The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne 237 Comments
Que sais je? (Photo: BLT)
This is a guest post by Ryan Holiday.
At age 21, Ryan became Director of Marketing at American Apparel, the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. He gets more done than five average people combined, and practical philosophies help to make it possible. His previous post, entitled Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs, has nearly 300 comments.
In this post, Ryan introduces another of his guiding mentors, the fascinating (and practical) Michel de Montaigne…
Enter Ryan Holiday
In late 1569, Michel de Montaigne was given up as dead after being flung from a galloping horse.
As his friends carried his limp and bloodied body home, he watched life slip away from his physical self, not traumatically but almost flimsily, like some dancing spirit on the “tip of his lips,” and then return. This sublime experience marked the moment Montaigne began a uniquely playful relationship with his existence and was a sense clarity and euphoria about life that he carried with him from that point forwards. Shortly thereafter he took a bold step, retiring from a promising public career—retired to himself, so to speak—and made self-study his official occupation.
Maybe you don’t know anything about this man, Montaigne; perhaps you know him as the bane of your high school existence for inventing the word “essay.” What I’d like to do in this piece is tell you a bit more about him and hopefully remove him from the realm of people-from-history-you-don’t-care-about and place him in his proper context: as our greatest philosopher of life. And Montaigne was a philosopher in the truest sense; he studied life and how we can wring all that we can from the short bit of time each of us is given. Philosophy can seem boring—truthfully, most of it is—but Montaigne is not only incredibly accessible; just a brush with his brand of thinking can change our lives.
Montaigne’s famous collection of essays ruminates on diverse topics, covering everything from South American cannibalism and animal cognition to Seneca and death. The topics he chose to write about were just jumping-off points, exercises to practice thinking and to discover thoughts he didn’t know that he had. His brand of ceaseless curiosity and self-reflection is something we can learn much from, starting by internalizing his biggest breakthrough.
The Big Idea: Ourselves As A Job
It is easy to become detached from what we do, especially if what we do is predatory, meaningless or boring.
Tim has written extensively about extracting yourself from the mindset of obsessing over your jobs, but the reality is that he and Montaigne transcended this identity crisis by becoming the subject and the end of their own labors. They wake up each day and work on themselves. Seems unrealistic for most of us, doesn’t it? How would we make a living?
Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surpluses looks at the fact that the average American spends 20 hours a week watching TV, or about as much as a part-time job. This time, he says, could be better allocated for great collaborative projects, like Wikipedia. But what if we break out of the paradigm of “giving away” our time? In the early 1570s, Montaigne converted a tower on his property into a personal library where he showed up and worked (thinking) part of each and every day—just like a farmer or a banker or scientist would.
What we could accomplish personally if, like Montaigne, we spent those 20 hours (whether usually spent on news sites, games, or Lost episodes) examining ourselves and learning what makes us tick?
The convergence of self-improvement and his occupation is best shown in an anecdote between Montaigne and King Henry III of France. After Montaigne had published his essays to great acclaim, the King remarked to him that he liked them very much. Montaigne replied, “Then your majesty must like me.” Later, he wrote, “I have achieved what I wanted: everyone recognizes me in my book and my book in me.” We would be proud if we could say the same.
3 Things We Can Learn From Montaigne
1) Self-Experimentation and Observation
The most striking feature of Montaigne’s essays is his observations. They range from incisive to funny to world-altering. One of his most famous essays is a bit of all three. As he played with his cat one day, he asked himself, who was there to amuse who? In other words, which one of them was really the pet?
This is his penchant for finding perspective in the strangest of places and it was something he had much practice at. Montaigne wrote that “having myself since boyhood to see my life reflected in other people’s…I study [them] for what I should avoid or what I should imitate.” It didn’t stop at observation; he was constantly experimenting on himself trying to figure out what he liked or didn’t like. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in French his word “essay” also means “trial.” And these weren’t idle diversions. He practiced this art to learn how to live.
Montaigne once used the analogy of a man with a bow and arrow to illustrate the importance of meditation and analysis. You have to know what you’re aiming for before it is even worth bothering with the process of preparing the bow, nocking the arrow and letting go. Our projects, he said, “go astray because they are not addressed to a target.” The idea is that an intimate knowledge of ourselves makes it possible (and easier!) to know what we need to do on a daily basis. He advised us to meditate on our lives in general, in order to properly arrange our day to day actions.
2) Keep a Commonplace Book
Montaigne kept what was known as a “commonplace book” or a hand-written compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts.
The idea was that over a lifetime of reading, one can cumulatively amass a fantastic resource of wisdom—wisdom that can be accessed in times of crisis, depression or joy. This doesn’t mean we treat reading like a high school history class where rote memorization is important. Montaigne once teased the writer Erasmus, who was known for his dedication to reading scholarly works, by asking with heavy sarcasm “Do you think he is searching in his books for a way to become better, happier, or wiser?” In Montaigne’s mind, if he wasn’t, it was all a waste. A commonplace book is a way to keep our learning priorities in order. It motivates us to look for and keep only the things we can use.
3) Que sais je? (Don’t take yourself too seriously)
You’d think that Montaigne, as he grew older and more practiced, would have become more certain, more sure of himself. In fact, the more he studied, the more frequently he found himself asking his most famous question: “Que sais je?” or “What do I know?” The answer to the rhetorical question is, “Nothing.” Montaigne practiced the Skeptic’s notion of questioning what he “knew” and deliberately threw his assumptions into doubt.
By building up tolerance to uncertainty, he not only better suited himself for life in chaotic civil war-era France but primed his mind for tackling the big questions that don’t have easy answers. For a second, consider of all our major public thinkers today. They do the opposite, constantly telling how sure they are of their beliefs and criticizing their “opponents” for changing their minds. Changing your mind is a good thing, Montaigne would say. It means you’ve resisted the impulse to think you’re infallible. He wrote that as part of his profession of getting to know himself he found such “boundless depths and variety that [his] apprenticeship bears no other fruit than to make me know much there remains to learn.” If only we could internalize that attitude—instead of feeling cocky when we learn something, acknowledge that it really just taught us how much more we need to learn.
Don’t fool yourself with excuses about being too busy to do any of this. During the course of writing his essays, Montaigne served two terms as mayor, traveled internationally as a dignitary and was a confidante of the King. He never let any of that stop him from his real job:
“The world always looks straights ahead; as for me, 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 me: I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others…they always go forward; as for me, I roll about in myself.”
Montaigne is a special philosophical figure because he didn’t subscribe to one school of thought. Instead, he subscribed to all of them. He was willing to take bits and pieces from anywhere, as long as they had practical application to his life. This was why he tirelessly observed and experimented, jotted down useful notes in his commonplace and repeatedly asked “am I sure about this?”
He worked on and for himself—a true free agent—and the three tools above were how he did it.
This GoodReads collection of quotes is also a good entry point into his thinking.
Books and Related:
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (AMAZING)
Montaigne, philosopher of life (Bakewell’s 7-part series on Montaigne in The Guardian)
The Essays: A Selection by Montaigne (I prefer Penguin’s translation. Favorite essay: On Experience)
Montaigne by Peter Burke (a short but good biography)
Philosophy As A Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot (The best resource on practical philosophy, period.)
Posted on October 19th, 2010