Lessons From Michel De Montaigne (Part One)

The Essays by Michel De Montaigne cover a vast variety of topics centered around human nature. At his core, Montaigne was a Humanist, and so the aim of The Essays was to explore the individual and to describe humans as truthfully as possible. Montaigne’s work is rich and yet, he could make complex topic seem simple as he discussed things like death, emotions, friendships, love, fame, the purpose of life, the meaning of life, the lack of control an individual has, ego, the mind, psychology, Stoicism and so on.

The following is part one of the series of lessons derived from his work.

From the Essay, On Sadness, Guard Yourself Against Extreme Emotions:

Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, but when pushed to the extreme, they can harm us. Extreme anger can cause us to act irrationally and out of character. Extreme sadness can lead to depression but the opposite emotion, extreme excitement and joy, can cause harm too as Montaigne relates in the antidote about a mother’s inability to handle the joy she felt when she saw her son return home from battle and ended up passing away. Extreme happiness can also be a catalyst to sadness as our overwhelming joy is temporary and we can fall into the trap of comparing our present times to those extremely happy ones.

Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments.

Two practices to toughen one’s skin towards these emotions: 

Reminders: When good times or bad times occur, remind yourself they are temporary and they too shall pass. 

Reflection: Often when we set goals and take action, we think only of success. So, when the failure or disappointment happens, it intensifies the feelings associated with it. So, it is better to reflect on the worst-case scenario as well, in case it comes true. This way we have already built some resistance to the emotions which will accompany it. 

From the Essay, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, How To Deal With One Form Of Anxiety:

Wretched is the mind anxious about the future.

As Montaigne says, “We are never at home,” meaning that we spend much of our time either in the past or in the future. Lamenting upon the things that have happened or fearfully looking towards the things that might take place. Both realms of life are out of our direct control, and so we feel anxious. In order to remedy this feeling, we have to concentrate on the present moment. This very day, this hour, the minute, this second. When we concentrate on our actions right now, we can escape our mind and come home to the present. The present is where we can actually exert our influence. In the now we can take action and move ourself towards the desired future.

From the Essay, How The Soul Discharges Its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones, Harmful Effect Of The Unruly Mind:

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

With this singular sentence, Montaigne strikes at the root of many of our problems. The unruly mind and our lack of control over it. It is easier to blame other people or circumstances for our troubles than it is to take ownership of our own thought process and decision making. The unruly mind is rot with procrastination, inactivity, and lack of impulse control. The mind needs to be tamed. It needs to serve the individual instead of the individual serving it. The mind simply wants pleasure. It wants the path of least resistance. But in doing so, you can end up sacrificing things you don’t want to. You can sacrifice your health, your relationships, your goals and aspirations if you follow an unruly mind.

From the Essay, The Hour Of Parlaying Is Dangerous, It Is Not Enough To Achieve Something But What Matters Is How You Achieve It:

This line of thinking is similar to Scott Adams‘ idea of Systems versus Goals, as mentioned in Tim Ferriss‘ book Tools of Titans.

Fundamentally, “systems” could be thought of as asking yourself, “What persistent skills or relationships can I develop?” versus “What short-term goal can I achieve?” The former has a potent snowball effect, while the latter is a binary pass/fail with no consolation prize.

There might be easier, quicker roads to achieving your goals, but sometimes, it is better to take the more difficult route so you can hone particular habits, attitudes, and qualities which will be more beneficial in the long run.

This can require a shift in our perspective. Instead of looking at a goal as something to cross off our list, we can view that as the destination whose journey will help us build more discipline, or healthier relationships, or self-confidence, or simply the ability to persist.

From the Essay, That Our Deeds Our Judged By Our Intentions, Meditate On Your Obituary:

If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.

How do you want to live? One way to answer this question could be to meditate on your death, on what you want your loved ones to say about you after you pass. Which qualities do you want them to remember? What moments? Experiences? Achievements? And then work on making sure you will live up to those words. Aim for your life to personify each word and to make each word true. This way, when the end comes, the life you have lived can vouch for the kind of person you were.

From the Essay, On Idleness, Life Requires Aims:

When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere.

Along with the basic necessities for life, what human beings need are objectives. Aims are like beacons of light, helping the individual navigate life. What is best is to have goals in all areas of your life, health, relationship, career, hobbies, so that you are always moving forward. Having an aim forces the individual to work on his discipline and focus muscles. To stay consistent. All these tools can then further enhance the experience of life. 

From the Essay, On A Ready Or Hesitant Delivery, Achieve The Balance Between Wit And Judgement:

Like most things in life, our thought process also requires a balance. In its case, the balance is between judgement and wit. Meaning, you need to think on your feet and take advantage of sudden opportunities (wit) but also be able to take your time and come up with a proper plan of action, something more long term and structured (judgment). We can apply this kind of thought pattern to other aspects of life. For example, if you are a writer and you are working on a novel, you need to have a structured approach (judgement) but, you need to flow with the present moment and allow yourself to break the structure and discover new possibilities (wit). Even feelings can fall under this umbrella. There is a fine line between overriding lets say the feeling of being tired so you can stick to your routine and needing a break when you’re overworked.

In order to become more proficient at making the right call with judgement or wit, we need to act more in life so more scenarios and possibilities show up where the right balance is needed. This way we can add more repetitions to our decision-making process.

From the Essay, On Constancy, Bear What You Cannot Change Or Influence:

Constancy is an important quality to develop in order to deal with life’s difficulties. Montaigne defines constancy as the ability to bear misfortunes which have no remedy. We can fall into a hopeful trap where we believe every issue or problem has a way out. But some misfortunes are there, and they remain there, and all one can do is bear it with grace. Many aspects of life are out of our control. But one thing we do control is our attitude and reaction. To show constancy during trying times can be a sign of a strong character.

Sometimes the best course of action in the present moment is constancy. So, instead of making a rash decision which may cause us more harm, it’s better to bear the misfortune and in due time alternative possibilities may emerge which can allow us to find a positive in the misfortune.

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