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Marc Foglia,
Université de Paris I - Sorbonne

The child-philosopher in Montaigne's Essais

Montaigne recommended that philosophy be practised by children. The child is particularly apt at philosophising, because he has yet to learn everything about life, and because his natural abilities are still unspoiled. Conversely, as he understands philosophy as the exercise of natural judgment, Montaigne needs to refer to the child and to Socratic naïveté in order to define what philosophy is. Also, the figure of the child-philosopher in the Essais invites us to pose a fundamental question concerning the nature of philosophy according to Montaigne.

1. the philosopher of "naturel judgment"

2. the need to educte
3. not in school
4. education as philosophy and the ideal of Socratic naïveté


1. the philosopher of 'natural judgment'
The kind of judgment in question in the Essais is 'natural judgment'. This is a judgment which is made on the basis of ignorance; that is, a judgment that is only founded on its own strengths, without the aid of doctrinal knowledge or the supernatural. At the beginning of chapter I.26, “Of the education of children”, Montaigne imagines himself to be asking questions to schoolboys. He asks them questions on general topics which do not allow them to rely on specialised knowledge: “And, if they force me to, I am constrained, rather ineptly, to draw from it some matter of universal scope, on which I test the boy’s natural judgment : a lesson as strange to them as theirs is to me”(1). Montaigne imagines himself in the act of passing an exam, although he claims that any schoolboy in his first year knows his way around Aristotle better than he does. The superiority that he wishes to claim, as an examiner, thus concerns the singular judgment. This situation reflects the one which Montaigne finds himself in throughout his work. The 'essais du jugement' represent an exam of natural judgment, in the precise sense in which Montaigne takes this in the chapter on the education of children. On the other hand, the interest in natural judgment means a depreciation of knowledge. "Doctrine" and "science" are the terms with which Montaigne refers to any kind of knowledge acquired by formal learning. When, for example, he considers the entry exams for future parliamentary lawyers, he deems it of greater value to have sound judgment than to have great learning concerning the law. Of the two skills, he gives priority to the former : “and even though both parts are necessary, and both must be present, still in truth it is a fact that learning is less valuable than judgment”(2). In other words, sound judgment is a necessary condition for science to be a skill, while the reverse is not true: it is possible to have sound judgment without being learned. It is because of this that training one's judgment is more important than anything. Natural judgment may be exercised without learning or rule: “This is purely the essay of my natural faculties, and not at all of the acquired ones; and whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me”(3).

When in the chapter on pedantry he recalls the conversations he had with the great professor Adrien Turnèbe (Adrianus Turnebus), Montaigne prides himself on having put to the test the strength of the man's natural judgment. He pressed his interlocutor into discussing topics to which he wasn't accustomed, and on which he could not use his learning (4). In this fashion Montaigne verified that Turnebus's judgment, despite the immense erudition which might have sapped its strength, has remained in perfect health. He therefore praises his professor, distinguishing him from "pédantesques" types, who “have a full enough memory but an entirely hollow judgment, unless their nature has of itself fashioned it otherwise" (5). The principal intellectual merit is having a well-made head rather than a well-stuffed one, as the now-famous expression has it. Then it becomes possible to be a humanist without being pedantic, “as I have seen in Adrianus Turnebus, who, having had no other profession but letters (…) had nevertheless nothing pedantic about him”(6). The exam of natural judgment, that is, judgment without recourse to any formal learning, in a sense constitutes the original playing field of the Essais. The importance of this pedagogical scheme is such that it largely explains why Montaigne, unlike his fellow humanists, never elaborated an educational programme (7). If one reads this negligence in light of the essay as a means of putting natural judgment to the test, it reveals itself as the expression of a complete philosophy. Montaigne is the philosopher and pedagogue of natural judgment.

2. the need to educate

Montaigne's understanding of philosophy as the exercise of natural judgment authorises him to recommend that it be practised by children. To Montaigne, the child, like every man, is a natural philosopher, in the sense that he is capable of spontaneously exercising his judgment. Education should intervene as early as possible, in order that people may learn to make the most of this natural ability.

