A great biography of the original essayist Michel de Montaigne from the 1500’s, it also explores his philosophical questions. I loved learning about Pyrrhonian Skepticism.
“How to live?” : This is not the same as the ethical question, “How should one live?”
Writing about oneself creates a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity.
How to live a good life - meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.
This question drove him both to write and to read, for he was curious about all human lives, past and present.
He wondered constantly about the emotions and motives behind what people did.
And since he was the example closest to hand of a human going about its business, he wondered just as much about himself.
In place of abstract answers, Montaigne tells us what he did in each case, and what it felt like when he was doing it. He provides all the details we need to make it real.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Essayer: firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight.
Death was a topic of which the ancients never tired.
To philosophize is to learn how to die.
Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, not worth wasting any anxiety over.
Retiring = leaving the mainstream of life in order to begin a new, reflective existence, of freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.
To live for himself rather than for duty.
Seneca repeatedly urged his fellow Romans to retire in order to “find themselves.”
Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.
To see the world exactly as you did half an hour ago is impossible.
Most of Montaigne’s thought consists of a series of realizations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.
The event benefited him in exactly the areas where it also damaged him, as happens with much early life experience.
Every experience can be a learning opportunity: “a page’s prank, a servant’s blunder, a remark at table.”
The child should learn to question everything: to “pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust.”
Traveling is useful; so is socializing, which teaches the child to be open to others and to adapt to anyone he finds around him.
Eccentricities should be ironed out early, because they make it difficult to get on with others.
A perfect gentleman: independent of mind yet able to mold himself to society when necessary.
Quietly withdraw cooperation.
Opt out of public life rather than engaging with it.
They use their friends as less a person than a sort of philosophical technique.
Visualize him as an ever-present audience, in order to hold oneself to his exalted standards.
Tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life. The three most famous such systems of thought were Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism: the philosophies collectively known as Hellenistic. They differed in details, but were so close in essentials as to be hard to distinguish. All the schools had the same aim: to achieve eudaimonia, thriving, relishing life, being a good person. They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia maintaining an even keel.
Epicurus required followers to leave their families and live like cult members in a private garden.
Skeptics preferred to remain amid the public hurly-burly like everyone else, but with a radically altered mental attitude.
Stoics were somewhere in between.
Stoic and Epicurean thinkers spent much time devising techniques and thought experiments.
For example: imagine that today is the last day of your life.
Shifts of attitude are the purpose of many of the thought experiments.
A different angle produces a different emotion.
If you feel tired of everything you possess, pretend that you have lost all these things and are missing them desperately.
Faced with the idea of losing something now, you realize its value.
Uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view.
This trick underlies many of the other tricks. Attend to the inner world - and thus also to the outer world.
Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, can never be bored with life.
Respond to situations in the right way.
Approach this goal mainly through rehearsal and meditation.
Rehearsal to carve grooves of habit.
Stoics were especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.
Epicureans were more inclined to turn their vision away from terrible things, to concentrate on what was positive.
A Stoic behaves like a man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites an opponent to punch them.
An Epicurean prefers to invite no punches, and, when bad things happen, simply to step out of the way.
Montaigne found the Epicurean approach more congenial.
Montaigne's trick was to absorb La Boétie into himself, as a kind of ghost or secret sharer.
He might not have written the Essays had he had “someone to talk to.”
He had to stage his and La Boétie’s dialogue within himself.
This book he hated stimulated him as grit stimulates an oyster.
Thinking, “But … but …,” and even “No! No!”
It forced him to analyze his own ideas.
Pyrrhonian Skepticism: “All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”
Stoicism and Epicureanism teach you to prepare for life’s difficulties, to pay attention, to develop good habits of thought, and to practice therapeutic tricks on yourself.
Skepticism always wants to see proof.
Skepticism doubts things that other people take at face value.
Skepticism says nothing in life need be taken seriously. Pyrrhonism does not even take itself seriously.
Socrates’s remark: “All I know is that I know nothing.” Pyrrhonian Skepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, “and I’m not even sure about that.”
Having stated its one philosophical principle, it turns in a circle and gobbles itself up, leaving only a puff of absurdity.
Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single phrase: “I suspend judgment.”
This phrase conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes.
In brings mental calm. One cannot know the answer and feels it doesn’t matter, so one’s nonengagement causes no distress.
Attain a condition of relaxation about everything.
Pyrrho renounced the pretension of “regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth.”
To every account, there appears to be opposed another account, equal to it in convincingness or lack of convincingness.
He noticed himself changing an opinion from one extreme to the other, or shifting from emotion to emotion within seconds.
Montaigne’s talent: being able to slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment.
Nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion.
Become wise at our own expense.
It makes everything more complicated and more interesting.
He never tired of boggling his own mind.
He had a deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorized, what is mysterious.
He took pleasure in his memory lapses, for they reminded him of his failings and saved him from the error of insisting that he was always right.
Tales of animal cleverness and sensitivity demonstrated that human abilities were far from exceptional, and indeed that animals do many things better than we do.
Montaigne did his thinking in a richly populated environment, full of objects, books, animals, and people.
Descartes needed motionless withdrawal.
Pascal sums up Montaigne’s Pyrrhonian argument, or lack of it: “He puts everything into a universal doubt, and this doubt is so widespread that it becomes carried away by its very self. That is to say, he doubts whether he doubts, and doubting even this last proposition, his uncertainty goes around in an endless and restless circle. He contradicts both those who maintain that all is uncertainty, and those who maintain it is not, because he does not want to maintain anything at all. Montaigne is “so advantageously positioned in this universal doubt that he is equally strengthened both in success and defeat.” You can feel the frustration: how can anyone fight such an opponent? Yet one must. It is a moral duty, for otherwise doubt will carry everything away like a great flood: the world as we know it, human dignity, our sanity.
Montaigne hovered over Pascal’s writing as his ever-present enemy and coauthor.
Skepticism makes him celebrate imperfection.
On the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.
At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.
Distrust godlike ambitions.
Accept that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition.
Something else drives people periodically to smash their achievements to pieces.
It is what Freud called the thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos.
Those living through the present assume that things are worse than they are, because they cannot escape their local perspective.
Zweig knew that Montaigne disliked preaching, yet he managed to extract a series of general rules from the Essays.
The eight freedoms:
Be free from vanity and pride.
Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties.
Be free from habit.
Be free from ambition and greed.
Be free from family and surroundings.
Be free from fanaticism.
Be free from fate; be master of your own life.
Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.
Pyrrhonian principle: lend your ears to everyone and your mind to no one.
It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. They were inclined to “a silly and decrepit pride, a tedious prattle, prickly and unsociable humors, superstition, and a ridiculous concern for riches.”
By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kind of wisdom after all.
Answer given by the Zen master who, when asked, “What is enlightenment?” whacked the questioner on the head with a stick Enlightenment is something learned on your own body: it takes the form of things happening to you.
This is why the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics taught tricks rather than precepts.
All philosophers can offer is that blow on the head: a useful technique, a thought experiment, or an experience.
Chapter titles are answers to "How to Live?"
1. Don’t worry about death
2. Pay attention
3. Be born
4. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
5. Survive love and loss
6. Use little tricks
7. Question everything
8. Keep a private room behind the shop
9. Be convivial: live with others
10. Wake from the sleep of habit
11. Live temperately
12. Guard your humanity
13. Do something no one has done before
14. See the world
15. Do a good job, but not too good a job
16. Philosophize only by accident
17. Reflect on everything; regret nothing
18. Give up control
19. Be ordinary and imperfect
20. Let life be its own answer