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.

Poem: Your Hourglass Empties

Understand that the present is all you have, no

life in the past, gone

are those days, future

hope is always a second away,

pleasant to think about, but

you’ll never catch it.

 

no life outside the now,

no hell outside the now,

no heaven outside the now,

no bliss outside the now.

 

Wasting the present; wasting life

dreaming of different lives; living only one

that one goes quickly, as

keep dreaming, hoping, praying,

passivity isn’t rewarded, life

is meant for the active, for

only they can catch the fleeting present, while

the passive merely exist, watching the flickering stars at night.

 

Your hourglass empties,

you could only have one grain of sand left,

but you always act as if there are thousands, then

when life ends, we

may say it ended abruptly, but

each wasted day progressed towards the sudden cessation.

 

 

For more daily updates follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/learned_living/

Understanding The Ordinary Men Who Massacred The Innocent

How did a unit of ordinary German civilians participate in massacring innocent Jews?This question is explored In The Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning. Additionally, what does this say of human nature? 

The book chronicles the Reserve Police Battalion 101 which was comprised of truck drivers, teachers, business owners, waiters, and other ordinary occupations. The book shows the slow devolution of morals and the evolution of group/mob mentality which allowed these seemingly ordinary people to commit horrible acts.

An important fact that needs to be acknowledged is that the soldiers and the officers involved in the terrible acts were aware of their actions and how wrong they were. Major Trapp offered the soldiers a way out of committing the act in turn showing that he understood the severity of their actions.

Trapp then made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. (p. 2)

Neither did the German leadership lack awareness of the psychological damage such acts can cause upon the soldiers involved. The following are the order issued by Colonel Montua of the Police Regiment Centre:

The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. (p. 14)

Additionally, the soldiers also understood how evil their actions were.

Upon learning of the imminent massacre, Buchmann made clear to Hagen that as a Hamburg businessman and reserve lieutenant, he “would in no case participate in such an action, which defenseless women and children are shot.” He asked for another assignment. (p. 56)

However, not every soldier protested and neither did they take Trapp’s offer to step out of the killing line. According to Browning, the two main reasons for this were conformity and habitation.

Conformity is defined as a behavior in accordance with socially accepted conventions or standards. The main reasons why soldiers conformed were that they did not want to be viewed as cowards by their fellow soldiers and neither did they wish to separate themselves from the group.

Nonetheless, the act of stepping out that morning in Jozefow meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was “too weak” or “cowardly.” Who would have “dared,” one policeman declared emphatically, to “lose face” before the assembled troops. “If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others in the first place,” said another who subsequently asked to be excused after several rounds of killing, “I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward.” (p. 72)

The predicament the soldiers found themselves in was simple, either be good and not commit the horrible evil and be labeled a coward along with group ostracization or commit the evil act and be accepted.

This is an example of how adaptable man can be. In order to deal with the psychological knowledge of what they were doing, some of the soldiers began to rationalize their actions as if they were the ones doing good. One such rationalization was that whether or not they took part in the shooting, these Jewish civilians were going to die. However, it’s the second kind of rationalization that was even worse as a thirty-five-year-old metalworker said:

I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers. (p. 73)

Another feature of man’s ability to adapt to the demands of the environment can be seen in the case of habituation. The initial killing was difficult but with time and with more “practice” such an act became easier and easier and less psychologically demanding because this was what was asked of the participating soldiers.

Habituation played a role as well. Having killed once already, the men did not experience such a traumatic shock the second time. Like much else, killing was something one could get used to. (p. 85)

Once killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of the these men’s behavior. (p. 161)

In the months since Jozefow many had become numb, indifferent, and in some cases eager killers; others limited their participation in the killing process, refraining when they could do so without great cost or inconvenience. Only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that embodied them to employ patters of behavior and strategems of envaion that kept them from becoming killers at all. (p. 127)

So, even the horrible in us can persevere. Which for me raises the question of if there is inherent evil in us. In the book, Ervin Staub raises this notion of how evil that comes from ordinary thinking and is acted upon by ordinary people is the norm and not the exception. Meaning that acting in an evil manner is not “special” to us and that each one of us is capable of it (p. 167). Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, proposes the notion that man adapts to the role provided by the society he or she is in (p. 167). The soldiers in the reserve police battalion 101 needed to be killers and so, they became killers.

For me, I tend to believe them both. I do not think that man is inherently good or evil but is capable of it and does have both of these aspects in them. However, for the most part, man is adaptable and he or she adapts to their environment. This brings up the importance of individual thinking or at the very least, individual principles and limits. For, by following the group and falling into the herd mentality, one is likely to act in a manner that is despicable if that is what the herd demands.

If there is one thing I take away from this book it would be this: Realizing and understanding that I too would have acted like these soldiers if I were in their position.

