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Michel de Montaigne

Lawrence Bush
February 28, 2018

Writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne, born Michel Eyquem on this date in 1533, was a major figure in the French Renaissance. His mother was Jewish, but converted to Protestantism, while his maternal grandfather was a crypto-Jew whose family converted to Catholicism. It is thought that there were conversos on his father’s side as well. Montaigne heard and spoke Latin exclusively for his first six years, then learned French, based on his father’s pedagogical preferences. Montaigne practiced law and administrative politics, and, like his father before him, became mayor of Bordeaux. He once remarked that “those who do not live in some degree for others hardly live for themselves.” Montaigne first published his Essays in 1580, popularizing a new literary form, and declaring that “I myself am the material of my book.” An influential aphorist and one of the first great quote collectors, Montaigne carved dozens of Greek and Latin quotes into the wooden beams of his “solitarium,” the name he gave to his round office filled with a thousand books at his family chateau near Bordeaux. In his writings, “his references to the Jews . . . show a sympathetic attitude,” says the Jewish Virtual Library: “There is no doubt that he went out of his way to visit synagogues, attend Jewish ceremonies, and converse with Jews. Montaigne gives a detailed, accurate and sympathetic account of Sabbath services and a circumcision ceremony. He comments on the communal participation in prayer, study, and discussion, and on the widespread knowledge of Hebrew, even among children.” Montaigne died at 59 in 1592.

“Man is forming thousands of ridiculous relations between himself and God.” — Michel de Montaigne

Our thanks to Dan Brook for this JEWDAYO entry.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.