Montaigne, a Light for Those Who Long to Know Their Deepest Self

Author and student of Stoicism Ryan Holiday recently put out a list of books to read in 2022. Rather than a book on the list, it was Holiday’s ultimate sentiment which ignited my soul:

We never read the same book twice,

Holiday writes in the article.

Because we’ve changed. The perceptions about the book have changed. What we’re going through in this very moment is new and different.

I’d just finished a beast of a book, Noble House by James Clavell. After somewhat of a grueling campaign, I took Holiday’s advice and re-visited one of my all-time favorite books, Montaigne, by Stefan Zweig.

The first time I read this short biography of the 16th-century French philosopher, writer, and father of the modern essay (which isn’t the five-paragraph soul-sucker) I — like Stefan Zweig, the author of the biography — deeply resonated with Montaigne’s primary mission in life: to master the art of living.

This isn’t necessarily the art of living well; rather, Montaigne, while caught in between the barbaric French Wars of Religion, sought to know himself as deeply as he possibly could. During his 1941–42 refuge in the hills of Petrópolis, Brazil, Zweig wrote of Montaigne:

Always, and more so when the peace of the soul and the liberty of the individual are threatened, the word and the wise encouragement of Montaigne are a godsend, for nothing protects us more than sincerity and humanity in times of confusion and disunity.

The world of Stefan Zweig during WWII, much like that of Montaigne, was tearing itself apart. Zweig, sensing the looming upheaval of Europe, left his homeland of Austria and traveled first to England and then to Brazil.

What must it have been like for Zweig to come across this revolutionary thinker? Imagine the scene where Zweig, perched above the jungle in his Petrópolis bungalow, uncovers a dusty volume of Montaigne’s Essais.

He’d been driven away from his homeland and his culture — in this foreign land, Zweig felt a kinship with Montaigne, the free spirit of another era, a brother of another world, an essential soul, who lives for all ages and all people. Zweig writes:

At any given moment, what he uttered centuries ago remains valuable and true for those who strive for independence. More than ever, we owe our knowledge to the ones who reinforce in us the sense of being human in an inhuman epoch like ours, those who exhort us not to abandon what is ours by right, what we cannot imagine losing, our deepest selves.

I write about Montaigne and Zweig during a far more humane age than they endured. Still, our modern world is in many aspects confused, uncertain, and disheartening. Perhaps we can learn from Montaigne, a man whose vital concern above all was to remain himself: rester soi-même.

In striving to know ourselves, we can then see others for what they are, individuals endeavoring just like you and me to find their soul in a much disjointed world. And then, we may begin to heal together.

Que sais-je? What do I know?

When I first read Montaigne, writing was only a hobby. I had just discovered a fledgling interest in philosophy.

Like Holiday states, our experience reading the same book will change over time, because what we’re going through, who we are, and what we hope to take away will always differ from when we read the book last.

The world has changed from what it was three years ago. We are in confusing times, just like that of Montaigne’s, and of Zweig’s. I am different now, as I’m sincerely seeking who I am, what I am, and how I may live a life that’s truly my own.

For a quest such as this, there’s no better figure to learn from than the man who embarked on a continual quest to answer the question: Que sais-je? What do I know? To me, this is the allure of Montaigne.

He wasn’t a philosopher eager to prove how much he knew. Rather, as Zweig writes:

He is only a philosopher in the manner of Socrates, whom he revered above all others because he left behind no dogma, no teachings, no law, no system, only an example: the man who seeks himself in all and who seeks all in himself.

This question, “what do I know?” formed the foundation for Montaigne’s Essais, French meaning to try or attempt, 107 chapters of various themes and styles penned for nobody but himself. He didn’t write to prove a point or impart knowledge. Montaigne’s pen served as the ship which embarked into the ocean of his soul.

We’ve been seeking the answer to the question, Who am I? since the beginning of time. It has become none easier, nor should we want it to be, to find the answer. But we can learn from those who have come before; their experiences navigating the complexities of the human soul shall make our quest a little easier.

Each of us is a single human being of nearly 8 billion; yet we are more complex than our solar system, stranger than what’s found in the depths of the sea. Renowned psychologist, author and speaker Jordan Peterson describes the human enigma in his personality lecture series:

There are more patterns of connections between neurons in your brain than there are subatomic particles in the universe, by a substantial margin. So it’s not unreasonable to point out that you’re the most complicated thing we know of by many orders of magnitude. And the probability that you can understand yourself in anything approaching totality is extraordinarily low.