This realization has made me question the way I act and the standards I hold myself up too because it is clear that if I were to find myself in such a horrible position, I would like to think that I would act honorably and resist the evil. However, that can only be done if I act with honor and speak the truth at this very moment and hold myself up to a high standard so that if I were in such a position, I would not need to hope but rather, I would know that I will do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.

Such standards are what I aim at. At the moment I am far away from them. It is a vulnerable thing to understand how easily man, including myself, is able to follow the instructions of the herd without acting upon his or her own individual thoughts. This text brings forth the understanding of this vulnerable position and I am glad I can think and act in the correct manner now instead of being forced into the shoes of those German civilians. Ultimately, what this text does is that it shows the senseless killing of so many innocent human beings and serves as a reminder of the potential of both good or evil that is embedded in each one of us.

Lastly, in case anyone who reads this is under the impression that by trying to understand the Nazi soldiers, I or the text in any way try to justify their actions, I would like to finish with Christopher Browning’s statement on this topic and as well the words of the French Jewish historian Marc Bloch.

Explaning is not excusing, understanding is not forgiving. (p. xx)

“When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies.” (p. xx)

Reflections: On Human Nature

Recently I have been studying the First World War and along with this, I have also spent time reading about the atrocities committed in the Second World War, specifically the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust. These conscious human actions have made me think about good or evil and whether or not humans are good. I’ve come to lean away from believing that most humans are fundamentally good and neither do I think they are evil. Rather, they have the capacity to do both, which is in some ways a sad truth but in another, it is a gift because when you do meet a genuinely good human being, it means that person has molded and made themselves good.

We all have the ability to commit horrible evil and to do wonderful good. Believing this is unsettling as well because to me this means that a person foundation can be determined by others. It can be swayed to one side or other by how the group is feeling because many people never create their own good or evil, their own limits and restrictions, instead they borrow that from the group they belong to.

What I mean by this is that it was ordinary men, truck drivers, waiters, business owners who participated in the Holocaust. The Japanese soldiers in Nanjing were regular working civilians as well but they still committed those acts. They knowingly committed these acts.  These people were not born like this. I am sure they told jokes and laughed, shared food, acted selflessly towards one another, told each other about their loved ones and about their hopes and dreams and then they committed rape and mass murder and then, those who survived the war, went back to their civilian lives.

It’s almost like this moment of madness in the otherwise neutral way of life. This plain existence on a chart that is disrupted by a sudden uptick and then back to the horizontal line as if the madness that is in us is able to breathe life for a moment. But this moment of madness existed and has always existed in humans. Almost everyone would have been a Nazi and they would have done those acts and the same goes with Japan and Nanjing.

This is no excuse but rather something that is evident of humans. Humans are adaptive. At the end of the day, humans will do whatever it takes to survive and to keep going and if this means to allow the madness inside of them to come out and rage, then so be it and if it means to keep the madness caged and lead a civilian life, then it shall remain caged, for the most part. You see it, madness, peak its head out in civilian life as well but not as much because there are laws to stop that and there is a certain way of life that everyone has agreed upon to live that stops this madness from raging.

But at war, when there is disorder, when it is not reason that leads but rather your appetite, your emotions and feelings that lead you and control you, it is difficult to keep the madness caged and it comes out and when it is unfiltered, you see the evil in man and the evil that has always been in man be unleashed and the consequences of this evil are hard to comprehend. This is compounded when the leader of the group allows the madness to go and even encourages it. Perhaps this is why it is easier for most people to cage off the group and say that something was wrong with that group. Something was wrong with the Nazi’s or the Japanese men at Nanjing but I don’t think they were any different from most people on the planet.

The reason for this is that there is only a small minority of individuals who lead their lives based on their own principles and rules. Most people live life according to the principles and rules set by group so, when those rules change, the individual follows and lives by the new rules but if one sets his or her own rules or principles then the outside does not affect it and by doing so, that individual can be the one to not only say no to killing an innocent child but try to save that child and even give his or her own life to do so.

However, most people don’t have to come to terms with such a thing. Most people live quiet lives where there is no need for the madness that is inside of them and whatever little madness does leak out every so often, it is easy to cage again. Most people then believe themselves to be good or at least lean closer to good rather than evil. They put up these false thoughts that they could never commit horrible evil.

But how do you know this to be true? If you have never faced a circumstance that tests your goodness and presents evilness as a viable choice and a choice that is being made by those around you, how do you know how you will act?

I doubt very much that the ordinary German or Japanese citizen ever thought that in a year or two they would be killing innocent women and children. Yet they did.

So, I think of the good and evil question and I cannot say the human being is either. It is good when it needs to be and it is evil when it needs to be.

Such are we.