Welcome to Newsletter #2
If you read last week’s edition, you might recognise an unfortunate recurring theme. I’m sorry to say, but there is mention of poop again in this article - very briefly I might add and completely unintended.
You see, this week’s subject is Montaigne, the reluctant 16th Century philosopher. In his lifelong study of how to live a good life, he had a propensity to overshare on the personal details.
It was all for the greater good I might add, as I believe his writing contains the antidote to 21st Century living.
Let me show you what I mean…
Montaigne: A Breath Of Fresh Air
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a 16th Century French writer and philosopher who devoted his life to one gargantuan question; how to live a good life.
His writing embraced the entire spectrum of human concerns.
Montaigne wrote 107 free-flowing essays, mostly short, with pithy titles like Of Friendship, Of Cruelty and Of Sadness or Sorrow. He ruminates with scrupulous honesty over himself, unpicking everyday experiences while having fun in the process.
In an age of self-help books and online gurus, Montaigne’s essays offer some of the neatest and most accessible life advice out there.
I believe his writing may be antidote to modern living.
To the uninitiated, it may seem odd I am recommending a 500 year old Renaissance philosopher for life advice.
How can a nobleman and emissary to a King, writing obsessively from a fortified tower on his wine estate all those years ago, possibly help a 21st Century citizen?
To be fair, Montaigne would probably agree, but for different reasons. He tried his best to deter readers from engaging with his chaotic essays.
“Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.”
He may have liked cannibals and found farts, penises, and the taste of radishes as worthy topics of contemplation, but it was through the strange and sometimes banal, that Montaigne teased out some of the most profound insights on human flourishing and its foibles ever recorded.
Why Should I Care?
Montaigne might be the greatest philosopher of life and most important thinkers of the past 500 years.
We live in an emotionally turbulent time. Society is fragmented - populism is on the rise, dogmas and entrenched viewpoints rule the digital sphere. We envy "perfect" lives on Instagram and flawless bodies on Love Island, while longing for deeper pockets, bigger brains, larger houses and so on.
This growing sense of inadequacy, dissatisfaction and anxiety is especially prevalent amongst young people.
Montaigne can help remedy these dysfunctions.
He illuminated the idea of accepting our shortcomings as a liberating force. His writing reminds us, in this hyper-competitive world, that it’s ok to be you.
What can he teach me?
In his essays, Montaigne offered important insights covering the entire spectrum of humankind’s weaknesses.
Some of my favourite insights are:
“to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… On the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.’ And, lest we forget: ‘Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies.”
In a world of hyper-emphatic rants and the clashing of irreconcilable world-views, a greater dose of humility would temper inflexible dogmas and facilitate progress.
Montaigne’s sceptical philosophy dismissed the idea of absolute truths. He aimed his ire at the arrogance of those who thought they had all of the answers, believing it made humans “wise at our own expense.”
He was a highly intelligent and educated man, but expressed himself with intellectual humility;
“All I know is that I know nothing and I’m not even sure about that.”
"This great world...is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognise ourselves from the proper angle."
Humans are creatures of habit. Familiarity dulls our vision, leaving us to judge others whose approach to life differs from our own - Breast fed vs bottle fed, vegan vs carnivore, left vs right - the list is endless.
Montaigne was exceptionally open-minded for his time. He suggested it was important to examine ourselves from within, rather than accepting at face value, whatever truths are passed down to us. He did this, partly by looking at the world from different perspectives.
When Brazilian tribespeople were paraded as “savages” to prim spectators, Montaigne countered they were simply living according to their own culture, which was no less suitable for living well than those of the Europeans.
Live life with purpose
“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.”
How many of us live our lives as we mean to live it, as opposed to simply living?
Modern life makes it easy to spend copious hours in distraction (the average UK adult watches 27 hours of television per week).
Montaigne sought to live the most fulfilling life at every moment. A near death experience, which followed the deaths of his best friend, father and brother in close succession, inspired him to seek “tranquillity, freedom and leisure”.
He later wrote -
“I have achieved what I wanted”.
If we took the time to ask, how many of us could claim this statement as our own?
Montaigne worked each and everyday on himself. He transcended his shortcomings by observing them closely and accepting his imperfections;
"In modeling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape."
Montaigne's Essays remain a moving commentary on what it means to be a human being, especially in the modern age. His writing is timeless.
While many of his ideas are no longer groundbreaking, they remain impactful because of his approach. His work is funny and entertaining while remaining incredibly accessible.
I can feel and relate to many of his experiences as if they were my own. This sentiment is captured beautifully by Bernard Levin -
“I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?’”
Montaigne is not didactic. His focus was on how he should live, never once commanding or even encouraging his readers to follow suit.
“This is not my doctrine; it is my study and nobody else’s”.
I learn about how I might live better through reading how Montaigne lived his life.
Even a little exposure to Montaigne’s brand of thinking can be inspiring. He was a breath of fresh air.
Then again -
“Que sais-je?”, “what do I know”?
What did he say?
“With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat?”
“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”
“These writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge.”
“Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom,”
“I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything, not even for learning’s sake however precious it may be. From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime… If I come across difficult passages in my reading I never bite my nails over them: after making a charge or two I let them be… If one book wearies me I take up another.”
“I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judgment, as the very extreme of all vices...I cannot see a chicken’s neck pulled off without trouble, and cannot without impatience endure the cry of a hare in my dog’s teeth, though the chase be a violent pleasure.”
‘There were many terrible things in my life, and most of them never happened”
Where can I learn more?
This is a a good place to start. It’s a short, pithy and entertaining introduction to the man.
I discovered Montaigne through this book. His fascinating life and work are vividly portrayed in this entertaining read.
A little more academic in its approach, in this BBC podcast, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of the great man.
This seven part series by Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, is another wonderful introduction.
Best essay by Montaigne
Aside from the importance of experience, he writes about his health, how to live life, being a father, family, food, and moving forward even when progress is slow.
Things I learned this week
Sex Sells Songs
This axiom may be of no surprise but the pervasiveness of sexuality in songs shocked me.
A 2009 study of hit songs across three genres, Pop, Country and R&B, found 92 percent of them refer to sexuality. The typical hit song had 10.5 reproductive phrases.
"Sexual appeal" received the most mentions in R&B and pop songs, while "commitment" (yawn) was the main theme in country music.
Intriguingly, the study’s results also map surprisingly well onto the lyrics from opera, dating back hundreds of years.
The connection between music and sexuality goes back a long way.
If you return to the earliest songs in human history, they were linked to fertility rituals. The King would have sex with a Goddess for example, and the song’s lyrics were often very explicit.
I love libraries!
I spend a fair amount of time in my local library, either alone or with my kids. We have a fantastic system here in Ireland and I really appreciate it.
Since my family and I get so much value from this amazing resource, I thought I should show some appreciation - so I sent them a tweetstorm:
10 Reasons Why I love Libraries.
That’s it for this week. Thanks so much for reading.
I’m working on something exciting for next week. It’s called “Why You Can’t Be Trusted.”
I look forward to sharing it with you.
Once again, if you have any questions or feedback - good, bad or indifferent, please send it my way. I’d love to hear from you.
Until next week,