Insights from the Lord of Montaigne on Education

Who better to inquire about education than a famed 16th century nobleman who inscribed excerpts of wisdom on the wooden beams of his library? Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (often called simply “Montaigne”) authored the heavily influential Essays, an outpouring of his natural philosophies, and had much to say on education. The first thing he tells us is to approach education with humility.

“…the greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

With a sobering realization of the impact that education has both individually and societally, often along with the sense that none of us are truly well educated, we might as well ask what is the highest aim of education.

The Aim of Education

Our practical inclinations offer a tempting answer to the question “What is the goal of education?”: the acquisition of knowledge that enables us to live healthier, wealthier, and happier. I don’t think Montaigne would disagree entirely, but he adds a caveat on what kind of knowledge is most important, writing, “All other knowledge is hurtful to him who has not the science of goodness.” He echoes this same sentiment again and reveals “the science of goodness” as comprised of judgement and virtue.

“In plain truth, the cares and expense our parents are at in our education, point at nothing, but to furnish our heads with knowledge, but not a word of judgment and virtue.”


Montaigne echoes Socrates in placing virtue above all other traits worthy of pursuit. After all, of what use is all other knowledge if not used virtuously? The stereotype of the villains in superhero movies or fantasy novels portrays this point well, in that the greatest enemies of mankind exhibit powers of intellect, strength, authority, or magic, but possess a warped sense of virtue. The good the villain has gained from their abilities is applied corruptly. Hence, our knowledge (and other goods such as athleticism or wealth) benefit evil if we lack virtue, as Montaigne explains more colorfully, “Knowledge is an excellent drug, but no drug has virtue enough to preserve itself from corruption and decay, if the vessel be tainted and impure wherein it is put to keep.”

Judgement is also a necessary ingredient for an education in it that it allow us to discern what to do with our knowledge. An education is like the casting of metal tools. If knowledge of the sciences and arts are the raw materials, and virtue is the mold into which those raw materials are formed correctly, judgment is decision of which tool to make and when. When the materials (knowledge) are cast correctly into the mold (virtue – which is formed before the materials are gathered) , our judgement is the application of the fabricated tool to a problem. Good judgement will apply the tools to the right problem. Bad judgement will choose a sledge hammer where a small mallet will do. Our judgement guides when, where, and how our knowledge is applied to affect what is good.

“After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric, and the science which he shall them himself most incline to, his judgment being beforehand formed and fit to choose, he will quickly make his own.” What makes him “wise and good” is that of judgement, an expression of wisdom, and virtue, which aims at the good.

Quality Over Quantity

Today there is no true “Renaissance Man”, one whom wields mastery over all the major branches of knowledge: music, art, poetry, prose, theology, biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, logic, mathematics, their combinations, and those sub-fields so numerous as to be innumerable.. No one is an expert in all fields as human knowledge has grown so vast. As no one can hope to gain expertise in all areas (an effort guaranteeing expertise in none), it’s silly that the modern education attempts to create a populace of “Renaissance peoples.”

The same applies to the duration of education. The trend of late appears to be the creation of schooling for every younger children and for parents to enroll their kids in schools as early as two and three years old. I am guilty of this. But it is a healthy exercise in any aspect of one’s life, particularly those affecting children, to examine a thing’s real value. In the expansion of education to younger and younger children, is education instilled better than if the onset of formal education is delayed? Does natural education of play and parental teaching for our two, three, and four year olds pale in comparison to the “professional” education? The same question might as well be repeated for all ages as well. Nonetheless, even if my questions should fall flat, does this very early education, though it succeeds in producing a child with better knowledge and proficiency, instill better virtue and judgement?

All this is to say that the curricula aimed at the best education should strive for quality over quantity. As Montaigne writes,

“We should rather examine, who is better learned, than who is more learned.”


