23.29: Notes on Montaigne

Earlier this year, all thanks to a nudge from Jesús Salido, I got hooked on The Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Right off the bat, I felt like the french philosopher was speaking my language. I mean, this guy from the Renaissance was dropping life truths and principles that still hit home today.

However, The Essays are long and kind of a tough read. That’s why I jotted down some key takeaways, akin to the quick summaries I whipped up for both Nietzche and Yuval Noah Harari.

Here’s a closer look at some of his most prominent ideas. This is Michel de Montaigne for the rest of us.

Action, honor, and truth

While many envision Montaigne as a cultured man, sequestered in his library, it’s essential to recognize him as deeply involved in the political happenings of his time.

I have an open disposition, apt to build trust at first encounters. Authenticity and truth are accepted in any era.

Montaigne was also a lover of genuine conversation. He was not one to engage in debates with the intent to conquer but rather to understand. He believed that sincerity and staying true to one’s word had more merit.

If moral conviction doesn’t drive us to honesty, practical reason should.

Embracing human nature

Montaigne championed the idea of relativism, suggesting that truths are not absolute but subject to individual perceptions. His writings betray a deep-seated skepticism, doubting the very foundation of human reasoning.

What do I know?

Montaigne urged us to come to terms with our human condition, embracing our imperfections and the unpredictability of life. He subscribed to Heraclitus’s idea that everything is in a constant state of flux, making the pursuit of absolute truth elusive. His motto was, “What do I know?”, reminding us of the ever-changing nature of reality.

Aging and mortality

Montaigne likened aging to a slow, piece-by-piece death. He believed that as we grow older and experience life’s gradual losses, the finality of death becomes less shocking. Thus we shouldn’t reflect on it as a big event, but rather as the last stage of this gradual process.

He draws parallels between the potency of youth and the waning strength of old age, using metaphors like a falling tooth as a sign of both aging and impending mortality.

To philosophize is to learn to die.

However, death was a recurring theme in Th Essays, viewing it as an inevitable part of existence. He admired the stoic attitudes of peasants who faced the devastations of wars and plagues with a calm reminiscent of Socrates drinking hemlock.

The natural state

In his travels, Montaigne encountered diverse cultures, leading him to challenge the ethnocentrism of his contemporaries. He argued against the notion of cultural superiority, emphasizing mutual respect and understanding. At his core, he was a humanist. He celebrated individual freedom, the dignity of each person, and the potential within every human being.

The men and women of the New World lived better before Columbus discovered them.

Montaigne had an idealized view of the New World, seeing it as closer to the natural state than the Old World. He believed that the closer one is to this natural state, the better.

He also expressed concerns about the possible imbalance arising from the convergence of two worlds at distinct developmental stages.

Montaigne held a skeptical view on progress, seeing history as a cycle rather than a straight line. Some of his ideas even seem to draw inspiration from Taoism.

Changing the state of things risks making it worse rather than better.

His skepticism led him to uphold traditions, even if they seemed arbitrary.

Montaigne encouraged returning to natural behavior, criticizing societal constructs that deviate from it. He denounced the cruelty he witnessed, particularly in religious wars, emphasizing the sanctity of life above all.

First published on July 19, 2023