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Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking

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Richard Scholar

We know a great deal of what Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), Shakespeare’s near-contemporary and fellow literary mastermind, thinks. We know, because he tells us on page after page of his Essais, which have marked literature and thought since the European Renaissance and remain to this day compelling reading. It might seem surprising, with this wealth of evidence at hand, that Montaigne could prove so elusive in his thinking. Yet elusive he proves, as volatile as he is voluble. What, we are left wondering, does all that thinking amount to? How is it to be understood? And what value might it have for us?
Montaigne has too often seen his thinking reduced to the expression of an ‘-ism’. Richard Scholar investigates the nature – and detail – of Montaigne’s evolving attempts to seek out that elusive thing called truth. Examining at close quarters passages from across the Essais, Scholar provides twenty-first-century readers with a companion guide to a text that is rooted in the time and place of its composition and yet continues to speak to the present, to haunt its readers, to ask them the questions that matter.
Richard Scholar is Fellow and Tutor in French at Oriel College, University of Oxford, and the author of The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a Certain Something (2005). He was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2007 for his ‘profoundly original’ work on early modern European literature and thought.