This page contains a list of the best books on or by Michel de Montaigne. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on Montaigne. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about Montaigne. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by Michel de Montaigne in no particular order.
How To Read Montaigne – Terence Cave
Publisher description: Montaigne (1533-92) is commonly regarded as an early modern sceptic, standing at the threshold of a new secular way of thinking. He is also known for his ground-breaking exploration of the ‘subject’ or the ‘self’. Terence Cave discusses these and other key aspects of the Essais (Montaigne’s major work) not as philosophical themes but as features in the mapping of a mental landscape: the project of the Essais is cognitive rather than philosophical. Similarly, he reads the Essais not as ‘essays’ in the literary sense but as ‘trials’ or ‘soundings’ in which the manner of writing – the shape of the sentences, the use of metaphors and other figures – is crucial. Taking passages from many different chapters of the Essais, this book guides the reader through Montaigne’s investigation of the ‘subtle shades and stirrings’ of the mind.
Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher – Ann Hartle
Publisher description: 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.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – Sarah Bakewell
Publisher description: How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love—such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?
This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over four hundred years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment—and in search of themselves.
This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers—who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “how to live?”
The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne – Ullrich Langer
Publisher description: Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is known for his innovative method of philosophical inquiry which mixes the anecdotal and the personal with serious critiques of human knowledge, politics and the law. His rejection of fanaticism and cruelty and his admiration for the civilizations of the New World mark him as a predecessor of modern notions of tolerance and acceptance of otherness. An international team of contributors explores the range of his philosophy and also examines the social and intellectual contexts in which his thought was expressed.
Essays – Montaigne
Publisher description: Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech. In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding ‘assays’, inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general. The Essays are among the most idiosyncratic and personal works in all literature and provide an engaging insight into a wise Renaissance mind, continuing to give pleasure and enlightenment to modern readers. With its extensive introduction and notes, M.A. Screech’s edition of Montaigne is widely regarded as the most distinguished of recent times.
The following sources were used to build this list:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Montaigne
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Montaigne
For more introductory philosophy resources and reading lists check out this collection of Resources and Reading Lists.