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Life of Michel de Montaigne

The term “Renaissance man” is today used in reference to someone who has wide interests and expertise in many areas. The term endures because back in the 14th~17th centuries there were actually many gifted individuals who mastered a variety of arts and sciences. Examples include Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), to name a few. Indeed, it was Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) who best described the attitude of that era, saying “Men can do all things if they will.”

One such man was the French writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). Primarily remembered as the “Father of the Essay” for developing the modern essay form, he was also skilled in law, philosophy, politics and, yes, gambling.

A Noble Birthright

Montaigne was born on February 28, 1533 at the Château de Montaigne, which was near Bordeaux, France. His great-grandfather, Ramon Felipe Eyquem, had become wealthy as a herring merchant. When he purchased the estate in 1477, the family became members of French nobility, and Eyquem was named Lord of Montaigne.

As a result, the boy’s father, Pierre Eyquem, was born noble as well as wealthy. While stationed in Italy, he embraced the Italian humanist culture of the day. Adhering to this philosophy, Montaigne was taught Latin as his first language. Only at the age of six did he take up French, when he was sent to the prestigious Collége de Guyenne in Bordeaux.

By the time Montaigne was thirteen, he was ready to leave the school to study law in Toulouse. He subsequently worked in the courts of Périgueux and was appointed as counselor of the Bordeaux Parliament in 1557. In those days, Montaigne counted among his closest friends the humanist writer and libertarian political philosopher Etienne de La Boëtie. Then, for two years beginning in 1561, Montaigne served as a courtier for Charles IX.

No doubt gambling was familiar to Montaigne by this time. In 1550-74, during Charles IX’s administration, the card game known as Brelan was especially popular at court. Also, in 1563, the first patent was issued for starting a lottery—a raffle, actually—with the prize being a gold watch. Soon lotteries were sweeping France, popping up from Amiens to Soissons and beyond.

Of Games and Words

Montaigne did not believe in science. He put his faith in direct experience—that which was concrete over abstraction or generalization. Gambling taught him much about the role of “fortune” in life. Many of the most famous quotes from his later writings could easily have been taken from the lessons he learned playing cards or dice. Uncertainty, he reckoned, was the natural state of all things.

“Not being able to govern events,” he wrote. “I govern myself.” He also wrote of how the “self” is subject to change, too: “I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything [….] Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it […] I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”

Of all Montaigne’s sayings, one of the most memorable is a direct allusion to gambling—“The game’s not worth the candle.” This expression, which he penned in 1580, is a reference to gambling by candlelight, which incurred the cost of illumination. If the winnings are insufficient, they don’t warrant the expense of playing. This proverb has survived to this day, along with another—“There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.”

Later Life

Three years after his father’s death in 1568, Montaigne decided to leave court and retire to work on his “Essais.” Considered by critics to be among the best essays ever written, the works cover a large number of very personal and subjective topics, from religion and education to friendship, love, and freedom. He wrote almost continuously from 1571 through 1580.

Even as Montaigne devoted himself to his writing, the nobleman was so sorely missed by the populace that he was elected mayor of Bordeaux in 1581–85. In 1588, however, he was arrested en route to Paris for his open and contentious support for Henry III, who was later killed in 1589.

Montaigne spent the last few years of his life at the Château de Montaigne, where he died in 1592. His words would later influence such luminaries as Voltaire, Flaubert, Pascal, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. But while he was alive, Montaigne was best known as a statesman and a gambler, an unconventional Renaissance man even in his day.

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