the term "greatness of soul"

READING ESSAY (mandatory):  250-300 word, "semi-formal", due at the beginning of Session 3.  I do not expect you to exhaust the topic.  Rather these are intended to focus your thinking and facilitate discussion. 

Consider one of the following: 

  1. In the first paragraph of III: 2, what does Montaigne mean the declarations "Others form Man; I give and account of Man . . . "?  and "I am not portraying being but becoming: . . . ” How does this relate to his claim "If my soul could ever find a footing I would not be assaying myself but resolving myself.” 

  2. To the extent that there is a lesson in the Montaigne's Essays, it can be presented by explicating the meaning of the following quote: 

If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all. . . . Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book:  not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquillity for the conduct of our life.  Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly.  Everything else -- reigning, building, laying up treasure -- are at most tiny props and small accessories.  (p. 416)

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