The philosophising child is first of all a fact of experience that an attentive observer like Montaigne could not have failed to notice. And this also means that the child, a particular kind of person whose status differs from culture to culture, has by the sixteenth century come to be seen as worthy of attention. The first portraits of children appear. In the Essais, edited between 1572 and 1592, the term "enfance" appears sixty-five times, "enfant" fifty-nine times, and "enfants" two hundred thirty-seven times. The child is a figure well represented in the philosophical tradition. For present purposes it will suffice to recall the Meno, in which Socrates questions a young slave and makes him discover the mathematical truths which he naturally carries within him. In a Platonic vein the great Czech pedagogue of the seventeenth century, Comenius, asserts that “the knowledge of all is so natural to man, that if one were asking properly questions to a seven-year-old child, he would be able to answer on everything with accuracy”(8). The figure of the child represents the renewed possibility for each generation to acquire knowledge of the universal. A French contemporary philosopher wrote: "The child as such is never a sectarian. It lives in the element of the universal: its receptivity knows no boundaries. The child is therefore rational, more so than the adult, although it has not yet mastered rationality. It carries with it the lived experience of universal equality "(9). Montaigne supports the idea that the child, yet untainted by prejudice, is closer to the universal than the adult. Its intellectual and moral disposition is such that it should at the same time be preserved and developed by an appropriate education. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Montaigne here follows the lead of Erasmus when he advocates an early start of education. The major pedagogic work of Erasmus is in fact called "De pueris statim ac liberaliter educandis", that is "On the necessity of giving boys a liberal education at once". "Statim": it is important that children be educated from the earliest age possible, that the age in which they are still malleable and in which their character is given decisive form does not slip away. Montaigne, who saw man more as a creature of habit than one of reason, underlines the importance of childhood in determining the later life of the adult. To quote here the full passage from chapter I.23, “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law” where Montaigne establishes the necessity of moral education from the earliest age on. “I think that our greatest vices take shape from our tenderest childhood, and that our most important training is in the hands of nurses. It is a pastime for mothers to see a child wring the neck of a chicken or amuse itself by hurting a dog or a cat; and there are fathers stupid enough to take it as a good omen of a martial soul when they see a son unjustly striking a peasant or a lackey who is not defending himself, and as a charming prank when they see him trick his playmate by a bit of malicious dishonesty and deceit. Nevertheless these are the true seeds and roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason; they sprout there, and afterward shoot up lustily and flourish mightily in the hands of habit” (10). It is in the chapter on custom (I.23), and not in any of the pedagogical chapters (I.25 and I.26) that one should look for the necessity of an early education: the Essais are set up as if the theme of custom naturally leads us to the need for early education. Montaigne does not speak of the virtuous or wicked nature of man - he affirms man is a creature of habit. The child is yet very malleable. It is not a twisted branch that one has to straighten out, but a tender soul with the receptivity to acquire certain good traits forever, or to be easily traumatised. “I condemn all violence in the education of a tender soul which is being trained for honor and liberty”(11). In that, too, Montaigne follows the lead of Erasmus, who firmly banished violence from the world of childhood. The long passage from I,23 which we have cited is thus above all an accusation against the violence or pedagogical ineptitude of parents. According to Montaigne, the task of educating should be taken away from parents, who are either violent towards their children, or incapable of rooting out their growing vices. Here as well, one has to look for the justification elsewhere than the pedagogical chapters, in a passage of the second book inspired by Aristotle: “Most of our states, as Aristotle says, leave to each man, in the manner of the Cyclopes, the guidance of their wives and children according to his own foolish and thoughtless fancy; and the Lacedaemonian and Cretan are almost the only ones which have committed the education of children to the laws. Who does not see that in a state everything depends on their education and nurture ? And yet, without any discernment, they are left to the mercy of the parents, however foolish and wicked these may be” (12). In the chapter on Pedantry, Montaigne does not hide either his admiration for the state education set up in Sparta (13). He takes from Aristotle and the order instituted by Lycurgus in Sparta the idea that the health of a state depends largely on its capacity to assure the cooperation of docile citizens. Yet the reason he gives in his own name is not that of care for the State, but a protest against parental violence: “Among other things, how many times have I had good mind, as I passed along our streets, to set up some trick to avenge little boys that I saw being flayed, knock down, and bruised by some father or mother in a fury and frenzy of anger!" (14). Montaigne's interest in childhood is largely motivated by a care for children as such. Showing his sincere indignation at the violence perpetrated against children, Montaigne sees the child more as a unified individual person than as a future citizen or a fully-fledged adult. He favours education by private instructor, principally to shield the child from two sources of violence: parents and schoolmasters. From the earliest age, the child is to be taken in hand by a private instructor, who will abstain from using violence. But what sort of positive education is he to give?

