Lessons From Books: How To Live

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.

 

The Lessons:

 

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.

Be Slow-Witted

‘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.

Avoid Arguments

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.

Be Moderate

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.

 

Great Lines/Quotes:

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)

 

 

Know Thyself And Be At Peace

We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future, they rob us of feelings and concerns for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more. (Montaigne)

What does being ‘at home’ mean? I take it as being comfortable in your own skin and in your current situation. This doesn’t mean that you have achieved whatever it is that you wanted in life or have become the best version of yourself but rather knowing that you’re a work in progress and with time, you’ll slowly inch towards what you want and who you want to be. But in the present, you aren’t avoiding your feelings and emotions.

Instead of this rationalization, we tend to dwell on fears, desires, and hopes as Montaigne suggested. Too often we spend our time living in a fantasy land where things are better and this helps us avoid our current situation. Or, we spend our time in some future hell where things are worst of and this adds to our fears and anxieties and also stunts our growth. Both these modes of beings rob us of the present, from being alive right now. By not being ‘at home’ with our emotions and feelings right now we are unable to unpack and understand the reason behind our emotions and feelings and how to improve our situation. Instead, avoidance is adopted in the form of living outside of ourselves. We fill the silence and stillness that we need with either pleasure or painful thoughts so that we don’t have to deal with our current reality. All this concern for what will be is a hindrance to progression.

Whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing he must learn is to know who he is and what is properly his. And whoever does know himself never considers external things to be his; above all other things he loves and cultivates himself’ he rejects excessive concerns as well as useless thoughts and resolutions. (Montaigne)

Fears, desires, hopes, and anxieties can all subside when we know who we are and what exactly do we want from life. Otherwise, we’re stuck either trying to please a version of ourselves which isn’t true by following trends or conforming to other peoples opinions or we live trying to live up to other peoples expectations (especially the expectations of our loved ones) and when these things fail to bring us peace and fulfillment we suffer from an even greater dose of anxiety and fear and are left just hoping for a better tomorrow. Even worse our mind doesn’t evolve further. It’s stuck in the old pattern and we think perhaps if we get the new thing we might be happier or that if we start a new relationship it might will the void. But it’s all just a cycle of hope, desire, anxiety, and fear and this cycle is broken when we come to ‘Know Thyself’.

This phrase, ‘Know Thyself’ has been present since the Ancient Greek time and probably before too. It was etched into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and it still relevant now as it was back in Ancient times. This makes one wonder how much we have evolved as humans or perhaps how little. Our core concerns for meaning, purpose, happiness are still the same as our ancient ancestors.

As Montaigne suggested, the person who cultivates themselves comes closer to finding peace and fulfillment. Only you know the answer to your own riddle. Each individual must figure him or herself out and by doing so, cultivate their physical, mental and spiritual self. In essence, cultivate their soul. What other people may see as useless and meaningless can still bring us peace and joy. Especially in our current age which is so materialistic. There may be some things or activities that might not have an effect on our financial situation but can bring our mind and spirit peace. Those things are especially valuable to cultivate. Hence why we have to spend time figuring ourselves out and not trying to fill our time with excessive concerns.

Some questions we should reflect on and try to answer for ourselves:

When am I at peace?

What will I need to do to feel fulfilled?

What makes me fulfilled?

When do I feel happy?

When do I feel ashamed or guilty?

What does a meaningful day look like?

 

Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

It seems that it is, rather, the property of Man’s wit to act readily and quickly, while the property of the judgment is to be slow and poised. But there is the same measure of oddness in the man who is struck dumb if he has no time to prepare his speech and the man who cannot take advantage and speak better when he does have time. (Montaigne)

These are the two spectrums of thinking. On one side is a person who is quick on their feet and can improvise. On the other end is a person who requires time to think and organize their thoughts before acting. There are benefits to both sides as certain circumstances require quick wit and others poised judgment. But this can only be achieved if you have the ability to act both ways. People often handicap themselves by only practicing one way of thinking. They either think themselves quick-witted or not. Or they only reap the rewards of one approach and not the other.

Montaigne urges people to be both a preacher and a barrister. Someone who is well thought out but is also able to improvise on the spot. For myself, I know I lean heavily towards the organization side of the spectrum. Ad-libbing isn’t something I’m comfortable with. Perhaps overthinking is the reason for the lack of wit.

In addition, a soul worrying about doing well, straining and tensely drawn towards its purpose, is held at bay — like water which cannot find its way through the narrow neck of an open gutter because of the violent pressure of its overflowing abundance.

The desire to perform well, to not fail, to not embarrass ourselves can lead us away from exercising our wit. It can stop us from exploring this other side of ourselves, the more unconscious, unstructured and free-flowing aspect of our personality.

The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself.

Montaigne exercised this part of himself through speech. By just talking and letting the words come out and then following this spontaneous line of thought and seeing where it takes him. He also exercised his wit through writing. Often going with the flow of his thoughts without forcing judgment on what he’s writing.

Where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.

