Michel de Montaigne

On this date in 1533, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born near Bordeaux, France. His mother’s Spanish-Portuguese family had converted from Judaism to Protestantism and immigrated to France during the Spanish Inquisition. His Catholic father, a well-to-do merchant, came from a titled family. Tutored by his father, Montaigne spoke Latin fluently by age 6. He completed his studies at the College de Guyenne at 13, then studied law, replacing his father as councilor of the Bordeaux court in 1555.

After serving for 15 years, he resigned to commence writing essays, a term he coined himself from the French word “essai” (attempt), and which he defined as “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” At his father’s request, he translated Spanish theologian Raimond Sebond’s 1,000-page book on natural theology, which averred religious claims could be proved by scientific logic. When the first two volumes of his Essays were published in 1580, Montaigne’s longest essay was “Apology for Raimond Sebond,” which countered Sebond’s claim, arguing religion could only be believed by faith.

Montaigne’s observations on religion in Essays include: “How many things served us yesterday for articles of faith, which today are fables to us?” “Philosophy is doubt.” “To know much is often the cause of doubting more.” “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.” During the bloody religious wars between French Catholics and Protestant Huguenots, Montaigne played the role of intermediary between King Henry III and the Huguenot Henry of Navarre.

Montaigne was jailed briefly, first by the Protestants, then by the Catholics. He campaigned in 1598 for the issuance of the Edict of Nantes by King Henry IV to restore religious toleration. Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux for four years and completed his third volume of Essays in 1588. Essays were put on the Catholic Church’s notorious index of condemned writings in 1676.

Freethought historian J.M. Robertson (A Short History of Freethought,1957) considered Montaigne a humanistic deist who significantly rejected “the great superstition of the age, the belief in witchcraft.” Montaigne’s motto was Que sais-je? (What do I know?) D. 1592.

Freedom From Religion Foundation