“If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived.” – Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) is widely appreciated as one of the most important figures in the late French Renaissance. He was born in a wealthy family and at the age of 7 he was sent to study at a prestigious boarding school in Bordeaux, the Collège de Guyenne. Montaigne mastered the whole curriculum by the time he was 13. After finishing his law studies, has spent few years working as a courtier at the court of Charles IX. He was awarded the highest honor of the French nobility, the collar of the Order of St. Michael.
In 1572, at age 38, Montaigne retired to his estate in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. His form of reflections and writings became known as essays – tentative, speculative, and the non-definitive attempts or thoughts on a certain topic.
Nassim Taleb calls Montaigne the “major modern epistemocrat”. An epistemocrat is a person who holds his own knowledge under suspicion and who is deeply aware of human fallibility.
Here is Nassim Taleb’s praise of Montaigne from his book Antifragile.
Montaigne is quite refreshing to read after the strains of a modern education since he fully accepted human weaknesses and understood that no philosophy could be effective unless it took into account our deeply ingrained imperfections, the limitations of our rationality, the flaws that make us human. It is not that he was ahead of his time; it would be better said that later scholars (advocating rationality) were backward.
He was a thinking, ruminating fellow, and his ideas did not spring up in his tranquil study, but while on horseback. He went on long rides and came back with ideas. Montaigne was neither one of the academics of the Sorbonne nor a professional man of letters, and he was not these things on two planes. First, he was a doer; he had been a magistrate, a businessman, and the mayor of Bordeaux before he retired to mull over his life and, mostly, his own knowledge. Second, he was an antidogmatist: he was a skeptic with charm, a fallible, noncommittal, personal, introspective writer, and, primarily, someone who, in the great classical tradition, wanted to be a man. Had he been in a different period, he would have been an empirical skeptic—he had skeptical tendencies of the Pyrrhonian variety, the antidogmatic kind like Sextus Empiricus, particularly in his awareness of the need to suspend judgment.
Montaigne’s Little Tricks for Living an Appropriate Life
Sarah Bakewell in her book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts brings up the question How to live? and offers Montaigne’s twenty “attempts” to answer it.
One the chapters is dedicated to mental tricks Montaigne deployed to live more happily.
For Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life.
Quite early in his life Montaigne became engaged with Hellenistic thought. One of the books he discovered by himself around the age of 7 or 8 were Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was searching for good stories which could inspire him to think more clearly about the possibilities of human life; so he read the works of Virgil (Aeneid), then Terence, Plautus, and various modern Italian comedies. He liked Tacitus’ Histories and Plutarch’s Lives. He also loved to quote Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things.
There is a reason why Montaigne was devoted to the Hellenistic literature:
About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life. These were the philosophies he turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing with more minor everyday irritations.
Two Biggest Weaknesses of the Human Mind
Being engaged with the fundamental questions of human life that pervaded the Hellenistic literature, Montaigne was quick to understand that there two big weaknesses of the human mind which might cause a man to live unhappily. Those are lack of control over emotions and not paying attention to the present.
Stoics and Epicureans thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present. If one could only get these two things right—controlling and paying attention—most other problems would take care of themselves. The catch is that both are almost impossible to do. So difficult are they that one cannot approach them head-on. It is necessary to sidle in from lateral angles, and trick oneself into achieving them.
The question of living appropriate life boils down to the question of how to deal with these two tendencies of the human mind. And the answers could be found in the Hellenic thought.
1. Imagine that today is the last day of your life.
Imagine that today is the last day of your life. Are you ready to face death? Imagine, even, that this very moment—now!—is the last moment of your existence. What are you feeling? Do you have regrets? Are there things you wish you had done differently? Are you really alive at this instant, or are you consumed with panic, denial, and remorse? This experiment opens your eyes to what is important to you, and reminds you of how time runs constantly through your fingers.
2. Rehearse in your mind the picture of your last moment.
Seneca wrote of a wealthy man named Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, “He has lived his life, he has lived his life.” You could achieve the same effect more simply and cheaply just by holding the idea of your own demise in your mind and paying full attention to it.
The Epicurean writer Lucretius suggested picturing yourself at the point of death, and considering two possibilities. Either you have lived well, in which case you can go your way satisfied, like a well-fed guest leaving a party. Or you have not, but then it makes no difference that you are losing your life, since you obviously did not know what to do with it anyway. This may offer scant comfort on your deathbed, but if you think about it in the midst of life it helps you to change your perspective.
3. When you lose something, imagine you never had it.
If you have lost someone or something precious, you can try to value her, him, or it differently by imagining that you never knew that person, or never owned that object. How can you miss what you never had? A different angle produces a different emotion.
4. If you feel tired of something, pretend that you lost it and now you’re missing it.
If you feel tired of everything you possess, suggests Plutarch, pretend that you have lost all these things and are missing them desperately.
5. Try looking at things from a more elementary point of view.
The great Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept notebooks in which he would go over the changes of perspective he wished to drill into himself:
How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is the mere juice of grapes, and your purple-edged robe simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shell-fish blood! And in sexual intercourse that it is no more than the friction of a membrane and a spurt of mucus ejected.
6. Try looking at things from a far distance.
At other times, Marcus Aurelius imagined flying up to the heavens so that he could gaze down and see how insignificant all human concerns were from such a distance. Seneca did this too: “Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity.”
7. Visualize time circling around on itself.
Another practice of the Stoics was to visualize time circling around on itself, over eons. Thus Socrates would be born again and would teach in Athens just as he did the first time; every butterfly would flap its wings in the same way; every cloud would pass overhead at the same speed. You yourself would live again, and have all the same thoughts and emotions as before, again and again without end. This apparently terrifying idea brought comfort, because—like the other ideas—it showed one’s own fleeting troubles at a reduced size. At the same time, because everything you had ever done would come back to haunt you, everything mattered. Nothing was flushed away; nothing could be forgotten. Meditating on this forced you to pay more attention to how you lived your everyday life.
8. When in grief, divert your attention.
A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it. I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. If I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky.” – Michel de Montaigne
“I was once afflicted with an overpowering grief,” Motaigne wrote, clearly thinking of La Boétie. It could have destroyed him had he relied only on his powers of reason to rescue him. Instead, understanding that he needed “some violent diversion,” he managed to develop a crush on someone. He does not say who, and it seems to have been insignificant, but it gave his emotions somewhere to go.
9. When in anger, imagine the contrary.
Montaigne once successfully cured a “young prince,” probably Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV), of a dangerous passion for revenge. He did not talk the prince out of it, or advise him to turn the other cheek, or remind him of the tragic consequences that could result. He did not mention the subjects of anger or revenge at all:
I let the passion alone and applied myself to making him relish the beauty of a contrary picture, the honor, favor, and good will he would acquire by clemency and kindness. I diverted him to ambition. That is how it is done.
10. Diversion against your own fear of getting old and dying.
Later in his life, Montaigne used the trick of diversion against his own fear of getting old and dying. The years were dragging him towards death; he could not help that, but he need not look at it head-on. Instead, he faced the other way, and calmed himself by looking back with pleasure over his youth and childhood. Thus, he said, he managed to “gently sidestep and avert my gaze from this stormy and cloudy sky that I have in front of me.