How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, by Sarah Bakewell maps out the life of the french philosopher, Montaigne, and the life lessons he accumulated and expounded upon in his famous work, The Essays. In doing so, she provides the reader with a vivid experience of who Montaigne was, how he thought and behaved, and why it is worthwhile to listen to and examine his ideas.
How to Live? This is the central question that plagued Montaigne’s life. The question concerns all human beings to varying degrees, and this is why Montaigne’s work is still relevant centuries after it was written. When you read his essays, you feel as if you are talking to an old friend.
Stefan Zweig summed up what it is like to read Montaigne in this one quote:
Here is a “you” in which my “I” is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.
Certain aspects of being human are universal. You may not relate to Montaigne because he’s a well-to-do philosopher, however, you can find common ground because Montaigne was trying to figure out the best way to live while he dealt human universals like anxiety, death, love, friendship, anger, and aging, all the while living in a complex and ever-changing political and societal situations.
Don’t Worry About Death
Concerning death, the Stoic philosophers recommend contemplation. They believe that meditating on death lessens its anxiety. Montaigne also trusted this notion and believed it to be true.
Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death.
However, the more he thought about and contemplated it, the more anxious he became. After almost dying when he fell from his horse, he had a perspective shift because as he was on the brink of death; he felt at ease.
It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.
After this experience, he had the following to say on the topic:
Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life[…] it is not worth wasting any anxiety over.
Don’t over-complicate the simple aspects of life. By thinking too much about the inevitable, we cause needless stress. Instead of trying to control what is outside of our influence, we need to learn how to let go.
For Montaigne, death became a thing that didn’t concern him anymore because all the time he spent worrying about it didn’t matter when that random, absurd accident happened and he almost lost his life. None of the self-inflicted stress came into play at that moment. So, by not caring or worrying about death, we just have one less stress in our life and we can instead spend that time concentrating on the living.
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
Learn To Live With Yourself
We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.
Let us cut loose from all ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease.
We will know no one as well as we know ourselves. We will never spend more time with anyone as we will with ourselves. We don’t have the luxury to not be with ourselves. So, it’s best to make friends with who we are as we’re stuck with that person.
I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself…I roll about in myself.
One benefit that arises when we listen to ourself is clarity. Our mind is constantly working and trying to figure out things that bother us. Often, the answer to many of our stresses lies within ourselves. This is what Montaigne noted. He began watching and questioning his own experiences and writing what he observed. In doing so, he could simplify his life and figure out exactly what he needed.
Solitude is where the answers can lie. But too many of us avoid such a place because we aren’t comfortable with ourselves.
One Way To Practice Living in the Moment
The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience – but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are.
When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me. (Montaigne)
What we need to live in the moment is the skill to focus. It doesn’t come naturally to most people. Even someone like Montaigne needed to remind himself and create practices to hone this ability to live in the present.
This notion is both good and bad. Good in the sense that we can improve and get better at living in the moment. But also bad because this skill deteriorates if we don’t use it, as all skills do. So, we must practice often to sharpen this skill.
Accept That You Are Human
If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know. (Montaigne)
That final coda — ‘thought I don’t know’ — is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this one paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
Humans are rational and irrational. Logical and illogical. They are lead by reason but also by feelings and emotions. There will be times when we behave well and other times when we behave poorly. Mistakes and correct judgment go hand in hand. This is the human condition and as Montaigne put it to ‘get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.’
Our being is cemented with sickly qualities…Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.
What we need is to show kindness and sympathy not just towards others but also towards ourself as we are bound to mess up often but life moves on and we can too.
I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.
‘Forget much of what you learn’ and ‘Be slow-witted’ became two of Montaigne’s best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led — which was all he really wanted to do.
This notion helped Montaigne to disassociate himself from all ideas and beliefs. He wasn’t married to one way of thinking or to one ideology. He could flow and change as life changed. His thoughts were boundless. They took shape of whatever he was feeling at that moment. This is why he has essay’s which contradict his other works. But that’s fine. But the freedom to be who we are at this moment in life can’t be experienced if we are bound by our past self.
Pyrrhonians (skeptics) accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this manoeuvre: in Greek, epokhe. It means ‘I suspend judgement’. Or, in a different rendition give in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: ‘I hold back.’ This phrase conquers all enemies.
One person has an opinion they believe to be true, and another has their own opinion which they believe to be true, and when they clash, there is an argument. People cannot suspend their belief and entertain the possibility that the other person could be right.
This is more evident than ever before because of social media. All platforms are riddled with people arguing with each other for hours on end. People will go out of their way to start an argument with someone. When in reality, most of it just nonsense and it doesn’t really matter.
This is where the Pyrrohnian words ‘I suspend judgement’ comes into play. Three simple words that can allow us to navigate the useless clatter of life and keep on moving.
Montaigne took this practice a step further:
(He could) slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgement.
In doing so, he could detach from his own beliefs and opinions and allow himself to be flexible.
Moderation see itself as beautiful; it is unware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.
Montaigne even went as far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found ‘in mediocrity’.
This can be a hard concept to understand, especially in our goal-centered culture. People have grand ambitions and crave a passionate living, but Montaigne advised against such a thing.
Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions: for him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman.
Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition.
We need direction in life, and goals often provide us with a path to move forward. However, we shouldn’t get lost in chasing these goals. There is a possibility that we won’t accomplish everything we aim for, which is why a passion-driven life can cause suffering because our highs are really high and our lows are really low when passion is leading.
Montaigne and many other philosophers believed moderation was key to life. You can control your actions, but not the results. Perhaps then the balance lies in having moderate expectations while we work passionately.
How To Travel
What he loved above all about his travels was the feeling of going with the flow. He avoided all fixed plans. ‘If it looks ugly on the right, I take the left; if I find myself unfit to ride my horse, I stop’ […] It was an extension of his everyday pleasure in letting himself ‘roll relaxedly with the rolling of the heavens’, as he luxuriously put it, but with the added delight that came from seeing everything afresh and with full attention, like a child.
But Montaigne would say it was impossible to stray from the path: there was no path.
Similar to life, Montaigne went with the flow when it came to travelling. There is a sense of freedom in this viewpoint. That no matter where we go, we are going the right way. This also allowed him to view each path as unique and important.
Stefan Zweig’s Lessons From Montaigne:
Be free from vanity and pride.
Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions and parties.
Be free from habit.
Be free from ambition and greed.
Be free from family and surroundings.
Be free from fanaticism.
Be free from fate: be master of your own life.
Be free from death: life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.
From now on, Montaigne would live for himself rather than for duty.
How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely? (Euripides)
Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.
Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from up close. (Pliny the Elder)
To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.
At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others. (Montaigne)
For not only inconvenient things, but anything at all, however ugly and vicious and repulsive, can become acceptable through some condition or circumstance. (Montaigne)
Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world? (Montaigne)
Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep inducing. Jumping to a different perspective us a way of waking oneself up again.
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. (Montaigne)