The Essential Montaigne

Born in 1533, at the apex of the French Renaissance, Montaigne received a strict, immersive education, which fueled his precocious nature and propelled him into the public sphere. After completing law school, he served as an esteemed statesman, advising top-ranking court officials, before retiring to his family castle in 1571 to dedicate his remaining years to measured self-reflection. He spent the next two decades crafting and revising his Essais—a magnificent collection of candid discourses that established the form of the modern essay. What follows are some of our favorite bits of Montaigne’s legendary wisdom.

The wisest man that ever was, being asked what he knew, made answer, “He knew this, that he knew nothing.”

We should spread joy, but cut down sadness as much as we can.

Of what use are colors to him that knows not what he is to paint? No one lays down a certain design for his life, and we only deliberate thereof by pieces.

The soul profits from everything without distinction.

Fortune does us neither good nor harm; she only offers us the material and the seed of them, which our soul, more powerful than she, turns and applies as it pleases, sole cause and mistress of its happy or unhappy condition.

Honor is a privilege that derives its principal essence from rarity; and so does virtue itself.

Of all the illusions in the world, the most universally received is the concern for reputation and glory, which we espouse even to the point of giving up riches, rest, life, and health, which are effectual and substantial goods, to follow that vain phantom and mere sound that has neither body nor substance.

We praise a horse because it is vigorous and skillful . . . not for his harness; a greyhound for his speed, not for his collar; a bird for his wing, not for his jesses and bells.

The pedestal is no part of the statue.

’Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.

A man of genius belongs to no period and no country. He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.

The old theology is poetry, the scholars say, and the first philosophy. It is the original language of the Gods.

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