This did lead to writing that didn’t make sense. But it also lead to unpacking what he truly believed in, what he thought to be important and what he cared about. Because the actions committed without judgment speak volumes of your true form. In this way, embracing the flow aspect of your thoughts can shine a light on what you really want to say. Once that is out there, on paper or in a conversation, then you can add organization and structure to the argument and present it as a complete package.

You don’t want to be limited by your own perceptions. Montaigne suggests that we can be both, quick-witted and have good judgment. He also suggests that this needs to be practiced. The practice may involve sitting down and writing an essay on a topic just to exercise your judgment. It may also involve a stream of consciousness type journaling where you’re not bogged down by the desire to present a concise argument. By practicing both sides we move towards the middle of the spectrum where we can then pick and choose how to act and be ready depending on external situations.


Montaigne On The Displacement Of Anger

Montaigne on The Importance of Emotional Moderation

Montaigne On How To Judge Someone’s Actions

Bad Memory Has Its Benefits

Reflections: Get Out Of Your Head


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Reflections: Get Out Of Your Head

If we do not keep them (our minds) busy with some particular subject which can serve as a bridle to reign them in, they charge ungovernably about, ranging to and fro over the wastelands of our thoughts. (Michel de Montaigne)

A lot of our issues are self-manifested. It’s because when we are inactive when our bodies or minds aren’t involved in a task then the mind is free to roam different possibilities and concerns, many of which lie in the uncertain future. If we don’t tame this impulse, we are wrought with stress and anxiety.

Many times self-doubt only creeps up when we are still, when the world is silent, that moment before you go to bed or right before you are about to take a risk, the plunge, that one second, that’s where doubt comes because for that moment you think about the possible failures and the mind becomes untamed.

An easier way might be to say that when we don’t concentrate on the present then our mind becomes untamed. But concentrating on the present moment seems impossible if we aren’t actively doing something so, that’s a difficult thing to practice. Be present is a nice phrase but impractical much of the time.

But as quickly as doubt, stress or anxiety arises, with equal ease, they can be erased if we simply act. Take action, get out of the head and get in your body: Go for a run, see how many burpees you can do in 30 minutes, go meet up with friends and play a sport, play an instrument, talk to someone you love, pick up a book, start writing, whatever it is, whenever we get out of the mind we also leave behind the “wasteland of our thoughts”.

Montaigne understood the side effects of an idle mind very well, he said an idle mind “gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” because for some strange reason idleness loves to spend its time thinking about what isn’t going right in our life. Constantly jumping from one thing to the next and it feels so real because your heart might begin to race, thinking about these monstrosities and it’s in time like these when one almost has to smack themselves, tell ourselves “it’s going to be okay”, verbalize it, make the mind focus on the positive words, on the task of saying “everything will work out” and you see in that instance these monstrosities disappear.

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

Keep an aim in mind. I think this is why people love to journal in the morning or mid-afternoon. If you are able to write down what you want to do that day every morning then for the next few hours your mind is occupied and as the occupation wanes in the afternoon, one simply has to remind it of the aim and it’ll kick right back up and keep helping you instead of hurting you.

The biggest thing is to approach idleness with caution for you understand what comes with such comfort and at least, if those “chimeras” do come, we have a plan of action on how to fight them.

Bad Memory Has Its Benefits

We would all love if our memory was better. We could recollect more clearly, remember the exact detail of some past moment, in a way, we could relive our past. If my memory was better I could recall the exact feelings, thoughts, and emotions which I’ve felt and that would make writing about such things so simple. Better yet, we would love to recall anything we read one time. All that information which seems to flow in and then out, only the smallest traces of it sticking with us, could become permanent.

No more losing our keys or forgetting directions or spending the day trying to recall that one song we heard on the radio that one time.

So, clearly, the benefits of good memory are immense. You may think who would ever want a bad memory? Or be happy that their memory is bad? 

The answer to that is Michel De Montaigne. Montaigne was a French philosopher who is best known for his collection of thoughts which he mixed with real-life anecdotes, which are promptly called Essays. It is the way Montaigne thinks that has attracted people to him for centuries after his passing. An example of this unique perspective can be seen in the essay titled “On Liars” in which he lists a few benefits of having a bad memory.

One benefit is that you have to use your own reasoning ability, your own logic, instead of relying on the works of others because you are unable to recollect the arguments others have made in a cohesive manner.

If, thanks to memory, other people’s discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men’s footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own power.

Another benefit that you may not have realized of having a bad memory is that you talk less when your memory is poor.

I talk less; it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say.

Furthermore, bad memory means to relive experiences and moments.

Books and places which I look at again always welcome me with a fresh smile.

Lastly, your mind is at ease when your memory is poor for you cannot recall information that would bring you discomfort.

I remember less any insults received. I would need an Official Reminder like Darius: in order not to forget an insult suffered at the hands of the Athenians he made a page intone three times in his ear as he sat at table: ‘Remember the Athenians, sire.’

If nothing more, this is a good exercise to practice. Whatever you deem to be bad, think of two or three things that demonstrate how that bad thing has benefits of its own. What I take away from this essay is simple: be mindful of your perspective. There are very few things in life which are black or white, good or bad, most things fall somewhere in the middle, the gray area, where one’s perspective matters more than anything else.


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