If you read any of the new breed of self-help gurus — the “Silicon Valley Stoics”, the “brain-hackers” and futurists of our hyper-competitive age — you’d be led to think that life was a science.
Best-selling self-help authors give us advice riddled with the jargon of technology and high finance. They purport to teach us how to “optimize” our lives, “hack” our minds, how to “leverage” our gifts. Just as the child raised among wolves becomes half-wolf, successive generations are taking the electronic tools around us to be a model for human consciousness.
We see a warped reflection of our own humanity in the “black mirrors” we stare into every day. Some would have us believe the mind and body is just like a computer. With the right inputs, we can become more efficient at achieving our goals, even if our idea of our goals — happiness, health, and wealth — is fuzzy and ill-conceived. Because many of us never have the time to consider what would really make us happy, we pin our hopes on what we’re told will do so.
For anybody who finds the idea that life is a science depressing, refuge awaits in the writings of Michel de Montaigne. For Montaigne, life is an art. It’s a process of intuition, of discovery, of contemplation and finding pleasure in the journey.
Montaigne even coined the word “essay” from the French verb “to try” to describe his writings. He is merely “trying” to figure things out when there is no answer, only mystery and wonder for us to guess at. Montaigne is the antidote to the mania of our time: the mania for certainty.
Stephan Zweig, the great twentieth-century Austrian writer, commented that like many good things in life, we discover Montaigne too late. Of course, we can be exposed to Montaigne’s wisdom when we are young, but the philosopher’s non-committal stance on any issue is never appealing enough to us in our headstrong phases of life.
Zweig wrote, “a youth has need of commitment and ideals to give free rein to the impetuosity borne within.” The young Zweig passed Montaigne by, as many young people perhaps do. “[H]is wisdom, so gentle and tempered, remained foreign to me.”
But as we get older and wiser, we begin to wish that we had the knowledge that we’ve gained then to cherish what we had: youth, health, new love, even naivety. Cruelly, it seems life leases gifts to us that we can only truly appreciate when they’ve been returned.
“If only I knew then what I know now” we say to ourselves, and Zweig wished he knew Montaigne better. “[I]t is precisely a generation like ours,” Zweig wrote, “cast by fate into the cataract of the world’s turmoil, to whom the freedom and consistency of his thought conveys the most precious aid.”
Zweig and Montaigne both lived through times of widespread madness. Montaigne wrote during the upheavals of the Reformation: Europe was bitterly divided and neighbour fought neighbour in the civil wars caused by the great schism of Christianity.
His writing swam against the tide of ideological extremism of the Reformation era. It was an era of narrow minds and entrenched beliefs that served to only make the world more chaotic.
Montaigne wrote: “In this madness in which we have found ourselves for the last thirty years, every Frenchman, whether privately or in wider terms, may find himself at any given moment a point where he suffers a complete reversal of fortunes.”
Zweig wrote his biography of Montaigne in exile from Nazi-occupied Austria during the Second World War. As the war raged on, Zweig found comfort in Montaigne because, as an exile, he could identify with Montaigne’s own predicament. Zweig wrote:
“[H]e left the world to follow its chaotic crazed paths and only concerned himself with one thing: to be rational within himself, to remain human in an inhuman time, to remain free in the vortex of pandemonium.”
What did Zweig get from Montaigne? No less than “how to safeguard the deepest region of my spirit and its matter which belongs to me alone, my body, my health, my thoughts, my feelings, from the danger of being sacrificed to the deranged prejudices of others.”
Zweig marvels at the fortitude Montaigne found for himself during times of anguish. When Montaigne “retired to his tower” for a decade following the death of his father and a beloved friend, Etienne de La Boétie, he dedicated himself to “live his own life, and not simply to live,” as Zweig puts beautifully puts it.
How many of us live our lives as we mean to live it, as opposed to simply living?
Wealth and Humility
The Montaigne family were relative newcomers to the French aristocracy. Michel’s great grandfather was from a family of lower-middle-class fishmongers of the name Eyquem. He became a merchant and the business he built allowed him to purchase the chateau of Montagne from the bishops of Bordeaux in 1477.
