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Montaigne and the Ottomans
Jan 1, 2006

Essays are like flexible rhapsodies.”1 They are freer, arbitrary, and subjective as compared to a more rigid, systematic, and organized plain text. Free and always open to new perspectives. This must be the aspect that differentiates Montaigne from his contemporaries.

Montaigne says that the main motivation for writing his famous Essays was to end his great solitude. Why was he lonely? Why did he feel alone and prefer conversing with his readers in an attempt to reduce his isolation? The answer to this question again can be found in his writings. He came from a wilder region of France, from behind the Alps that divided Western Europe. Thus, he was protected from the ills that the Italian Renaissance had imposed on European mentalities. What made him feel lonely was the meeting of his country with these new ideas and sects, the murder of thousands of people in the war of Saint Bartholomew (1572) on religious pretexts, and the arrival of this “European” attitude to his hometown2

This isolation preserved Montaigne from the mental crisis that his contemporaries were experiencing. He looks at both the past and the present and future within the possibilities that exist in the “thought from the wilderness.” It is for this reason that he has no prejudices. He is a free man of the world. This fact is demonstrated in his attitude toward the Orient and in particular to the Ottomans, whose images had been so distorted because of established prejudices.

Islam in European Culture

The thesis that supports the idea that there were vital differences between European and Ottoman societies and cultures and the politics of positioning them as opposites who were not willing to come to an agreement should give way to the thesis that there are more complicated and closer relationships between them. A deeper investigation will even allow us to trace signs of a “modern” mentality in the Ottoman culture that reaches all the way back to the beginning of the sixteenth century3 The Ottomans were interested in European affairs. Many historical readings bring us to a point that the survival of Protestantism owes itself to Ottoman support. It is not too difficult to find other examples.

It is known that Postel and Jean Bodin admired the Ottoman state and its administration in the sixteenth century and they were desirous to transmit these thoughts to their political theory. Likewise, Alan Grossrichard had already demonstrated that the image of the East, which was the “tour de force” of Montesquieu in his Persian Letters, was the representative of a popular ghost-that of despotism-in Europe during the seventeenth century. There are many researchers, from Bryan S. Turner to John M. Hobson, who have stated that both the negative side of European thought, like Hegel, Engels, and Marx, and the positive side, like Max Weber, shared the viewpoint of Orientalism that was against the East and Islam, particularly against the Ottomans. Even now it is questioned whether there is implicit Orientalism in the writings of European travelers-including Lady Montague, who was a most objective person. This list can be easily extended: despite his play Mahomet, which took a very negative view of the East, Voltaire was an admirer of the morality and discipline of the Muslims and the Ottomans. Lord Byron was a lover of Ottoman and Istanbul civilization, despite his political animosity that derived from his love of Hellenism. The “poet of the lakes,” Lamertine was awarded with a farm house by Sultan Abdulmecid, as a sign of appreciation for his book A History of the Turks. The father of Jean Jacque Rousseau was a repairer of clocks in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Goethe learned to read the Qur’an and pray from the Bashkird Turks, who were among the Russians who invaded Germany. Campanella said in his La Citta del Sole (The City of the Sun) that the utopia he had fictionalized had been realized in this world by the Ottomans. The writer of Don Quixote, Cervantes, lost one of his arms in the war of Lepanto, which he fought against the Ottomans; he wrote his novels during his imprisonment after this war inspired by Algerian scholars. The philosopher Leibniz presented a treatise of conquest to the French King in which he discussed how to destroy the Ottomans.


We have to add a new name to this list: Michel de Montaigne. In spite of having a few prejudices, Montaigne was one of the few modern writers who did not let prejudices dominate his view. In the first sentence of his Essays he promised that this book was going to be an honest one. Indeed, he continuously revised and edited his books before each new edition was published, including his essays on the Ottomans. He questioned his thoughts with reference to new sources he read and added new essays4

In the revised and extended 1595 edition of his book, which was published after his death, he advised French soldiers, whose laxity he had observed during the civil war in Perigord, to take Turkish soldiers for their model. He said that all young French soldiers should learn discipline from the Turkish armies:

