Anne Lamont once said, “Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.” Perhaps Michel De Montaigne — one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance — understood this when he wrote about his trials so that his friends and family could forever hold a timeless frame of him — all of his opinions, thoughts, perspectives, and troubles laid out in the most vulnerable way. These trials, moreover, became a literary term for what we now call essays. This writing exercise was a way for him to observe his judgements, thoughts, and experiences. Objective, skeptical, hilarious, but undoubtedly brilliant, Montaigne’s perspective on everything from education, friendship, self-awareness, and philosophy, to his love for books and his unique perspective on cannibalism, are all timeless, practical, and worthy of rumination.
He forewarns the reader:
“I freely state my opinion about all things, even those which perhaps fall outside my capacity, and of which I do not for a moment suppose myself to be a judge. What I say about them, therefore, is meant to reveal the extent of my own vision, not the measure of the things themselves.”
It’s easy to immediately believe that anyone who writes and is constantly referring back to themselves is egotistical. This is definitely not the case for Montaigne. His essays offer the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to truly observe one’s own thoughts — an exercise of humility, self-awareness, and self-correction. As much as he strongly expresses his opinions, he also is relentlessly vulnerable and admits to his shortcomings.
Here’s a few passages that I marked in my notes as self-awareness. These are all brilliant words to live by:
“It must be explained to him that to admit any mistake he may find in what he has said, even though no one has noticed it but himself, is an act of good judgement and sincerity, and the chief virtues that he is pursuing; that obstinacy and contentiousness are common qualities, generally to be found in the meanest of minds; and that to change one’s opinion and correct oneself, to give up a false position at the climax of a heated exposition, is a rare, strong, and philosophical virtue.”
“Mistakes often escape our eyes, but it is the sign of a poor judgement if we are unable to see them when shown to us by another. Knowledge and truth may dwell in us without judgement, and judgement also without them; indeed to recognize one’s ignorance is one of the best and surest signs of judgement that I know.”
“Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, ‘those for whom to live is to think.’” [End quotes are Cicero].
Because self-awareness is at the core of my writing and a popular topic on this blog, I can’t help but agree and cheer on Montaigne’s perspective. If you look carefully and pay attention to his words, you can almost get a glimpse of many different thinkers combined into one. Throughout the book, it’s obvious that Montaigne was deeply influenced by Seneca and the philosophy of Stoicism in its entirety, Plutarch, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.
Indeed, Montaigne, like myself, had a love for books. In the words of the translator, J.M. Cohen: “As he again and again insists, Montaigne was no scholar. He seldom read books through, but preferred to dip into them in search of arguments, anecdotes, and observations that threw light on his current interests.”
His perspective on education, learning, and the use of books is interesting and at times, for me at least, very strange. Here’s some quotes reflecting these topics:
“Who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing, and indeed is seeking nothing. [Quoting Seneca here] ‘We are not under a king: each man should look after himself.’ Let him know what he knows at least; he must imbibe their ways of thought, not learn their precepts; he may boldly forget, if he will, where he has learnt his opinions, so long as he can make them his own. Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them than to him that repeated them after him. It is no more a matter of Plato’s opinion than of mine, when he and I understand and see things alike. The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterwards turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own; it is thyme and marjoram no longer. So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows form others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgement. His education, his labour, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”
“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men. It is the understanding, said Epicharmus, that sees and hears: it is the understanding that turns everything to profit, that arranges everything, that acts, directs, and rules: everything else is blind, deaf, and soulless.”
“In books I only look for the pleasure of honest entertainment; or if I study, the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well.”
“The active pursuit of truth is our proper business. We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power. Truth is not, as Democritus said, hidden in the depths of the abyss, but situated rather at an infinite height in the divine understanding. The world is but a school of inquiry.”
Perhaps the strangest essay I read was his thoughts on cannibals. His understanding and philosophical stance just goes to show how there are always different ways of seeing things that appear strange, unusual, or bizarre. Montaigne says:
“Now, to return to my argument, I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people [cannibals], that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, expect that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything. These people are wild in the same way as we say that fruits are wild, when nature has produced them by herself and in her ordinary way; whereas, in fact, it is those that we have artificially modified, and removed from the common order, that we ought to call wild.”
Lastly, I would like to end with passages on his perspective on philosophy. As Seneca once said, “Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds.” It teaches us how to live and how to behave. It provides ethical guidelines, a set of principles to abide to so that we may live well and not be pulled by irrational thoughts. He says:
“Our pupil should be told: what it is to know and not to know, what the aim of his study should be; what courage, temperance, and justice are; what the difference is between ambition and greed, servitude and submission, licence and liberty; by what signs one may recognize genuine and solid contentment; to what extent we should fear death, suffering, and shame, by what springs we move; and the reason for all the different impulses within us. For it seems to me that the first ideas which is mind should be made to absorb must be those that regulate his behavior and morals, that teach him to know himself, and to know how to die well and live well.”
“The mind that harbours philosophy should, by its soundness, make the body sound also. It should make its tranquility and joy shine forth; it should mould the outward bearing to its shape, and arm it therefore with a gracious pride, with an active and sprightly bearing, with a happy and gracious countenance. The most manifest sign of wisdom is a constant happiness; its state is like that of things above the moon: always serene.”
“Let not the youngest shun philosophy or the oldest grow weary of it. To do so is the equivalent to saying either that the time for a happy life has not yet come or that it is already past.”
Essays by Michel De Montaigne is a thought-provoking read, both timeless and practical. Each essay provides an opportunity to exercise your mind, to observe your own patterns of thinking, and maybe, to arrive at a deeper understanding of the subjects that are indeed part of our daily lives. His wisdom and worldview are at times refreshing, funny, objective as can be, but also applicable to our current endeavors. The joy of getting into the minds of great thinkers — through essays, interviews, or letters — is being able to extract wisdom to apply to your own life — to use them as heroes or mentors to guide you to more fruitful outcomes.