Author: Professor Philippe Desan; translated by Drs. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN-13: 978-0691167879; ISBN-10: 0691167877

Pivotal to the understanding of the approach taken by the Renaissance scholar and one of the world’s most eminent experts on the philosopher and essayist Montaigne (1533−92), University of Chicago-based Professor Philippe Desan, is the comparison that can be drawn between the portrait of the profound thinker and skilful strategist by an anonymous artist of the School of Fontainebleau and the French neoclassical Gros’s group portrait that appears on prefatory page [x].

In the former can be seen an intense focus on self, but a self in official mayoral regalia, very aware of his own standing in the historical course of events. In the latter can be seen a figure that is interwoven in its very texture with the surrounding literati and heads of state, a man very much of his own time and place. Despite his deep-seated intellectualism that can be seen in the context of his strongly Humanist upbringing, Montaigne was profoundly aware of his political positioning within the mercantilist ethos of his time. His evolving awareness of the demands of state, and his aligning of his every move, especially his literary efforts, with such extrinsically imposed pressures had a profound influence on his work―an influence that, at times, even he downplayed.

In Montaigne: A Life, Desan has chosen to move away from a focus on Montaigne’s literary output to a sociological and historical awareness of the minutiae of the philosopher’s life, in the context of his times. Being a notable scholar in the field of 16th-century studies, Desan is the ideal person for drawing attention to the interplay between private and public forces at such a time in French history. Stating “[my] approach to literature is mainly contextual and interdisciplinary”, he notes how his work “intersects with sociology, history and philosophy.” This is very plain to see in the present work, which, in its very depth and extent of coverage (to which the 796 densely packed pages bear witness), has been applauded as being likely to be the authoritative biography of Montaigne for decades to come.

Translated from the French by the multi-award-winning Dr. Steven Rendall, author of Distinguo: Reading Montaigne Differently (Oxford UP, 1992), and his comrade-in-arms, Dr. Lisa Neal, who, as well as having done her dissertation on Montaigne, is also a very experienced translator, Montaigne: A Life is a volume that is well worth investigating by both Renaissance scholars and by those with an interest in the development of thought in the Western world.

In view of the book’s somewhat daunting length, it is recommended that the reader employ the method of skimming and scanning on first acquaintance with the text. Such an approach should allow one not only to gain an overview of the work on first glance (which is much helped by the effective signposting of all chapters), but it should also prepare the way for a deeper and more prolonged delving into the intricacies of both Montaigne’s and Desan’s thinking, which should prove to be well worth the effort in the case of any thoughtful and reflective reader.