Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher

Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher

Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher

Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher


Michel de Montaigne has always been acknowledged as a great literary figure but never thought of as a philosophical original. This book is the first to treat him as a serious thinker in his own right, taking as its point of departure Montaigne's description of himself as "an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher". This major reassessment of a much admired but also greatly underestimated thinker is for historians of philosophy and scholars in comparative literature, French studies and the history of ideas.


This book is intended to show that Michel de Montaigne is a philosopher — that is, that he takes up the most fundamental philosophical questions in a profoundly original, comprehensive, and coherent way. Although his Essays have always been acknowledged as the origin of a new literary genre, they have never been recognized as philosophical in the deepest sense. Montaigne invented the essay because his thought could not be expressed in the traditional philosophical forms.

Those who have written on the philosophical aspects of the Essays have generally placed Montaigne in one or more of three categories. They have seen him as a skeptic of some kind, as a humanist, or as having evolved in his thought through Stoic, Skeptical, and Epicurean stages. Each of these views does capture something of the tone and substance of the Essays, but all are partial and none is as radical as Montaigne's own thought.

The interpretation I present here is based on the moment of self-discovery that occurs in the “Apology for Sebond.” Montaigne is “a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher!” I take him at his word: what he is doing in the Essays has never been done before.

Montaigne, then, breaks with both ancient philosophy and medieval theology. Is he, therefore, the first modern? If modernity is essentially the progress of autonomous reason that culminates in the Enlightenment, then Montaigne is not a modern philosopher. His philosophical position and the essay form in which it is embodied constitute a rejection of the claim to authority of autonomous reason, a claim that he recognized in its earliest stirrings.

Because Montaigne is a critic of modernity, can we then say that he is, as Lyotard has it, a postmodern thinker? There are indeed several aspects of Montaigne's critique of modernity that postmodernists would find attractive and sympathetic. But Montaigne is deeply at odds with the most fundamental claims of postmodernism. His rejection of the authority of autonomous reason does not imply a rejection of the possibility of truth.

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