As a proponent of homeschooling, I couldn’t overlook the sentiments Montaigne expressed when recalling how he learned Latin as a child. Raised in a wealthy family, he learned Latin through conversation with a dedicated tutor, but laments that his command of Latin was ruined by the formal Latin courses at the university. While the concept of “homeschooling” didn’t really exist in his day, as homeschooling was mostly the status quo until the 1800s, he espouses views similar to those within the modern homeschooling communities, such as the natural integration of study with other activities, e.g. exercise, as he writes “‘Tis not a soul, ’tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him.”

Education Gives a Voice

The last point I draw from the writings of Montaigne on education are particularly ironic, as I have spoken little through my own words and much through Montaigne. Many who pretend to know, to be educated, to possess wisdom often quote great figures before them to express views they adopt. While quoting others is evidence that one has listened to and retained the thoughts of others, it doesn’t indicate any real education, that one can think themselves. Montaigne writes of the pedants,

“We can say, Cicero says thus; these were the manners of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle; but what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? A parrot would say as much as that.”


The best education, while it may expose us to the thoughts of others such that we don’t reinvent all human thought over and over again, trains us to convey ideas in our own language. The final stage of a classical education is the rhetoric stage, where a student’s ideas, once digest, are expressed with “force and originality”, as author of the Well Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer, puts it. The Lacadaemonians were famous for their rhetorical skills, going so far as to punish those boys who answered their teachers’ questions too obtusely or with too many words .

While quoting others is good in itself and aids us in more explicitly participating in the “Great Conversation” of the western world, there is a fine line between expressing our ideas through quotes and subjugating our thoughts to the ideas of others. Nonetheless, we recognize that some past and contemporary thinkers have said things so well that improvement on them is unlikely without great effort. When done well, our thoughts are amplified through someone greater than ourselves, and we may add some particulars to the idea to more fully flesh it out. When done poorly, we merely relegate our ideas to the margins of the page when quoting.

While I fear I often fall victim to the latter, I regain some hope in learning that Montaigne himself was a victim of “death by quotation”, as his Essays are littered with them. In his commentary on education, he adds a dash of Cicero: “They have learned to speak from others, not from themselves.” Montaigne admits to consulting a book of quotes rather than presumptuously claiming to have all the quotes in his head. Comically, he recalls a fool who cannot speak without a book in hand: “I know one, who, when I question him what he knows, he presently calls for a book to show me, and dares not venture to tell me so much as that he has piles in his posteriors, till first he has consulted his dictionary, what piles and posteriors are.” We should be wary of becoming such a fool.

The Path to a Better Education

Thus far Montaigne has told us what it means to be educated. How do we become educated? Montaigne gives the answer: the Great Books.

“…he shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best” ages.


Though a proponent of this classical education by participation in the Great Conversation, he qualifies this further, writing “‘Tis an idle and vain study to those who make it so by doing it after a negligent manner, but to those who do it with care and observation, ’tis a study of inestimable fruit and value; and the only study, as Plato reports, that the Lacadaemonians reserved to themselves.” Nothing is worth doing if not done well.

Montaigne then gives us a bonus regarding what is useful in studying the past, which my previous post echoed, “What profit shall he not reap as to the business of men, by reading the lives of Plutarch? But, withal, let my governor remember to what end his instructions are principally directed, and that he do not so much imprint in his pupil’s memory the date of the ruin of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio; nor so much where Marcellus died, as why it was unworthy of his duty that he died there. Let him not teach him so much the narrative parts of history as to judge them; the reading of them, in my opinion, is a thing that of all others we apply ourselves unto with the most differing measure…”

Hence, reading the great books is not a passive mode of learning; rather, the value of the education we gain by them is in our wrestling with the ideas and passing our own judgement upon them, thereby forming ourselves by the iron of the greats. We do not use books merely for their narrative value, which is the common way of teaching things now, training students to become mere sponges of fact instead of thinkers. When we read for understanding, we act upon the book, rather than the book acting upon us.

By returning to a classical education, to reading the great books and conversing about the ideas that formed the world, we may become truly educated.

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Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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