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Context Essays

The Essays: A Brief History

The whole of the text presented in modern editions of the Essays was actually published in several different editions, a fact that has led to controversy within Montaigne scholarship. Within his lifetime, Montaigne published two editions of his work, in 1580 (at which point only the first two books were written) and 1588 (which included a third book and significant additions to the first two). A third edition, published in 1595 under the supervision of Montaigne’s adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay, remained the authoritative model for publishing the Essays until the early 20th century, when a copy of the 1588 edition, containing hundreds of annotations and additions in Montaigne’s handwriting and known as the “Bordeaux copy”, became the basis for modern critical editions of his work. This trend, started by a desire to adhere to a version of the text with an unequivocal link to its author, has seen some reversal during the first decade of the 21st century, as several French editions of the Essays have reverted to the 1595 model (some going as far as removing paragraphs from the text, which did not exist in Montaigne’s time). This change can partly be attributed to efforts made in rehabilitating Marie de Gournay, long accused of tampering with the Essays but now often acknowledged for her own writing career, including many proto-feminist treatises such as The Equality of Men and Women, first published in 1622.

Writing the Self in Troubled Times

Montaigne’s writings make it clear that they will take their author as their subject by demonstrating the strength (and weaknesses) of his judgment and opinions through repeated “attempts” (“Essay”, in the French of the time, signified a try or attempt, and the modern English use of the term to mean a form of non-fiction writing was coined by Montaigne). Despite their introspective focus, the loosely structured reflections that make up the Essays often deal with the social and political events of Montaigne’s time, if only to illustrate a point or provide an example. In particular, Montaigne uses contemporary history as a counterpoint to analogous situations or phenomena drawn from antiquity.

The historical period that encompassed the majority of Montaigne’s adult life was one of the most tumultuous in France’s history, as decades of civil war ravaged the country. The wars of religion (1562-1598) unleashed brutal fighting and destruction as they pitted Catholics, for the most part supported by the king, and Huguenots, an often tenuous confederation of French noblemen and followers of the Reformation, against one another. The conflict between these two camps, which quickly fractured into several different groups, often forced Montaigne to act as an intermediary, and he eventually became associated with a group of moderate Catholics known as the Politiques, who favored peace with the Protestants over unconditional victory.

Montaigne was quite active in this capacity in the years after 1570, which he often describes as the time of his retreat from the world’s affairs. Apart from his tenure as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne was also asked to act as official mediator between a group of extremist Catholics known as the Holy League and his Protestant friend Henri de Navarre (later Henry IV of France) during the 1570s, and was instrumental in keeping the citizens of Bordeaux loyal after Henry’s accession to the throne in 1589. He was also active in the courts of Henry’s predecessors Charles IX and Henry III (to whom Montaigne was even sent as a secret envoy from the future king in 1588). Just as the turbulent historical period surrounding the Essays contrasts with the leisurely life that represents Montaigne’s personal ideal, so, too, have scholars often noted the disparity between the image he gives of himself as idle and isolated and the heightened political activity of his later years.

The importance of these circumstances for Montaigne’s writing is obvious: apart from taking political and religious questions of his time as premises for his reflections, Montaigne partly constructed his portrayal of the human condition from the events unfolding around him. Living in uncertain times, he presented a portrait of himself and humanity which focused on the inability of the mind to arrive at absolute truths beyond those divinely revealed. This uncertainty applied to the political and social as well as the personal, and led him to advocate a skepticism that remains one of the Essays’ most significant contributions. In the face of truth’s inaccessibility, Montaigne offers the suspension of judgment as a means of achieving stability and peace of mind. The Essays’ mistrust of human reason and avoidance of dogmatism when observing the self and its capacities proved to be greatly influential on the philosophers that would follow Montaigne, thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.

Composed by: Paul Wimmer, Graduate Student in the Columbia University Department of French.

Texts consulted: Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works. Trans. and Eds. Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.  Ullrich Langer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  "Montaigne, Michel de 1533-1592." Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Routledge, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 28 December 2010. Albert Thibaudet, Montaigne. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1963.

For more information, see: Foglia, Marc, "Michel de Montaigne", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/montaigne/

Writing about context for any essay can be daunting, since it often seems difficult to know what to revise and remember for your exam as you don’t know what the question will be. In answer to this question, it is the relevance of the context that is the most important part not the inclusion of context in your essay. Simply sticking a paragraph on context in the middle of your essay will not gain you high marks since it may not be relevant to the points you are making and might therefore appear clumsy to the examiner. However, writing about context can be really stimulating and enjoyable! There are two key ways of ensuring that the context you include will make your essay successful. This example uses Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. 1) When you revise, try to remember context that is ‘broad’- that is, contextual information on your text that can be manipulated to many different types of question. For example, instead of remembering lots of specific facts and dates, e.g. ‘Shakespeare was born in 1564’, not particularly relevant to the text, try to remember context that is less specific but relevant to the play, such as, ‘In the Elizabethan era, it was widely believed that suicide damned you to Hell’. This is much more useful contextual knowledge to remember, as it is directly linked to the play. 2) Once you have chosen what context to revise, it is important to use it in the most relevant way. For example, instead of writing a separate paragraph on Elizabethan religious beliefs, you might use this context in a way that supports your answer to the essay question, which would gain you high marks. If the question was about the genre of the play as a tragedy, you might write about the death scene of Romeo and Juliet and insert this contextual knowledge into the paragraph about this scene. Having the awareness that to a contemporary audience their suicide will lead them to eternity in Hell as well as separation in life, enables you to discuss how the tragedy of the play is really climaxed at this point- as Shakespeare demands empathy for the two characters who have fallen from grace. The relevance of using context in this way and the interweaving into your point will impress the examiner as it reflects your sensitivity to the production of the text as well as your intelligent essay writing skills.