It’s doubtful Montaigne knew this; but he felt something, a calling to understand, a desire to find the good in himself and the world, despite its apparent crumbling.

Montaigne lived during the inhuman French Wars of Religion, which pitted French Huguenots — essentially Protestants after the 1517 Protestant Reformation — against Catholics. Yet it seemed there were no sides, only sheer bloodshed everywhere one looked.

This makes Montaigne’s maxim even more unbelievable.

The potential of you

For most of his life, Montaigne devoted himself to the state in France’s Bordeaux Parliament. But in 1570, he felt the need to part with public life. He sequestered himself in his library to read, write, and discover who Michel de Montaigne truly was.

Thus, he began his Essais. Zweig writes:

But now comes the year 1580. For ten years, he has remained sequestered in his tower, cut off from the world, and he imagines that this is how he will end his days. But now he realizes his error, or rather his errors. The first was to believe himself old at thirty-eight, to prepare himself for death prematurely and to inter himself alive. Now at forty-eight, he notes with surprise that his senses have not declined, that on the contrary they are more lucid, his thought is more illumined, his soul more serene, more voracious, more eager.

Montaigne set out on a quest to see the world, albeit one that was up in flames. If, he believed, he didn’t expose himself to the unfamiliar, he’d never know who Michel de Montaigne really was.

As Jordan Peterson discusses in the previously mentioned lecture series, to leave what you know and to enter the unknown is to change, to adapt, to grow:

There’s a potential inside you, whatever inside means. Some of it is genetic potential, and we know that because if we move you into a new environment new genes will turn on inside of you and manufacture new parts of you. So if you push yourself out into the world, you can incorporate information from the exploration.
That’s a Piagetian idea (Jean Piaget). But what Piaget didn’t realize was that it also transforms your biological structure at a microscopic level, merely as the consequence of being put into that new situation. So the idea is that there’s more to you than you know, and the way you call it out is by challenging yourself voluntarily in as many directions as you can manage.
Confronting the unfamiliar

Again, it’s doubtful that Montaigne sought the unknown because he was consciously trying to alter his genes.

The unknown beckoned. Montaigne felt a calling, and he left. The man loved life in all of its multifaceted dimensions; he simply longed to explore.

Perhaps the second reason for his departure was that he knew there was only so much he could learn from books. He had to leave home to appreciate the common thread which weaves together our human experience. Zweig writes:

It is not only the ‘I’ the self which Montagne seeks. But at the same time the human. He lucidly pinpoints what in each man is common to all and what is unique: personality, essence, a complex mixture incomparable to all others. And alongside runs the common human element, where each of these limited frail beings resembles the other, obligated to mighty laws, trapped in the span between birth and death. He searches, then, on two distinct paths.

This theme has inspired me profoundly since reading Montaigne for the first time. No matter who you are, there is some underlying truth between us, a common thread that makes us human, which, just as much as our differences, shall be celebrated.

Perhaps to master the art of living is to continuously seek what makes us individual, to cultivate passions, a sense of self, and a love for oneself. But to act as if we are so different as to look down on other human beings — to act as if there isn’t the very same light inside each of us — that is to lose touch with humanity and our reason for existence.

We are alive for each other.

The discovery of the self and the cultivation of our common humanity must go hand in hand. Montaigne knew this.

His greatest joy in every place is to encounter new people: unfamiliar people and unfamiliar customs. Wherever he goes he seeks out people of all different types. With each, he tries to discovery what is their gibier, or as we might say, passion.
What does it mean to be free?

Perhaps it’s impossible to be completely free. We are shaped by our culture, our family, our country; we are part of a whole that continues to change with each passing era.

But what better purpose can one devote themselves to in this short time on earth than discovering what it means to be an individual, to question those norms, to seek not only what makes us the same in friendship and community, but what makes you different?

What better journey than to explore what it means to live in this day and age — how to fit into it, add color to it, make it yours?

With Montaigne as a guide, we may take one fearless step after the last, braving the pressures, the norms, and the tumults of our age just as every individual has before.

What calls us forth won’t lose its luster, like the promise of fame or wealth. What calls us forth on the journey of our lives is a simple question: what do I know? Ask, embark, and cherish the quest that has no end.

Holiday was right; I’m glad I revisited my dear friend Montaigne. As Zweig writes:

He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom on earth.
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