Montaigne’s 7 Musings on a Life Well-Lived
Reflections and advice from the 1500s
Posted May 05, 2018
“The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them... Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.”
Michel de Montaigne
I would love to sit down with Michel de Montaigne and think with him about life, its meaning, and how to live it best. It would even be better to do so at his family estate in the southwest of France. Sadly, this influential thinker lived in the 16th century. Nonetheless, I can spend time with him through his famous essays.
Montaigne prided himself as being like anyone else with the exception of writing down his reflections in a manner that reflected everyday life in everyday language. Today such a free-flowing writing style is the norm, but less so in Montaigne’s day.
Montaigne was magistrate in the city of Bordeaux and later its mayor. He enjoyed most of all his travels to different countries and cultures where he listened and observed people’s lived lives.
Upon his exit from political life, he converted a tower at his property into an “inner sanctum” where he would write his essays based on his thoughts and interactions with others. And he asked the question many before him and those after him have asked “how does one live a good life and what does it mean to be human?” He didn’t create directives on life, but rather wrote his observations of his experience of it. To this end, his essays reflect how truly a philosopher and a psychologist he was.
In 1580 he published his essays. Had there been a New York Times bestseller list at that time, he would have been on top of it and for many years to come.
In this blog, I review seven of Montaigne's essays that tackle the questions we all tend to ask at some point in our lives. Montaigne’s perspective is a useful reminder to us all about that which matters most.
Death—Montaigne lived in fear of death during his early adult years. He found that fixating on death made life worse for him rather than better. Death surrounded him. Five of his six children died during infancy, and a very close friend of his died of the plague. He had a near-death experience after a horse accident and recalled floating between consciousness and unconsciousness. His recollection was that being near death had a sense of safety and pleasure to it and he reflected that natures takes care of life's ending for the body. Hence, his advice on dealing with death: “don’t bother your head about it.” He felt the more we tried to control outcomes, including death, the less we live in the present.
Diversity of Perspective—Montaigne was Catholic and he accepted the tenants of Catholicism, but also pointed out that nothing can really be certain. He argued that reason and observation may include flawed logic and hence it is difficult to know the truth. Montaigne challenged himself, however, to assess situations with as much of an objective as well as empathetic perspective as he could. He let the Church answer the questions about his spiritual life, and focused his efforts on exploring the human experience. In particular, he wanted to understand the many different ways people experienced life and how these varying approaches made life richer.
Pets—Montaigne would have most likely enjoyed today’s online cat videos as he was an animal lover and enjoyed their company and often reflected on his cat's simple approach to life. He recognized that animals had an inner- life and wrote that “when I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me.” He accepted that animals were like humans with sensitivity to their environment and to pain. This was far before genetic sequencing verified how similar human DNA is to other animal DNA. Considering the perspective of others (including animals) supported human sympathy and empathy, a key to our daily interaction in life.
Connection--Montaigne enjoyed “the sharp, abrupt repartee which good spirits and familiarity introduce among friends.” He also enjoyed his down time reflecting and writing, but cherished friendship. He said “I am all in the open and...born for company and friendship.” He recognized that human beings are social animals that often feel their best in interaction with others. He was known to be a fully empathetic and sympathetic person and removed himself as much as he could from the brutal penal system (torture, burnings) of the time. He wrote “I cruelly hate cruelty.”
Nature—Montaigne cherished his walks in nature and rides through the forests on his horse. He looked to nature for respite and to his own nature for guidance. He resisted the voices of fanaticism and instead wrote that “There is...a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men and mercy and kindness to other creatures…”
Self-integration—When King Henry III met with Montaigne to tell him how much he enjoyed Montaigne’s essays, Montaigne is to have said “Sire, then your majesty must like me.” He saw himself and his essays at their best as one and the same. He often wrote free-form and seldom edited his writing. The “voice” that emerged during his writing was the one he wanted to share with the world and not a polished version of himself to impress others. He found through his writing, he came to know himself better and even if no one read his essays, he still believed that had gained important insight.
Presence of mind—Montaigne practiced a form of what we today call mindfulness through his essay writing. His quest in writing was to find out how to be “fully human” he tried to recognize when his thoughts went to “extraneous incidents." He would then work to bring his thinking back to the here and now and the “sweetness” of the moment. He found mindfulness key to "living well.”
In the field of practice psychology, many of us work to surface what Montaigne long ago advocated in his essays: making mistakes as part of the human experience; taking time to reflect and relax as healthy; finding gratitude in the present and avoiding living too much in the distant future; accepting oneself for how you are rather than how you think you should be; and becoming adaptive to contexts despite the ongoing change throughout life. Here we are almost 500 years after Montaigne's writings and find that the more things change, the more they stay the same (for how to live well).
Bakewell, Sarah (2010). How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Other Press.
Montaigne, Michel and Screech, M.A. (1993). Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays. Penguin Classics.