Montaigne & the Instability of the Self

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Recently I’ve been taking a graduate course examining the writings and thinkers of the Renaissance. One such provocative writer and thinker examined was Michel de Montaigne. One of the things that I am struck by in Montaigne’s writings is the way in which he seems to view the ‘Self’. It seems to me that Montaigne’s estimation of self-hood is very similar to that of Buddhist philosophy (which I’ve attempted to discuss in three previous video posts found here, here, and here). What follows, then, is a short paper I wrote for the class discussing Montaigne’s concepts of the ‘Self’. Enjoy!


Michel Eyquem de Montaigne represents not only a literary turning point within the thought and writing of Renaissance Humanism but, a veritable revolution in the history of Western literature itself. To say that Montaigne is a unique figure is an understatement. Ahead of his time, Montaigne is truly the first of his kind, single-handedly inventing a whole new genre of writing and a bold new form of literary expression. The most candid, and thus the most human, of writers and thinkers, Montaigne is a firebrand of radical introspection. The cusp of Montaigne’s work is found in his probing observations and analyses of the intricacies of his own subjectivity. Montaigne utilizes a deeply contemplative mindfulness within his meditations upon his own consciousness, his own thoughts, feelings, actions, perceptions, conceptions, behaviors, ideas. Closely and intimately examining his own materiality, and all the other minutiae of every-day existence, Montaigne reveals a clarity of vision regarding the universality of the human condition that is utterly poignant and unavoidably prescient. Yet, in doing so Montaigne presents a description of the Self that was not only subversive within his own time but, that continues to subvert even the modern world’s sensibilities of self.

Michel de Montaigne witnessed a world of violent instability all around. He watched as his country was torn apart by civil wars. His most beloved of friends, Etienne de La Boetie fell victim to the plague (Bakewell 13). He mourned the death of his father (Blackwell 13). He was shocked by the unexpected death of his brother (Bakewell 24). He grieved the loss of 5 of his six children, “only one survived to become an adult” (Bakewell 2). This mounting and all-pervasive instability, this world beset by impermanence, is what led Montaigne to put pen to paper and what kept the pen in motion for over two decades, writing his voluminous and monumental work, Essais, or Essays.
Yet, in crafting Essays Montaigne was no memoirist. Sarah Bakewell explains that Montaigne “did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements” or to “lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events” (Bakewell 3). Instead, his writings are deeply ‘reflective’ explorations, and ‘reflective’ in two senses of the term. In the first and most obvious sense, his writings are ‘reflective’ in that they are profoundly introspective, that is, deeply ‘self-reflective’. They are concentrated ruminations and deliberative musings. David Hansen writes that Montaigne is keenly aware of his own “thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and actions” (128). In his essay “Of Experience”, Montaigne, himself, states that “I study myself more than any other subject; ‘tis my metaphysic, my physic” (Montaigne). The central object of Montaigne’s investigative reflecting is himself. Montaigne is an explorer of his own subjectivity.

However, Montaigne’s writings are ‘reflective’ explorations in another sense. Because Montaigne delves so deeply into his own humanity, his writing becomes ‘reflective’ of the whole of humanity, that is to say, ‘reflected’ within Montaigne’s self-reflections one finds a reflection of themselves. When one explores the reflections of Montaigne, one is exploring one’s own reflection., one is exploring a reflection of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own Self-hood. Sarah Bakewell states that “This idea” of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity” is a cultural invention that is traced back singularly to Montaigne (1). Montaigne writes that “Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer” (Montaigne). In other words, as Montaigne goes on to say in “Of Repentance”, is that “every man carries the entire form of human condition” (Montaigne). As Ian Fraser explains the “Universal moves through the particular and the individual” (87). In Montaigne’s writing one sees a simultaneity between the universal, the particular, and the individual. The universal is reflected in the particular and the individual, and the individual and the particular are reflected in the universal.

Yet, what, specifically, is the universal particularity, or the particular universality, that one sees reflected in the explorations presented in Montaigne’s Essays? It seems that part of what one sees in the exploratory writings of Montaigne’s particular Self-hood is the universal impermanence and instability of the ‘Self’. Montaigne sees the Self as something in constant motion. The Self, “the features of my picture,” like the world, like “the earth the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt” moves incessantly and is perpetually altered and changed (Montaigne). The Self, the object of his reflective deliberation, cannot be fixed, “tis always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Instead the Self can only be taken “as it is at the instant” it is considered (Montaigne). Thus, his portrait of the Self is not so much a still life or a still frame but, instead functions as a kind of time lapse photography, capturing neither the stable substantiality nor the concrete constancy of “being”, but rather the “passage” of the Self “from day to day” and “from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne notes that “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion” (Montaigne). Montaigne emphasizes becoming, and in exploring the landscape of the ‘Self’ Montaigne’s Essays are a cartography in motion, charting a moving geography constantly shifting.

Montaigne’s reflective explorations of introspection into the human condition reveal that the Self is amorphous and unstable. He demonstrates that the Self is a material conglomeration of temporal thoughts, fleeting feelings, insubstantial sensations, and impermanent perceptions, a constellation of ephemeral actions and variable patterns of behavior. This patterned constellation, though recognizable, is empty of absolute essence. To impose the idea of a solid Self onto these ‘patterns’ is nothing short of an example of apophenia (false pattern recognition). There is no one unchanging, stable Self. The varying objects of one’s materiality are also events, and the substances of the Self are also processes which implore one to live fully within the present moment, “not because it is fleeting, but because it is full” (Mijolla 62).

Works Cited

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Great Britain: Random House UK, 2010. Print.

Fraser, Ian. “Two of a Kind: Hegel, Marx, Dialectic and Form.” Capital & Class, vol. 18, no. 61, Spring97, pp. 81-12. EBSCOhost,

Hansen, David T. “Well-Formed, Not Well-Filled: Montaigne and the Paths of Personhood.” Educational Theory, vol. 52, no. 2, Spring2002, p. 127. EBSCOhost,

Mijolla, Elizabeth de. Autobiographical Quests: Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. Print.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. 8 Aug. 2016. Project Gutenberg. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.



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