3. not in school

The central role in education which Montaigne gives to philosophy is equally tied to the fact that the child does not go to school. Chapter I.26 replaces the school with a more traditional form of instruction, that of dealings with and imitation of adults. Montaigne further expands this type of education to "dealings with the world" or "fréquentation du monde" at large (15), which stops us from understanding it simply as a return to "archaic" education. In the years that Montaigne was born and raised, the education of the nobility underwent a complete change. Such was the success of the humanist colleges in the 1530s that fathers of noble families begun to send their children there. Montaigne's father thus had succumbed to educational fashion. The son unflatteringly compares his father's behaviour with that of cranes: “that good man, being extremely afraid of failing in a thing so close to his heart, at last let himself be carried away by the common opinion, which always follows the leader like a flock of cranes, and fell in line with custom (…). And he sent me, as I was about six, to the Collège de Guyenne, which was the very flourishing and the best in France” (16). Pierre Eyquem, seigneur de Montaigne, abandoned in favour of the college the more traditional way of education, in which a young nobleman was sent to another noble household to serve as page. For the future son of Diane de Foix, to whom he dedicated his reflections on education in chapter I.26, Montaigne sought to rehabilitate this sort of education. The child will familiarise himself with his future tasks through observation, participation and discussion. When sent to school, the child ceases to mix with adults and to learn their way of life directly from contact with them; he learns it through the mediation of abstract knowledge, which puts undue emphasis on memorisation. Today we would say that the child is cut off from society, “put in a sort of quarantine” as wrote French historian Philippe Ariès (17). Montaigne writes in a period in which the school is newly called into question. He finds that the school has missed its goal, enslaving the mind rather than leading it to independent judgment and virtue. Historians such as Roger Trinquet and Georges Huppert have sketched the disenchantment of the last humanists concerning the school as institution: the humanist colleges did not fulfil the promise of a regeneration of man through education (18). Montaigne rediscovers the merits of a pedagogy not based on the school, and ostensibly opposes the humanist enthusiasm for the school as institution.

Education as Montaigne envisages it is the opposite of the school as institution. In practice, it is the idea of education appropriate to the social circles of a young nobleman, with his future tasks of directing management (mesnage) or the household (la maison), which gets our author to revise Erasmian pedagogy. "The child distances itself from its parents rapidly; throughout the ages, education has been assured through apprenticeship in the coexistence of the child with adults. He learns the things he needs to know in helping the adults do it"(19). Education is to take place under the supervision of a private instructor in the environment of a bourgeois house, far from parental authority (20). The whole is to take place gently: “For the rest, this education is to be carried on with severe gentleness, not as is customary. Instead of being invited to letters, children are shown in truth nothing but horror and cruelty”(21). But Montaigne appropriates the Erasmian idea of a gentle education to justify, unlike Erasmus, abandoning the school as framework altogether. If philosophy takes a central role in this new project, it is precisely because it is not tied to a scholarly mode of education, but on the contrary possesses “this privilege of being everywhere at home”(22). The intention to make education come out of the schools plays the role of a Leitmotiv in Montaigne's pedagogy: “For our boy, a closet, a garden, the table and the bed, solitude, company, morning and evening, all hours will be the same, all places will be his study”(23). It is thus thanks to its capacity to concern itself with anything in life that philosophy acquires its central pedagogical role in Montaigne.

Montaigne makes education come out of the schools, but not to return to an archaic mode of education. Education, to the extent that it is philosophy, remains education in light of the universal.