Their discipline is very different from and superior to ours. At times of war, our soldiers are more irresponsible and disorderly than at times of peace; on the other hand, Turkish soldiers are moderate and reluctant to behave so, because stealing from the poor is punished with a few lashes in peace time, but very severely at war. Taking away an egg by force without paying money for it is punished with 50 lashes. Moreover, those who steal the most insignificant thing that does not even satisfy hunger nor have any value whatsoever are sentenced to death. I am surprised to read about Selim that when he conquered Damascus on his campaign to Egypt none of his soldiers took anything from the peerless gardens of this city, even though they were unprotected5

Montaigne, then, was not aware of “Eastern despotism,” a thesis that had been influential since the seventeenth century. Distanced from the influence of this thesis, he mentions how the philanthropic activities of the Turks extended to include fauna and flora, stating that the Turks had charities and hospitals even for animals.

Montaigne was influenced by the unfavorable winds that blew against the Ottomans through France, but he desired to use the Ottomans against his own despots as a mirror. In other words, he used a method that was similar to that of most other French intellectuals, like Montesquieu, after him.

He was aware of the power of habits and how they can capture people and he emphasized how wrong it was to label everything that is opposed to local habit as barbarism. To quote Dr Zeynep Sayin of Istanbul University:

The universal certainty that Descartes tried to find seems impossible for Montaigne because he is not in favor of certainty that is independent from conditions. On the contrary he analyses humans and societies in their differences. “I am not mislead to think that everybody should be like me…It seems reasonable to me to think that there are thousands of different lives.”6

Finally, Montaigne was aware of the fact that judgments do not carry the claim of universality; they are limited to the conditions in which they emerge. He was not bounded by Eurocentrism and was aware that there are different worlds and different life-styles. He did not try to regulate world according to himself, but rather realized that it is essential to recognize differences. It is probably because of this attitude that Montaigne stands in an exceptional place in Western thinking and why he does not find a place in books of “history of Western philosophy.”

Montaigne and the Ottomans

It is thanks to the magnificent study of Clarence Dana Rouillard7 that we learn that in the great world of Montaigne the Orient was identical with the “Turk,” i.e. the Ottomans. We are able to see that the Ottoman grew like a flower in Montaigne’s works and that he revised his thoughts and prejudices with new contributions and information with every new edition.

According to Rouillard, Montaigne-like P. Villey who prepared Essays for publication-believed in the necessity of knowing something well before judging it. More importantly, the Orient he identified with the Ottomans played a significant role in terms of widening his vision as it broadened the horizons of his era. According to Rouillard, Montaigne owes the wide vision and pluralism in his essays to the Ottomans to a great extent.

Rouillard, who surprised us with this striking information, firstly analyses Montaigne’s acquaintance with the Ottomans. According to him it is very interesting to observe the development of Montaigne’s knowledge about the Ottomans. Prior to the first publication of Essays in 1580, the only information that we get about Montaigne’s readings is that he got his information on Turks from the Italian history of Guichardin, not from the classics or chronicle writers and historians like Joinville or Froissart. The only reference to the Turks in the 1580 edition was that they partook of food by reclining on comfortable sofas and their belief that Paradise was a sensual abode. However, Montaigne’s curiosity was not confined to the borders of Western Europe and was open to all human activities experienced in modern history.

It seems that Paul Villey, a Montaigne specialist, did not study the 1582 edition of Essays attentively enough. Though rare and insignificantly small, there are some new additions to this edition. We are able to conclude from some points in this new edition that Montaigne read a new study that had been written directly about the Ottomans. Thus we got a clue that Montaigne’s interest about the Ottomans had increased.

As a matter of fact, the number of these clues increases in following editions. For the first time Montaigne encounters direct material concerning the Ottoman world in a Polish history book that he studied and used in the third edition. In this book was an engraving that displayed the celebration held on the occasion of the circumcision of Murad III’s sons. This engraving made Montaigne to think of the Ottoman world, their costumes, and context in a different way. In the last edition to be prepared before Montaigne passed away, his interest in foreign places was at its peak. In this last edition, Montaigne found, read, and analyzed books in Latin that had been written, directly or indirectly about Ottoman history, including the book of Halkokondil on the foundation and rise of the Ottomans and Postel’s De la Republique des Turcs. (He knew Postel-one of the significant intellectual of his time-personally.) There were nearly 50 references to the Ottomans in the last edition of Essays.

