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A Life
Philippe Desan
Translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal

Hardcover | 2017 | $39.95 | £32.95 | ISBN: 9780691167879
832 pp. | 6 x 9 | 2 halftones. 19 line illus.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400883394 |
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One of the most important writers and thinkers of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) helped invent a literary genre that seemed more modern than anything that had come before. But did he do it, as he suggests in his Essays, by retreating to his chateau, turning his back on the world, and stoically detaching himself from his violent times? In this definitive biography, Philippe Desan, one of the world’s leading authorities on Montaigne, overturns this longstanding myth by showing that Montaigne was constantly concerned with realizing his political ambitions—and that the literary and philosophical character of the Essays largely depends on them. The most comprehensive and authoritative biography of Montaigne yet written, this sweeping narrative offers a fascinating new picture of his life and work.

As Desan shows, Montaigne always considered himself a political figure and he conceived of each edition of the Essays as an indispensable prerequisite to the next stage of his public career. He lived through eight civil wars, successfully lobbied to be raised to the nobility, and served as mayor of Bordeaux, special ambassador, and negotiator between Henry III and Henry of Navarre. It was only toward the very end of Montaigne’s life, after his political failure, that he took refuge in literature. But, even then, it was his political experience that enabled him to find the right tone for his genre.

In this essential biography, we discover a new Montaigne—caught up in the events of his time, making no separation between private and public life, and guided by strategy first in his words and silences. Neither candid nor transparent, but also not yielding to the cynicism of his age, this Montaigne lends a new depth to the Montaigne of literary legend.

Philippe Desan is the Howard L. Willett Professor in Renaissance Literature and History of Culture at the University of Chicago and the author of many books.


"Philippe Desan, in Montaigne: A Life (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography . . . insists that our ‘Château d’Yquem’ Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish--and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne."--Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

"Desan, an expert on French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), takes readers on a detailed yet sweeping journey through the world of one of the Renaissance’s most important literary figures."--Publishers Weekly

"Revisiting the public and private life of the extraordinary humanist in light of religious divisions of the 16th century. . . . [Montaigne: A Life is] a hefty biography."--Kirkus


"The new standard biography of Montaigne. Phillipe Desan throws new light on Montaigne's rewriting of the Essays through a study of his changing political aspirations."--Peter Mack, University of Warwick

"This biography is thoroughly illuminating and it is difficult to imagine that it could be bettered. It will surely hold the field for decades."--Michael Moriarty, University of Cambridge

"Philippe Desan's biography offers a refreshing corrective to those Lives of Montaigne that have underplayed his political activities and aspirations by presenting his literary activities as belonging to their own autonomous sphere. The book offers some intriguing new interpretations, including a compelling account of the different circumstances that surround--and intentions that may animate--the various editions of the Essays."--Richard Scholar, University of Oxford

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