4. education as philosophy and the ideal of Socratic naïveté

The earliest stages of education have also to be taken in hand by philosophy. In accordance with the classical ideal, philosophy appears in the Essais as magister vitae for the whole of human life.

In the Ciceronian phrase taken up by the humanists, philosophy is the "teacher of life" in the sense that it is indispensable for the good life. Montaigne wishes philosophy to concern itself with the child "au partir de la nourrice": “Take the simple teachings of philosophy, know how to choose them and treat them at the right time; they are easier to understand than a tale of Boccacio. A child is capable of that when he leaves his nurse (…)”(24). Philosophy is suitable to childhood in two ways: not only is the child capable of philosophy, but the philosophical tradition also reserved part of its treasures for it. Montaigne takes from the Epicureans and Stoics the idea that it is never to early, nor too late, for philosophising. This is a singular understanding of the matter in the context of the Renaissance, in which the vulgar conception of man's lifetime was dominated by the ages of life. Montaigne himself declares that "tout choses ont leur saison"(25). “Our child is in much more of a hurry; he owes to education only the first fifteen or sixteen years of his life; the rest he owes to action. Let us use so short a time for the necessary teachings”(26). Nevertheless, Montaigne remains convinced that there is no particular season for philosophising fruitfully. If philosophy is to profit from the time of childhood, one has to prune its useless branches and its “vain subtelties"(27). This last point gives Montaigne the occasion to propose a reform of philosophy, which interferes less with its contents than with the way in which it is taught. The goal of this reform is to allow philosophy to escape the bad reputation she has fallen victim to. “It is a strange fact that things should be in such a pass in our century that philosophy, even with people of understanding, should be an empty and fantastical name, a thing of no use and no value”(28). The change means reconciling philosophy with life and with praxis. With regards to education in his day and age, the main line of Montaigne's educational project is to scrap “science” and to foster “judgement” and “virtue”(29). Putting philosophy in the middle of the stage, as the « molder of judgment and conduct »(30) is the expression of this project.

Montaigne's interest in education also corresponds to a reflection on the fundamental nature of philosophy. In chapters I.25 and I.26, education is essentially taken to be the forming of judgment and of morals. Education essentially consists in moral philosophy, “according to the opinion of Plato, who says that steadfastness, faith, and sincerity are the real philosophy, and the other sciences which aim at other things only powder and rouge”(31). Montaigne teaches the child philosophy by on the one hand making it discover examples of human virtue in the work of great writers, and on the other hand in teaching it “the most profitable lessons of philosophy, by which human actions must be measured as their rule”(32), lessons which concern for example the difference between knowledge and ignorance, the goal of studying, or the nature of justice. Philosophy must therefore be capable of addressing itself to the child, and above all present an attractive face: [insert quote]. Thus Montaigne's writing takes on a well-nigh lyrical tone when he takes on the ancient genre of “protreptic” or the praise of philosophy. As the child is capable of profiting by the lessons of philosophy, one must pay attention to its appearance and form. Montaigne intimately connects philosophy and pedagogy; "vraye philosophie" is understood on the basis of a pedagogical ideal of forming judgment and morals. On intimate terms with the Greek and Latin authors, Montaigne is familiar with the classical ideal of education as "culture of the soul", and as a humanist perpetuates it. Thus Montaigne reactivates an understanding of education as being essentially philosophical, and an understanding of philosophy as essentially education and cultivation of one's self. One might consider the Montaignean gentleman, unacquainted with any special knowledge, as the inheritor of the human ideal which was born with the paideia of the Greeks. Montaigne makes Socrates into the emblem of this ideal.