“The Turk the warrior!”

It seems clear that Montaigne did not believe in theological explanations concerning the defeat or victory of the Christians against Muslims. For example, he commented very dryly-which is not what one would expect from a European-on the war of Lepanto in 1571 in which the Christians won and which was followed by days of festivities:

A maritime war was won against Turks in the preceding months under the commandership of Don Juan d’Austria; but God was pleased when we saw the reverse many times in the past.

Montaigne desired that his fellow countrymen not put so much importance on this victory because the Turkish army was still standing. He recognized explicitly that the Turks had developed a considerable military force that could only be explained on the basis of material and human power. He related the Turkish ability to establish such a great army to their discipline. According to him, the Turks knew how to use their minds as much as they knew how to fight and this is what made them different from an army of barbarians.

Montaigne thought the acts of the Turks were not restrained merely because of the heavy punishments that were imposed. They were also accustomed to rigid physical discipline and sobriety. This quality made them superior to Western soldiers. He expressed his thoughts as follows:

In order to verify to what extent Turkish armies are more intelligent and behave more reasonably than ours it is enough to say that besides their other virtues they drink only water and eat rice and salty meat. Thus, each of them can carry one month’s provisions with them.

Montaigne explained another influential factor in the success of the Turks which was the Sultan being in command of their armies. Selim I thought that victories that had been won without the sultans leading the armies were not complete and thought it was shameful to be proud of such a victory. However, Montaigne did not treat all sultans identically; he did not have a holistic perspective. He was well aware of the fact that all sultans had different tendencies. According to him, surprisingly, Beyaz›d II and his contemporary Murad III’s excessive fondness for natural sciences (s’amusants aus sciences) caused harm to their countries; they not only failed to lead their country, but also caused harm.

Montaigne was closely interested in the opinion that espoused that warriors should abstain from the fine arts. He returns to this subject again in his essay “On Pedantry” in which did not only criticize the mistakes and uselessness of a few scientists, but also went further to argue that all kinds of education are useless, if not fatal, especially if education goes beyond the scope of a very few aristocratic minds to reach the general public:

Examples show us that learning the sciences does not make hearts rigid or inclined to fight, but rather more effeminate. The most powerful state nowadays seems to be that of the Turks, and they value weapons and humiliate the arts and sciences.

Montaigne can be excused for this mistaken final sentence, as he was then too distant from the time when samples of Ottoman-Divan literature were to be made available to the European public.

While his contemporaries were calling this so-called aspect of the Turks barbarism-we will not discuss whether this argument was valid or not-Montaigne looked at the issue from a very different perspective, which he claimed was essential for a people to survive. This is an example of Montaigne’s contradictory opinions.

In his essay “On Virtue” Montaigne wrote about the story of a young Turk who dared to challenge the Hungarian King Hunyadi Janos at war, despite lacking experience. This youth, when questioned by Sultan Murad, answered that he learned to be courageous from a rabbit. Fate protected the rabbit from 40 arrows he had shot and allowed it to escape the hunting dogs. The young man believed that the arrow and sword could only function if this was written in fate, and thus fought fearlessly in wars from that day on. A belief in fate was widespread among the Turks. Turkish historians wrote that soldiers felt secure against danger because they believed that the days which they would live were immutable and had already been established.

What Montaigne did was not to accumulate systematic information on a certain topic, but rather he involved in mental exercises. He lists these as the basis of the Turk’s successes in the sixteenth century.

Moral aspects of the Ottomans and Islam

Montaigne preserved his objective standing toward the Ottomans at different times. Although he was critical of many aspects of Turkish society and character, he still did not adhere to extreme definitions or popular descriptions, like the “Barbarous Turk,” or the “Lover Turk.” He even tried to alter the image of the cruel Turk in his other essays. He emphasized, for instance, that the Turks had established charities and hospitals for animals.

The only reference to Islam in the first edition of the book is concerned with worldly heaven. Montaigne was an intellectual whose eyes had not been blinded by religious prejudices and he did not refrain from calling some of their religious bigotry “stupidities.” Even when he wrote about the superstitions of the Turks he did not explain the issue in defense of Christianity, but saw such things as errors that could be found on both sides. Thus he was able to preserve the balance that he wanted to establish in his book.

