Cover of the book Imagine living a life where every experience, thought, and moment is an opportunity for self-discovery and profound understanding. This is the world of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French statesman, vividly brought to life by Sarah Bakewell in her book, “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Montaigne, one of history’s most insightful thinkers, mastered the art of introspection and reflection, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. His essays offer profound observations on human nature, life, and understanding, each a deep dive into self-awareness.

In this blog post, I delve into six key themes from Montaigne’s life and work, as illuminated by Bakewell. Montaigne’s philosophy, though centuries old, remains profoundly relevant in the 21st century, providing us with a roadmap to navigate the complexities of our modern lives.

1) Self-Awareness: Embracing Presence and Introspection

One key lesson from Montaigne, as highlighted by Bakewell, lies in understanding the intricate relationship between self-awareness and being present in the moment.

Montaigne used writing as a tool for introspection, a journey deeply reflected in his celebrated Essays. This practice of introspection enabled him to gain profound self-understanding, thereby anchoring him firmly in the present.

Montaigne vividly described his process of introspection:

“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.”

Self-awareness for Montaigne was about having a heightened awareness of his thoughts, emotions, and experiences as they unfolded. By focusing on his inner self, he became more attuned to the external world, noticing the finer details and nuances of each moment.

🤔 Reflection: Take a moment to pause and look inward. Write down what’s happening inside your mind: your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. How might this practice of introspection not only deepen your self-awareness but also enhance your presence in the world around you?

 

2) “Epokhe”: The Path to Inner Tranquility

Montaigne embraced the Skeptical concept of “epokhe,” which in Greek means the suspension of judgment. He saw it as a pathway to ataraxia, a state of “imperturbability” or “freedom from anxiety,” as described by Bakewell. 

Practicing “epokhe,” or refraining from hasty judgments and embracing uncertainty, Montaigne cultivated a mindset that balanced mindfulness and the acceptance of life’s uncertainties.

This approach is vividly illustrated by Montaigne’s moderated language in his Essays, where he often used phrases like “perhaps,” “to some extent,” “I think,” and “It seems to me.” 

Such careful expression was not about indecision but about maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium in the face of life’s unpredictability. By adopting “epokhe,” Montaigne believed we could reduce the distress associated with rigid beliefs and the pursuit of absolute certainty, thereby achieving a more tranquil state of being.

🤔 Reflection: The next time you are about to make a quick judgment, pause and say “epokhe” to yourself. Reflect on how this practice of thoughtful consideration can lead to a calmer, more balanced state of mind. How might embracing “epokhe” transform your reactions to life’s uncertainties and contribute to greater inner peace?

 

3) Imperfection: Celebrating Human Fallibility

Montaigne’s philosophy offers a refreshing perspective on human imperfection. Bakewell succinctly captures this view: “For Montaigne, human failings are not merely bearable; they are almost a cause for celebration.” This stands in stark contrast to the often unattainable pursuit of perfection.

Understanding that imperfection is an inherent part of being human, Montaigne advocated for embracing our flaws. He saw beauty and freedom in accepting them.

Montaigne lived these principles with conviction. Bakewell notes, “He lived without petty resentments or regrets. He embraced everything that happened, without the desire to change it.” His acceptance of life’s imperfections demonstrates a profound understanding of the human experience.

🤔 Reflection: Take a moment to consider your own imperfections. How do you typically react to them? Reflect on the possibility of embracing these imperfections, as Montaigne did. 

 

4) Fluidity: Embracing Life’s Unpredictability

Montaigne’s philosophy embraced the concept of fluidity, recognizing the inherent unpredictability of life. He articulated this view poignantly, as Bakewell quotes:

“I do not portray being,” he wrote, “I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, but from day to day, from minute to minute.”

Montaigne valued the simple feeling of being alive, focusing his full attention on the present moment.

Montaigne’s embrace of fluidity was vividly evident in his travels. Bakewell notes his love for going with the flow, avoiding fixed plans, and embracing the spontaneity and pleasures of the journey.

“If it looks ugly on the right, I take the left; if I find myself unfit to ride my horse, I stop,” he remarked.

His travels, Bakewell says, were “an extension of his everyday pleasure in letting himself ‘roll relaxedly with the rolling of the heavens.’” He experienced this with the added delight of seeing everything afresh and with full attention, like a child. His open approach to travel, where straying from the path was not straying at all, exemplified his philosophy of fluidity in action.

🤔 Reflection: Consider your own life’s journey. How might embracing a more fluid, adaptable approach, as Montaigne did, enrich your experiences and interactions with the world around you? How can letting go of rigid plans open up new possibilities for discovery and enjoyment?

 

5) Perception: Understanding Diverse Perspectives

Montaigne was celebrated for his exceptional ability to view life from various perspectives. He recognized that perception is subjective and can greatly vary. Bakewell highlights his skill in stepping beyond his immediate point of view.

He acknowledged that our individual perspectives could limit our understanding of the world. However, Montaigne viewed this not as a barrier, but as an opportunity to enrich our lives. He believed that embracing a wide array of viewpoints makes the world a more multidimensional and interesting place.

Montaigne also adopted the Stoic practice of viewing life’s challenges from different angles. He compared this to observing troubles from a higher vantage point, akin to watching the “commotion in an ant colony” from above. This approach helped him maintain a fresh perspective and avoid becoming stuck in habitual thought patterns.

🤔 Reflection: Imagine transforming yourself into another person or an animal that you know, either in person or through stories. Try to see the world through their eyes. What different perspectives do you notice? How does this shift in viewpoint challenge your usual ways of thinking?

 

6) Mediocrity: Finding Greatness in Balance

Montaigne’s perspective on mediocrity challenges conventional views. He suggested that true greatness of the soul is found in “mediocrity.” For him, mediocrity wasn’t about dullness or lack of ambition. Instead, it represented being fundamentally human and maintaining balance.

Montaigne believed that those who try to rise above their human nature often end up diminishing their human qualities. They lose their essential human faculties in their attempt to transcend limits. He praised the quality of being “ordinate” – orderly, regulated, and moderate.

Bakewell notes Montaigne’s reaction to criticisms of his tenure as mayor:

“People complain that his terms as mayor passed without much trace, he wrote. ‘That’s a good one! They accuse me of inactivity in a time when almost everyone was convicted of doing too much.’”

🤔 Reflection: How does the idea of embracing mediocrity as a form of balance and humanity resonate with you? Could this view of mediocrity bring a greater sense of authenticity and groundedness to your life?

 

Conclusion

Exploring Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy reveals timeless lessons on self-awareness, judgment, imperfection, fluidity, perception, and the beauty of mediocrity. His insights, centuries old yet strikingly relevant, encourage us to embrace life’s complexities with curiosity and balance.

As we reflect on these ideas, let’s consider how they might enrich our daily lives. Embracing Montaigne’s wisdom can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and a more fulfilling engagement with the world. In our fast-paced modern existence, his teachings offer a beacon of mindfulness, encouraging us to seek contentment in simplicity and wisdom in our everyday experiences.

“Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.” – Michel de Montaigne