More than any other philosopher, Socrates retained a child-like nature. Montaigne contrasts Cato’s "alleure tenduë" with Socrates's natural conduct, the principle of which is "naïveté" (33). Socrates used only his natural judgment; he philosophised “by these vulgar and natural motives by these ordinary and common ideas”(34). This is the way Montaigne understands the famous saying on Socrates reported by Cicero, “It is he who brought human wisdom back down from heaven, where she was wasting her time, and restored her to man (…)”(35). Also, Socrates' soul remained unspoiled because of his refusal to allow custom, knowledge, or ambition to tamper with it. This child-like model of the philosopher is in sharp contrast to the artificiality of scholastic science, the procedures of which he debunks in the Apologie de Raimond Sebond (36). Montaigne thinks it appropriate to introduce a reference to the child in the portrait of the true philosopher: “It is a great thing to have been able to impart such order to the pure and simple notions of a child that, without altering or stretching them, he produced the most beautiful achievements of the soul ”(37). There is an unbroken continuity between the child and Socrates the philosopher in the sense that both they both exercise their judgment without artificiality. The child is viewed by Montaigne as the most universal human standard. It does not mean that the child would be a hint that the original nature of man is good. On the contrary, Montaigne has explicit doubts on the idea, having experienced how children can delight when inflicting cruel pains other children or animals (38). The child forces also the philosopher to bring his idea of man back down from heaven to reality.

It is therefore not only out of any modesty that Montaigne plays the child, but out of the ambition to be a new Socrates, that is an accomplished man. “I set forth notions that are human and my own, simply as human notions considered in themselves, not as determined and decreed by heavenly ordinance, (…) as children set forth theirs essays to be instructed, not to instruct”(39). It is this original naïveté and integrity of judgment, which he attributes to Socrates, that Montaigne set up as the fundament of his work. Montaigne saw the child not merely as a prototype of the philosopher, but as his model. The essays which he makes of his own judgment require the “pure and simple notions of a child” ( “les imaginations d'un enfant"), that is a spontaneity equal to that which Socrates showed (40). In frequently referring to Socrates and to childhood, Montaigne thus strengthens the philosophical meaning of the Essais.

I,26,159a. The translations in English are taken from Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, translated by Donald M.Frame, London:Everyman Library, 2003 (D.Frame, Stanford University, 1943-1948).
I,25,124a : “I have often deliberatly launched him on topics remote from his practice; he saw into them so clearly, with so quick an apprehension, that it seemed he had never practised any other profession than war and affairs of state.”
Compare with Rabelais, Gargantua, chap. XXIII.
Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius), Didactica Magna.
Marcel Conche, an interview in Le Monde de l’éducation, April 1985; reprinted by Anita Hocquard, in Eduquer, à quoi bon ? ce qu’en disent philosophes, anthropologues et pédagogues, Paris, PUF, 1996. p.66
I,25,126-127a : “It is a thing worthy of very great consideration in that excellent form of government of Lycurgus, one in truth prodigious in the perfection, that despite the emphasis on the education of childrend as the state’s principal responsability, and that in the very seat of the Muses, there is so little mention made of learning”.
II,31, ibidem
I,26,140a : “Wonderful brilliance may be gained for human judgment by getting to know men.”
Philippe Ariès, L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, Paris (1960), reprint Le Seuil, 1973, préface.
Roger Trinquet, La jeunesse de Montaigne, Nizet, Paris, 1972, p.466-477; Georges Huppert, Public Schools in Renaissance France, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1934 ; G.Huppert, « Ruined Schools : The End of the Renaissance System of Education in France », in Humanism in Crisis : The Decline of the French Renaissance, Ph. Desan ed., Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1991, pp.55-67.
Philippe Ariès, ibid.
I,26,136-137a : “Likewise, it is an opinion accepted by all, that it is not right to brung up a child on the lap of his parents. (…) And besides, the auhority of the tutor, which should be sovereign over the pupil, is interrupted and hampered by the presence of the parents.”
II,28, “All things have their season”, title of the chapter.
I,54, title of the chapter.
See I,25
III,12,965b : “<Socrates> brought vigor, hardships, and difficulties down and back to his own natural and original level, and subjected them to it. For in Cato we see very clearly that his is a pace strained far above the ordinary (…).”
See II,12,489-490a
III,13,726b : “For in the midst of compassion we feel within us I know not what bittersweet pricking of malicious pleasure in seeing others suffer; even children feel it (…).”

Marc Foglia,
Université de Paris I - Sorbonne
translated with M.E.J. Buijs

Autres publications de Marc Foglia sur notre site :

- Montaigne, les Essais, une philosophie du jugement replacé dans son contexte historique
- L'enfant philosophe dans les Essais de Montaigne
- Das Kind als Philosoph in Montaignes Essais