Montaigne was a devout Catholic. He not only dealt with Islam, but also Calvinism and Protestantism, which came to his country from behind the Alps and he criticized the translation of the Bible into local languages, praising the Turks for their respect of the original language of their sacred revealed text. In the end, in one of the best examples of tolerance in Essays, he reminds his countrymen that the Ottomans outstripped them in terms of some Christian values.

Do you want to see it with your own eyes? Compare our traditions and customs with those of a pagan or a Muslim. [You will see that ours is beneath theirs] Although his doctrine is superior, a Christian has to accept the fact that a Muslim we underestimate can teach him many things in terms of justice, affection, and virtues.

The references to Turks increase in later editions of Essays. An interesting letter sent to Mehmed the Conqueror by Pope Pius II and the response sultan gave him is contained in one of them. Another example is Bayezid I’s and Timur’s rejection of mutual gifts. As an example Montaigne shows the pride of Turks in the leader of the Janissaries Hasan Agha, who preferred to die after he had been severely reproved by Sultan Mehmed.

The virtue of the “eye of the wilderness”

What are the results that we may extract from Essays?

First of all, Montaigne was not looking at the problems within a fixed framework. He examined the Turks, arriving at rich observations and interpretations. He was basically interested in human nature, not religious doctrines. Was he not a believer then? Since it is impossible to call anyone who fought for the Catholic cause an unbeliever, we should rather say that Montaigne did not look at Islam and the Ottomans from the perspective of the prejudices of popular theology and religion. Though there are some fictive and incorrect statements in his essays, his perspective about the Turks and Ottomans is not derived from a single source. He was not bound with a systematic connection to a doctrine and he did not have an idae fixes. He came with a new perspective and a new interpretation every time. He learned long before Nietzsche not to look at information as natural facts. According to him there are only interpretations and the interpretations of these. He approached his subject knowing that most of the information he took in his book concerning Islam was not facts, but rather interpretations.

This is the privileged standing that differentiates Montaigne from others. Maybe this was the point that made him so alone-he had no one except his friend La Boetie. We owe Montaigne’s Essays to this solitude. Though he thought that his loneliness derived from his melancholic psychology, his seclusion could have been caused by his differences in his mode of thought and perception. He refrained from lies, i.e., the knowledge of his contemporaries, which he said were interpretations of interpretations, he focused on the knowledge of objects and directed his attention to the truth. He said that “we are making interpretations of the interpretations of objects.” He transmitted the information written in the books on the Ottomans, their histories, cultures, and moral qualities, but he did not adopt them, calling them rather “our stupidities.” He tried to pass beyond this wall of information that he felt had been built around him and to hear the voices of objects. This should be one of the virtues of the eye from the wilderness that he possessed.


  1. Tugrul Inal, “Denemelere bir giris denemesi” (An Introductory Effort to Essays), Frankafoni, n. 5, 1993, p. 12.
  2. Semiramis Kantel, “Montaigne ve dil” (Montaigne and Language), Frankafoni, n.5, 1993, p. 33.
  3. Cemal Kafadar, “The Ottomans and Europe” in Handbook of European History, 1400-1600, v.1, ed. H. Oberman and others. (Leiden: Brill, 1994), p. 622.
  4. Montaigne published his Essays four times with different and extended versions each time. Corrections and editions in the fifth edition (1595) were made by his adopted daughter after his death in 1592. Thus, the book extended to 3 volumes. See J.M. Cohen, “Introduction” in Montaigne, Essays, (London: Penguin books, 1966), p. 20.
  5. Ali Celebi, “Montaigne’de Turkler” (Turks in Montaigne), Frankafoni, n. 5, 1993, p. 26-27. This article uses Rouillard, whom we will touch upon in depth in the following pages. Unfortunately, this study cannot go beyond a mere translation to become an original study.
  6. Zeynep B. Sayın, “Yenicağ: Descartes ve Montaigne,” Cogito, n. 10, 1997, p. 158.
  7. Clarance Dana Rouillard, The Turk in French history, thought and literature (1520-1660), Ancienne Libraire Furne, Paris: 1938.