Montaigne’s father served in the French military. He travelled to Italy where he witnessed the Renaissance in full bloom. Unlike his own father, he took an interest in the arts and history. He was determined to raise his children as cultivated and morally upstanding citizens.
He entrusted the very young Michel with humble woodcutters living in the Montaigne fiefdom. This was to teach the younger Montaigne that for most people, austerity and frugality was essential, and to bond him to the people who would be dependent on him in future.
Montaigne remained grateful to his father for this exposure to working people from a young age, it freed him, he believed, from prejudice and the bratty sense entitlement that too many children in wealthy families develop.
The child was awoken by music every day. He was immersed in the Latin language by a German scholar hired by his father because he could not speak French. This immersive experience of the arts and the culture of antiquity perhaps awakened the philosopher’s cultivated sense of doubt and wonder.
His experience of the rote-learning when he went to boarding school gave him a life-long distrust of official education. Montaigne became a lawyer, a profession that requires the skill of weighing up opposing viewpoints. His skill for analysing opposing arguments would become valuable to his scholarship and philosophical thinking.
He was initially ambitious and hoped to enter politics but gave up on the idea when he met little success in securing the support he needed to enter office. It was only later in life when his ability for diplomacy was fully appreciated, that he was reluctantly forced into public life.
A Reluctant Philosopher
Etienne de La Boétie died of the plague in 1563. The poet was Montaigne’s confidant and favourite companion. Soon after, Montaigne’s father died of a kidney stone attack in 1568, then his younger brother suffered a fatal haemorrhage. The shock and sadness of these sudden deaths threatened to pull Montaigne into an inescapable depression.
At the age of thirty-eight, he decided to “retire” from service in public life, committing himself to study. He had a 1500-volume library built into an old fortification tower — which he called his “citadel” — on the family estate. Above one particular shelf, he had engraved his intention to dedicate himself to his “tranquillity, freedom and leisure.”
To begin with, he worked his way through his depression, embarking on a quest to unpack the melancholy he was mired in, to find solace in the wisdom of the ancient world.
He studied to confront his own fear of death, which increased with the sudden passing of his friend and relatives. Of those untimely deaths, he wrote, “With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat?”
As he started to read and contemplate in his “retirement”, a surprising thing happened. Lacking a companion to share his thoughts with, he started writing. He wrote,
“It seemed to me I could no better serve my spirit than by surrendering it to the savouring of its own thoughts. […] Like a bolting horse, it had a hundred times more space to move in. In me arose a horde of fantastical chimaeras and
unearthly forms, all pell-mell on top of one another, without clear order or connection. To face this absurdity and strangeness with a cool head, I began to commit them to paper.”
His thoughts turned to words. After writing through his period of sadness, he started to write about anything and almost everything he could. He wrote 107 essays in total and spanned a vast array of concerns. He wrote of profound issues we grapple with such as sadness and death, to the seemingly trivial: posting letters, thumbs and smells.
His approach to knowledge and understanding was both humble but also informed by the approach of Sceptic philosophy. Following the example of Pyrrho, the founder of the ancient Sceptic school, Montaigne dismissed the idea that he could arrive at any fixed truth in his writing. Writing became a process of discovery, not an end in itself. Montaigne always maintained a deliberate modesty about his writings:
“I find myself obliged neither to take responsibility for them nor to keep to them. I can drop them if it suits me; I can return to my doubts and insecurity, and to my overriding form of thought: ignorance.”
He had the words, Que-sais je? (“What do I know?”) painted on a ceiling beam in his study.
It was in the process of writing that he realised his purpose. The intense self-reflection, so unconventional in his own time, made him realise that his purpose was living itself. He was committed to nothing in his philosophical quest, he believed in no ultimate principles, no overriding theory of the world. He declared:
“My métier, my art, is to live.”
The Art of Living
The philosopher simply wanted to perfect the art of living. His own unconventional upbringing combined with his sceptical philosophical approach made him look for the practical value in learning. “It matters little to know the date of the Battle of Cannae, to be able to read Livy and Plutarch […] it is not the cold fact which has meaning, but rather the human and emotional element contained within it.” In other words, what can we learn for the purpose of living?
