Michel de Montaigne – selfies be damned!

Michel de Montaigne

In a world almost deafened by the constant noise of social media, a world in which self-promotion seems to be the order of the day, it is worth taking time out to rediscover the pleasure of reading an author who sought to understand the nature of the world and his own humanity through self-examination.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. His work is noted for its merging of casual anecdotes and autobiography with serious intellectual insight; his volume of Essays [Essais] contains some of the most influential essays ever written. Montaigne influenced writers all over the world, including most notably, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose own volume of Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed was published in 1597.

Despite all the entrancing novelties that the Internet brings us, despite all the dazzling apps and games and alternative means of relating to one another that modern technology delivers, essentially, there is still nothing new under the sun. Undoubtedly, the wealth of knowledge available in this digital age has grown astronomically, but personal wisdom, which derives not from facts but from experience and good judgment, is as great a challenge as ever. In the words of Montaigne: “There’s no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally.”

Montaigne believed that in order to understand others and to understand the purpose of life, it was vital to know oneself first: his famous declaration, ‘I am myself the matter of my book’, was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. But Montaigne was unrepentant and spent a lifetime examining the world and human relations through the lens of the only thing he could depend on implicitly—his own judgment—and this makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance.

Below is an extract from Book 2, Chapter six of the Essays entitled “On Experience”, in which Montaigne justifies his approach:

There is no description so difficult, nor doubtless of such great use, as that of a man’s self: and withal, a man must curl his hair and set out and adjust himself, to appear in public: now I am perpetually tricking myself out, for I am eternally upon my own description. Custom has made all speaking of a man’s self vicious, and positively forbids it, in hatred to the boasting that seems inseparable from the testimony men give of themselves [. . .]

My trade and art is to live; he that forbids me to speak according to my own sense, experience, and practice, may as well enjoin an architect not to speak of building according to his own knowledge, but according to that of his neighbour; according to the knowledge of another, and not according to his own. If it be vanity for a man to publish his own virtues, why does Cicero not prefer the eloquence of Hortensius, and Hortensius that of Cicero? Perhaps they mean that I should give testimony of myself by actions and results works, not merely by words. I chiefly paint my thoughts, a subject void of form and incapable of operative production; it is all that I can do to couch it in this airy body of the voice; the wisest and most devout men have lived in the greatest care to avoid all apparent effects. Effects would more speak of fortune than of me; they manifest their own office and not mine, but uncertainly and by conjecture; patterns of some one particular virtue. I expose myself entire; it is a body where, at one view, the veins, muscles, and tendons are apparent, every of them in its proper place; here the effects of a cold; there of the heart beating, very dubiously. I do not write my own acts, but myself and my essence.

I am of the opinion that a man must be very cautious how he values himself, and equally conscientious to give a true account, be it better or worse, impartially. If I thought myself perfectly good and wise, I would rattle it out to some purpose. To speak less of one’s self than what one really is is folly, not modesty; and to take that for current pay which is under a man’s value is weakmindedness and cowardice, according to Aristotle. No virtue assists itself with falsehood; truth is never a matter of error. To speak more of one’s self than is really true is not always mere presumption; it is, moreover, very often folly; to, be immeasurably pleased with what one is, and to fall into an indiscreet self-love, is in my opinion the substance of this vice. The very best remedy to cure it, is to do quite the opposite to what these people direct who, in forbidding men to speak of themselves, consequently, at the same time, prohibit thinking of themselves too. Pride dwells in the thought; the tongue can have but a very little share in it.

They imagine that to think of one’s self is to be delighted with one’s self; to frequent and converse with one’s self, to be overindulgent; but this excess springs only in those who take a rather superficial view of themselves, and dedicate their main inspection to their affairs; who call it mere reverie and idleness to occupy one’s self with one’s self, and the building one’s self up a mere building of castles in the air; who look upon themselves as a third person only, a stranger. If any one is enraptured by his own knowledge, looking only on those below him, let him merely turn his eye upward towards past ages, and his pride will be abated, when he shall there find so many thousand wits that trample him under foot. If he enters into a flattering presumption of his personal worth, let him merely recollect the lives of Scipio, Epaminondas; so many armies, so many nations, that leave him so far behind them. No particular quality can make any man proud, that will at the same time put the many other weak and imperfect ones he has in the other scale, and the nothingness of the human condition to make up the weight. Because Socrates had alone digested to purpose the precept of his god, “to know oneself,” and by that study arrived at the perfection of setting himself at nought, he only was reputed worthy of the title of sage. Whoever shall so know himself, let him boldly speak it out.

Other aphorisms taken from Montaigne

♦ Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.

♦ The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.

♦ Let’s give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.

♦ He who establishes his argument by noise and command, shows that his reason is weak.

♦ There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.

♦ Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out.