Montaigne (1533-92) is commonly regarded as an early modern sceptic, standing at the threshold of a new secular way of thinking. He is also known for his ground-breaking exploration of the 'subject' or the 'self'. Terence Cave discusses these and other key aspects of the Essais (Montaigne's major work) not as philosophical themes but as features in the mapping of a mental landscape: the project of the Essais is cognitive rather than philosophical. Similarly, he reads the Essais not as 'essays' in the literary sense but as 'trials' or 'soundings' in which the manner of writing - the shape of the sentences, the use of metaphors and other figures - is crucial. Taking passages from many different chapters of the Essais, this book guides the reader through Montaigne's investigation of the 'subtle shades and stirrings' of the mind.
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Terence Cave is Emeritus Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford, Emeritus Research Fellow of St John's College, Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
‘It is the only book of its kind in the world, wild and extravagant
in conception’ (II.8): this is how on one occasion
Michel de Montaigne describes the extraordinary miscellany
of writings which he first published in 1580 and which he
subsequently elaborated and extended until his death in 1592.
The Essais, as he called it, is a highly original outgrowth of
the humanist, Latin-based culture of late Renaissance France.
Michel de Montaigne’s father engaged tutors to speak Latin to
him from his earliest childhood, so that he was virtually bilingual
in French and Latin. His family had made its money in
trade and its aristocratic title was only recently acquired; he
himself had legal training and occupied prominent positions in
the local judiciary and administration. Some three years after
his father died in 1568, he gave up these public duties, at least
for a while, in order to devote himself to his domestic responsibilities.
This ‘retirement’ also had another purpose, however:
it gave him leisure to read, reflect and write, and within a
remarkably short time he was beginning to compose fragments
of what would become the Essais, the only original
composition that he published during his lifetime.
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