Michel de Montaigne was a French writer who lived in the 16th century. He was the originator of a new literary form: the essay. The essay is a short exercise on a certain topic and is designed to get across one or two points to the reader. A reader will be more likely to finish an essay than a book due to its length, lending the author an advantage in getting his ideas across.
Montaigne’s style, like his genre of writing, is unique. In his Essays you can see an autobiographical element, which was uncommon in his day. He made many references to his thought and his capabilities in the essays. Sometimes, he made references to his background in the middle of an essay. It is also evident that he embraced a mild form of skepticism.
Montaigne is also famous for his aphorisms: short pithy sentences designed to communicate a truth to the reader. His essays aren’t always that clear though,as his essays are also filled with long-winded paragraphs that are hard to understand.
Montaigne rejected sophisticated grammar and rhetoric, and advocated simplicity instead. He did not always do this, however, as his aforementioned long, complex, and sometimes incoherent paragraphs display. Montaigne’s famous essay on cannibals glorifies simplicity, and compares the lifestyle of the cannibal tribes in the New World favorably to the lifestyle of Western Europeans.
He commonly made historical references and quotations in his work. Many of these references come from ancient Greek or Roman writers and historians. Some of his quotations were in Latin. This shows that he was writing to the educated elite, not the common man. The educated elite were the only people in his day who would both know Latin and the ancient works mentioned in his Essays. He would use historical examples to illustrate rival viewpoints, and would comment on them. He usually did not, however, take sides between the two viewpoints.
Montaigne usually presented the subject of his essay as if he were discussing, rather than arguing for, a certain viewpoint. He did not offer many challenges to the prevailing viewpoints of his day. He tried to engage, rather than preach, to the reader.
There does not seem to be many themes across his essays, aside from his skepticism and the fact that he was pro-toleration and anti-cruelty. His essays are loosely constructed, without a rigid formula for writing them. This is sometimes appropriate if you are trying to engage the reader by discussion.
In my opinion the Essays were interesting, but probably not something I would like to spend a whole lot of time reading. Many of his historical examples are interesting, but are often portrayed contrary to each other, with a similar action producing different results. He generally didn’t come to any conclusion on the subject he discussed, aside from pointing out the inconsistencies of the historical data. Many of his paragraphs are long and hard to understand, and that makes it hard to follow his line of thought at times.