His scholarship makes him evermore non-commital, ever more flexible to the opposing views he can hold in reflection. He regarded himself as a pensée vagabonde — “wandering thinker” — who committed himself to no dogma or even method. In doing so he is a modern-era philosopher who most resembles Socrates.
As a deeply religious man, he embraced mystery. Other people’s ideas were interesting to him but no more or less true or valuable than other ideas. He never committed himself to believe in any philosophical truth because it was antithetical to living. “He who sheep-like follows another follows nothing,” he wrote. “He discovers nothing because he seeks nothing.”
The writing was the means to simultaneously record and explore. The philosopher is candid about his abilities. He admits that he writes badly, that he is careless, that his grammar is poor, that he has a poor memory and is often incapable of expressing what he really wishes to write. He uses uncited quotations extensively to make up for when the point cannot quite be expressed by his own hand.
But he is also tenacious. He channels his energy into what he loves doing, even if by his own admission he isn’t particularly good at it. “I have put all my energies into being a writer of books. My sole purpose is there, my life’s calling. It is my only occupation, my only mission.”
Thanks to his persistence — thousands of hours studying and writing — he is now regarded among Europe’s finest writers.
That is not to say that Montaigne pushed himself. He believed that too much philosophy was a bad thing. Complicated theories frightened him. The effort applied was sufficient for enjoyment. In his pursuit of an easeful state, Montaigne wrote that “there is nothing I would break my head against in the name of scholarship.”
These words swim against the current of our time of hyper-competitiveness where life seems a race to “break” our heads to get ahead, to find a happiness that may or may not exist for us at the end of our efforts. Happiness in the hunt, not the treasure itself. His journey into philosophy was moderated, he savours the taste of knowledge.
Moderation is key. Of course, that’s a cliche, but Montaigne’s moderation is borne of his scepticism. Montaigne does not advocate wholly embracing any pleasure or any cause because that entails losing a natural state of tranquillity.
“In the home, at study, hunting and all other forms of activity, one should strive for the fullness, the limits of enjoyment, but not exceed them, for then suffering begins to encroach.”
The easeful state that Montaigne sought to live, is akin to the ataraxia that the Sceptic school of philosophy embraced.
The Sceptics believed that the natural state of living is one of tranquillity. Any disturbance of that state is borne of our artificial desires. Our stresses and worries come about because we attach too much value to our judgements about things, we develop artificial desires as a result of these judgements.
Ataraxia is not a positively defined enjoyment, it is the absence of disturbance, the absence of those artificial desires that plague humanity. It’s a kind of homeostasis of being if you consider being as enjoyable in itself.
Of all the desires that make us miserable, Montaigne picked on one, in particular, that was so pertinent for his war-torn era: “Thirst for glory is the most futile of all, the most valueless and bogus currency known to man.”
Montaigne’s ten-year “retirement” turned out to be only a phase of his life. The philosopher — as much because of the wisdom his period of reflection afforded him as his high society connections — played a decisive role in mediating between the warring parties of the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the protestant Huguenots. The thinker who admits he knows next to nothing is the perfect peace broker between entrenched worldviews.
In 1571, when he began suffering from kidney stones (the condition that killed his father), Montaigne decided to travel. He visited Italy but barely paid attention to the tourist attractions of Venice, Florence and Rome. He instead sought out people. He spoke at great length to as many people as he could to find out their passions, from the Pope to ordinary peasants. Human beings were his object of study as the mirror of his own self.
He was shockingly open-minded for his time. When Brazilian tribespeople were paraded to prim spectators in Rouen as “savages”, Montaigne thought they were simply led according to their own beliefs and customs, which were no more or less suitable for living well than those of the Europeans. If anything, they lived a better life.
Montaigne loathed arrogance. Not only did he take issue with Europeans claiming to be better than the people they had discovered in their imperial conquests, but he took issue with the idea that mankind itself is superior. In his famous essay, ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, he wrote:
“Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man], who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole?”
While he concentrated on how he should live, he never once commands or even encourages us to live in any particular way. “This is not my doctrine; it is my study and nobody else’s lesson but my own.” Instead, we find inspiration from his example, rather than instruction from his writing.
This is thanks to his commitment to freedom, which is ultimately to account for oneself and to suspend judgement on others. “I have my law and my own courts of justice, and they pass sentence on me.”