While growing up, in accordance with his father's wishes, Montaigne spoke only Latin at home. He was privately instructed by a German tutor (who spoke no French) until the age of six whereupon he was sent to a boarding school in Bordeaux. There he studied liberal arts and the humanities and subsequently attended the University of Toulouse where he studied law.
Although Montaigne never developed a philosophical system or moral theory, he was a profound thinker who originated a revolutionary way of writing - the essay. In his essays, which he humbly referred to as 'attempts' he wrote about anything and everything he observed to be interesting and significant, particularly in his inner life.
Montaigne's essays are rich with philosophical thought and moral insights. Certainly, his background in Classics, which included his study of Ovid, Vergil and Horace, contributed to his humanistic values and moral philosophy.
As a humanist, Montaigne veered from the concept of philosophy as theoretical or speculative. Instead, he favored an approach where one practices free judgment in dealing with life's various and complex situations by applying both a cultivated moral sense and reason-based knowledge. He wrote; "according to the opinion of Plato, who says that steadfastness, faith, and sincerity are real philosophy, and the other sciences which aim at other things are only powder and rouge."
Montaigne also advocated for a balance between formal education and learning from personal experience. As was the practice in his day, education consisted mostly of memorizing facts and learning by rote. Such a method, declared Montaigne, thwarted the ability to cultivate practical judgment and acquire social skills - all of which also deprived one of developing moral understanding.
According to Montaigne, we should also learn as much as possible about our fellow man and the world around us. Formal education should be supplemented with life experience, common sense, and an understanding of the larger perspective of life. In Montaigne's view, those with minimal or no education often displayed more wisdom than renowned scholars. Indeed, we could learn from people from all walks of life, those from different cultures, and anyone who could expand our viewpoint. By putting forth these notions; expanding one's sphere of experience and being open to learning from anyone, Montaigne was ahead of his time.
As Confucius before him, Montaigne believed that before you could be a moral theorist or philosopher, you must first understand humanity. To that end, exposure to other cultures, along with a broad-ranging education would expand your scope beyond only acquiring the wisdom of your own.
By broadening your knowledge you would effectively cultivate the characteristics of a wise and moral person; characteristics such as tolerance, kindness, generosity, empathy and so on. Conversely, narrowness of scope and understanding would result in hatred, violence, intolerance and other distasteful qualities.
Furthermore, Montaigne believed our moral attitudes should be tempered with reason - reason acquired from this ever-expanding and extensive body of knowledge.
Montaigne is also known in philosophy for his skepticism. While some consider him a modern Pyrrhonist (philosophical doubt founded by Pyrrho), others have argued he was influenced by the Academics (ancient Platonism). Either way, Montaigne's thought captures the various philosophical positions known as 'skepticism.'
The objective of Pyrrhonian skepticism is to bring about the logical validity between opposing beliefs. Once the mutually exclusive and valid arguments for and against a certain belief are recognized, there is no choice but to suspend judgment. This suspension of judgment consequently brings about peace of mind, which is ultimately the goal of Pyrrhonian philosophical inquiry.
In his essay Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne mentions his high regard for the Pyrrhonists and their ability to be objective and not choose any particular theoretical position. He demonstrates his use of skeptical arguments when he discusses the nature of the divine in comparison with the reliability of perception. Another example is when he questions whether the best way to obtain mercy is by acquiescence or defiance. He writes;
"By diverse means, we arrive at the same end" and "....truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him...."
Indeed, according to Montaigne, it is just as difficult to come to a particular conclusion in practical matters as it is in theoretical matters.
Notwithstanding his affinity with the Pyrrhonist position, Montaigne does not always suspend judgment. In these instances, he seems to have more in common with the Academic Skeptics, who at certain times considered judgments to be necessary and justified, albeit with fallibility. This is demonstrated in his upholding of metaphysical beliefs he cannot justify (as in his Roman Catholicism). Rather than despair over his ignorance of metaphysical matters, he concedes that certainty over such dilemmas is impossible and the inability to ascertain them part of the human condition.
Montaigne's rich moral and philosophical legacy originates from his love of freedom, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and the distinction between what should be a private and public matter. For this reason, he has been considered a forerunner to movements such as modern liberalism, postmodernism, and pragmatism.
Nietzsche wrote of Montaigne: "The fact that such a man has written truly adds to the joy of living on this earth."