In the Company of Old Friends:  Reading Montaigne's Classical Citations in Multiple Contexts

Silas M. Peterson

University of New Mexico

Michel de Montaigne's Essais touches upon nearly every aspect of the 16th-century nobleman's life and continues to offer scholars a unique perspective on the ideas and reflections of the thinking man in 16th-century Europe.  Like Rabelais and other Humanist and Renaissance men of letters, Montaigne perceived himself as an inheritor of classical ideas, "[standing] on the shoulders of giants", even going so far as to proudly publish his certificate of Roman citizenship.  His Essais includes many hundreds of citations from Greek and Latin authors and offers important insight into the influence and meaning of the body of classical texts to 16th-century Europe.  Although Montaigne studies has long been a veritable discipline unto itself, Montaigne's classical influences being exhaustive, new understandings are always possible.

This paper will explore the meaning that the classical canon of texts held for Montaigne, with a particular focus on the influence and role of classics in the long essay, "De la vanité" (Essais III.ix).  I intend to look at the role that citations from Greek and Latin sources plays in the essay, consulting the original (classical) texts to suggest that Montaigne had in mind the greater contexts of the passages from which he cited and that those contexts enrich Montaigne's meaning and create levels of meaning within the essay.  Why does Montaigne choose to employ classical citations within "De la vanité", and in what ways do they affect the meaning of his text?  How does appreciation of their classical contexts broaden our understanding of their meaning within the essay?  And finally, what does Montaigne teach us about our classical heritage and the role it might play in our own work and lives today?


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