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Thirty miles east of the bustling city of Bordeaux, a man who would go on to shape philosophy for generations to come was born on February 28, 1533. Michel de Montaigne, an adept political ally for French kings and prolific writer of deeply engaging thoughts on the nature of knowledge, is regarded by many as the creator of the essay as a form of prose.
Montaigne’s great-grandfather, a successful fish merchant, purchased the Chateau de Montaigne in 1477, settling 20 miles to the east of Bordeaux. Though financially secure, the Montaignes were unable to join the French upper class until Pierre, Montaigne’s father, served as part of King Francis I’s armies in the wars with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Despite the riches at his disposal, Pierre opted to send his son to live with peasants for three years as a means to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help.” Part of a larger education plan that would later expose Montaigne to the finest minds of Rome and Greece, the early experiences of poverty and intense study gave the lad a sense of the necessity for handling responsibilities by choice instead of obligation at a very young age.
Around the age of six, Montaigne moved to Bordeaux for a formal education, flourishing in the classics throughout his time in school and pursuing a law degree after graduation. By his mid-twenties, after serving in the local high court, he received an invitation to become a courtier of King Charles IX. There, after demonstrating the value of his legal knowledge to the monarch, he received the Order of Saint-Michel, the highest honor possible for a nobleman in France — and one Montaigne hoped to achieve from boyhood.
On his 38th birthday, February 28, 1571, Montaigne stepped away from the affairs of state to isolate himself at the family chateau, which he gained lordship over after his father’s death three years before. Holed up in the Tour de Montaigne, a tower holding the 1,500-volume library passed from one generation to the next, he began writing out his Essais. These “tests” allowed him to unwind his thoughts on everything his mind encountered. After nearly a decade of solitude, Montaigne published the first collection in 1580 and followed it up with an additional book eight years later. (A third would be published after his death.)
Focusing on human nature, Montaigne compared the assertions of ancient philosophers with his own experience, largely treating himself — and, by extension, everyone else — as the chief object for study. In comparing his choices with the most famous men of the era, he slowly worked his way to the question he has become famous for: “What do I know?”
Contemporaries found the writing to be self-aggrandizing, almost egotistical. By choosing to look at everything with a critical eye and using firm examples to illuminate his points, Montaigne had in fact created a new style of writing — skeptical and personal, built on the evaluation of life events as much as anything. Thus, the enlightenment of a human being became more about interaction or experimentation than abstract beliefs. And therefore, Montaigne argued, only interpretations of experiences and information (“free judgment”) could be relied upon as the basis of knowledge.
By the end of the 1580s, after serving as the governor of Bordeaux for several years, Montaigne’s health was rapidly declining. A victim of severe kidney stones, a condition passed down from his father, and “quinsy” (known today as a complication of tonsilitis), Montaigne found it increasingly difficult to engage in conversation, something he described as “sweeter than any other action in life.” On September 13, 1592, he died at his home.
In the following centuries, Montaigne’s influence on philosophy and literary style gained ground from year to year. With the final volume of Essais published in 1595 by his friend Marie de Gournay, a wide range of ideas were available to French and English readers. Major thinkers of the next 200 years found inspiration in in the skepticism proposed by Montaigne: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzche, Blaise Pascal, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, in some circles, William Shakespeare are all said to have used his principles to guide their own work.
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1885 – American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) is founded as a subsidiary of American Bell Telephone
1935 – William Carothers invents nylon at the DuPont Experimental Station near Wilmington, Delaware
1954 – Color television sets using the standard NTSC signal become available to the public
2004 – More than 1 million Taiwanese citizens form a 310-mile human chain for the 228 Hand-in-Hand Rally, a demonstration recognizing an anti-government uprising 57 years earlier to the day
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February 28 1935 – William Carothers invents nylon at the DuPont Experimental Station near Wilmington, Delaware