Remembering Lucretius: Memory and Identity in Montaigne's Essais

Alex Gray

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The handwritten comments on Montaigne’s copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura provide a unique insight into Montaigne’s own thinking on memory, identity and the self. Montaigne finds in Lucretius’s discussion of memory a stability that resists the perpetual flux that typifies Lucretius’s atomist conception of the world. Through a close analysis of Montaigne’s interaction with Lucretius, I examine how Montaigne engages with Lucretius’s discussion of memory and develops his own understanding of memory as the foundation for identity in the Essais. The first chapter analyses Renaissance editions of De rerum natura and how the Lambin commentary edition provides Montaigne with a foundation on which to build his interaction with Lucretius’s theories of memory and the self. The second chapter explores how Montaigne’s reading notes on De rerum natura engage with the possibility of memory securing the thread of identity. The third chapter identifies how Montaigne’s understanding of memory in the Essais is influenced by Lucretius’s own metaphors of memory – particularly those of the storehouse and the tool, which ensure the preservation and the processing of experiences to establish a stable identity.
Whilst Montaigne generally considers memory to provide a foundation for identity, his amnesia after his riding accident challenges Montaigne’s position and forces him to question the threats to memory and how to protect against them. The fourth chapter of this study analyses Montaigne’s response to his accident and explores how writing allows him to process the trauma of his experience and to preserve his memories in an external form. These reflections on individual memory and forgetting provide the backdrop for my final chapter, which explores the importance of the recording and preservation of history in order to maintain and project a sense of enduring collective memory and national identity – ideas that underlie the memorial project of the Essais as a whole.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Harris, Joseph, Supervisor
  • Butterworth, Emily, Supervisor, External person
Award date1 Jan 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • Montaigne
  • Memory
  • Identity
  • Lucretius
  • Trauma
  • Essais
  • De Rerum Natura

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