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Significant French philosopher and writer, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), was in foster care for three years as a child. 

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born into a wealthy aristocratic family on the family estate, Chateau de Montaigne, in a town later named after him near Bordeaux in France. Soon after his birth, Michel was given to a peasant family as part of an education plan developed by his father. The intention was that in foster care, Michel would develop empathy and an understanding of the way in which others live. 

On his return to the chateau, Michel was taught Latin and his father hired servants who were instructed to speak to the child only in Latin.

At around the age of six the child was sent off to a prestigious boarding school, College de Guyenne in Bordeaux. 

He later went on to study law at the University of Toulouse and worked as legal counsel in the Bourdeaux high court. From 1561-1563 he served at the court of Charles IX. 

In 1571, at the age of thirty-seven, Montaigne retired to manage his chateau and spend time in his library. He began to write his now-famous Essays, establishing a new literary tradition with his reflections on self and life. 

The ensuing, free-ranging essays, although steeped in classical poetry, history and philosophy, are unquestionably something new in the history of Western thought. They were almost scandalous for their day.

No one before Montaigne in the Western canon had thought to devote pages to subjects as diverse and seemingly insignificant as “Of Smells”, “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”, “Of Posting” (letters, that is), “Of Thumbs” or “Of Sleep” – let alone reflections on the unruliness of the male appendage, a subject which repeatedly concerned him (Sharpe, emphasis in the original).

The intimacy of Montaigne’s self-portraits is often regarded as on a par with those of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and the later Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who was inspired by Montaigne.

Montaigne delivered a copy of his book to King Henri III in 1580 and then traveled through Europe, curious about cultural differences and keeping a record of his adventure, which was published posthumously.

Michel de Montaigne was elected as Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581, and he served two terms until July 1585. Having proven himself to be a skilled diplomat managing a three-way conflict between three Henris – King Henri, Henri de Guise and Henri of Navarre – Montaigne was despatched on an (unsuccessful secret mission) to Henri III in 1588.

Montaigne made good use of his time in Paris and delivered the fifth edition of his Essays to his printer. Imprisoned overnight in the Bastille, he collected the copies of his book the next day and headed home, via a visit to Marie de Gournay, an admirer of Montaigne’s who became his literary executor and a philosopher in her own right.

Michel de Montaigne spent most of the rest of his life at home, adding to his Essays. He died before the sixth edition was published.

Today Montaigne continues to be studied in all aspects of his text…In an age that may seem as violent and absurd as his own, his refusal of intolerance and fanticism and his lucid awareness of the human potential for destruction, coupled with his belief in the human capacity for self-assessment, honesty, and compassion, appeal as convincingly as ever to the many who find in him a guide and a friend (Sankovitch).


Bakewell, Sarah.  How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Vintage, 2011. 

“Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

“Michel de Montaigne.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive, 2019. 

Sankovitch, Tilde. “Michel de Montaigne. French writer and philosopher.” Britannica. 

Sharpe, Matthew. “Guide to the classics: Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.” The Conversation, 2 November 2016, 

Image available here.