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Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (Complete)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
Michel de Montaigne was born at his paternal castle of that name, in Périgord, on the 8th of February, 1533. He was the son of Pierre Eyquem, esquire—seigneur of Montaigne, and at one time elected mayor of Bordeaux. This portion of France, Gascony and Guienne, gives birth to a race peculiar to itself; vivacious, warm-hearted, and vain—they are sometimes boastful, but never false; often rash, but never disloyal; and Montaigne evidently inherited much of the disposition peculiar to his province. He speaks of his family as honourable and virtuous:—"We are a race noted as good parents, good brothers, good relations," he says,—and his father himself seems eminently to deserve the gratitude and praise which his son bestows. His description of him is an interesting specimen of a French noble of those days:—"He spoke little and well, and mixed his discourse with allusions to modern books, mostly Spanish; his demeanour was grave, tempered by gentleness, modesty, and humility; he took peculiar care of the neatness and cleanliness of his dress, whether on horseback or on foot; singularly true in his conversation, and conscientious and pious, almost even to superstition. For a short slight man he was very strong; his figure was upright and well proportioned; he was dexterous and graceful in all noble exercises; his agility was almost miraculous; and I have seen him, at more than sixty years of age, throw himself on a horse, leap over the table, with only his thumb on it, and never going to his room without springing up three or four stairs at a time." Michel was the eldest of five sons. His father was eager to give him a good education, and even before his birth consulted learned and clever men on the subject. On these consultations and on his own admirable judgment he formed a system, such as may in some sort be considered the basis of Rousseau's; and which shows that, however we may consider one age more enlightened than another, the natural reason of men of talent leads them to the same conclusions, whether living in an age when warfare, struggle, and the concomitant ignorance were rife, or when philosophers set the fashion of the day. "The good father whom God gave me," says Montaigne, "sent me, while in my cradle, to one of his poor villages, and kept me there while I was at nurse and longer, bringing me up to the hardest and commonest habits of life. He had another notion, also, which was to ally me with the people, and that class of men who need our assistance; desiring that I should rather give my attention to those who should stretch out their arms to me, than those who would turn their backs; and for this reason he selected people of the lowest condition for my baptismal sponsors, that I might attach myself to them." He was taught, also, in his infancy directness of conduct, and never to mingle any artifice or trickery with his games. With regard to learning, his good father meditated long on the received modes of initiating his son in the rudiments of knowledge. He was struck by the time given to, and the annoyance a child suffers in, the acquirement of the dead languages; this was exaggerated to him as a pause why the moderns were so inferior to the ancients in greatness of soul and wisdom. He hit, therefore, on the expedient of causing Latin to be the first language that his son should hear and speak. He engaged the services of a German, well versed in Latin, and wholly ignorant of French. "This man," continues Montaigne, "whom he sent for expressly, and who was liberally paid, had me perpetually in his arms. Two others of less learning, accompanied to relieve him; they never spoke to me except in Latin; and it was the invariable rule of the house, that neither my father nor my mother, nor domestic, nor maid, should utter in my presence any thing except the few Latin phrases they had learnt for the purpose of talking with me.