One would be hard-pressed to find a high school student who has never heard of an essay, but one would perhaps be even more hard-pressed to find a student who knows the man responsible for the creation of the modern essay: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a Frenchman born in 1533.
Montaigne spent the early portion of his life as a counselor and later, as a courtier at the court of Charles IX. On February 28, 1571, however, at the age of thirty-eight, his public life ended altogether: Montaigne retired from the so-called “slavery of the court of public duties,” moved to his family’s estate in the French countryside, and began to write his celebrated Essais. That is when the creation of the modern essay began.
The word “essay” itself did not have the same meaning in Montaigne’s time as it does today. In French, the verb “essayer” means “to try,” and that is the precise sense in which Montaigne was using the word “essais.” He was merely doing his best and was trying—or, more appropriately, essaying—to write short arguments and examinations of himself. In brief, Montaigne was a humble man who believed that his masterpiece was imperfect and therefore dubbed his writing “essais,” or mere attempts.
“I study myself more than any other subject,” Montaigne once wrote, “That is my metaphysics. That is my physics.” Indeed, even though Montaigne did mostly write about himself, his essays cannot necessarily be classified as memoirs or confessions. Montaigne strictly wrote them as a means of examining the nature of man and, since he saw himself as a man who was honest with himself and who did not mind to recognize his errors and faults, as well as his virtues and good deeds, he thought of himself as the perfect subject. He wrote essays about idleness and fear, liars and pedantry, solitude and moderation; however, he also wrote essays wholly unrelated to himself—essays on cannibalism, Cato the Younger, war horses, and smells. The content of Montaigne’s essays is almost as unique as the modern essay itself, which he created hundreds of years ago and, since then, has become quite common.
Montaigne is perhaps not as well-known in the Anglo-American world as he is in the French, where all French schoolchildren know the date February 28, 1571. However, students in the United States certainly do know him through all of the people whom he inspired—William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and René Descartes—and, most of all, through the essays that they frequently write at school.
Author: Steven Bonhoeffer