What Do I Know? on Montaigne and the Art of Living

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, when the line between truth and madness, freedom, and injustice faded into nonexistence, writing was all one could do to maintain one last semblance of reality.

The Religious Wars of 16th-century France were one of these times, where being a Catholic or Protestant meant more than being a friend or neighbor.

Caught in between this brutal age, The French Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne did something it seems nobody else was capable of doing: he sought beauty in humanity.

He turned inward; he wrote.

What came were his Essais — individual works on life and death, on thought, on the joys of travel, friendship, and communication — but above all how to stay true to himself, “rester soi-meme.”

Montaigne’s sole purpose was to master the art of living.

He wrote his Essais as a spiritual guide to connect with his mind, body, and soul, not merely to endure the atrocities taking place, but to live.

My métier, my art, is to live,

Montaigne writes.

His work laid the foundation for what we consider the modern essay, comprised of 107 chapters of varying lengths and style, each with a specific theme.

Montaigne wasn’t writing to have his work published. Everything he penned was for him and him alone, to understand what remained within his soul.

Without uncovering what rests deep within us, the wind is free to pick us up and send us drifting like a leaf with no branch as an anchor, no spirit as a guide.

To take Montaigne’s teachings and apply them to our modern-day is to practice the supreme art of living — to know oneself.

 In doing so, we have the knowledge to make it through anything life puts in our way.

When we commit to discovering our essence, we can surrender and finally take a breath of fresh air.

We’re strong enough to feel the sea’s cold water on our skin and say I am alive.

Nothing can hurt us. We don’t try to impress; we don’t compare ourselves to others.

 We live light and free, not dwelling on the mistakes of yesterday, but letting them dissipate like footprints in the sand, faded away by the foam of the sea.

Neither the position in the world, the privilege of blood nor talent makes for the nobility of man,

Montaigne writes.

But solely the degree to which he strives to preserve his personality and to live his own life.

Stefan Zweig’s fantastic biography on Montaigne explores his perpetual quest for self-realization. By the time Montaigne was thirty-seven, his life had essentially meant serving others.

He had acted as a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgeux and the Parlement in Bordeaux; he had served as a courtier at the court of King Charles IX of France.

Then while away, he was elected Mayor of Bordeaux. Zweig writes: 

He has amassed experiences. Now, he wants to establish their meaning and harvest their flowerings.

Respected by both Catholic and Protestant nobility during the Religious Wars, the request was made of him time and time again to act as a voice of reason.

At that point, after giving so much of himself, Montaigne realized he didn’t know what himself meant.

He wasn’t solely the man awarded the collar of the Order of Saint Michael, the honor he’d always dreamt of receiving. He wasn’t just the mayor or the civil servant.

“Now Michel de Montaigne wants to know, who is Michel de Montaigne?” Zweig writes.

During his time serving at the Bordeaux Parlement, Montaigne became close with the humanist poet Étienne de la Boétie. Étienne died in 1563, and his death deeply shook Montaigne.

Without his dear friend to share his soul with, he began his Essais as a means of communication. The reader was now his friend. The reader was him.

After his years of civil service, Montaigne launched himself on a quest to leave his home in Aquitaine and experience all Europe had to offer.

He sought to unravel the truth of living through participation in society; he desired to explore the joys and struggles of the ordinary people he had served for so long.

Out of the art of living comes the art of travel,

Zweig writes.

Not a son and a citizen of any fixed place, but a citizen of the world, beyond any land or time.

There’s a sense of solitude when I walk alone through the streets of a new city.

I remember standing on a street corner in Dublin a few months ago, waiting for the crosswalk to change.

I met the eyes of a woman across the street, a local on the way home from work.

A large scarf wrapped around her neck and covered the lower half of her face like a snake.

What did she see on the other side of the street when she looked at me, I wondered?

Am I the same person I imagine myself to be?

When alone, the voices in our head coincide like the sun and the moon, battling one another for the sky’s command.

They ultimately seek harmony, as both are necessary to guide us through our days. Yet, the negative voice often has a way of overpowering the truth —  the light, the authentic me.

We fear solitude because we’re afraid of what’s in our minds; without the time to truly dig deep, ask questions, and learn to honor those voices, we will never really be free. 

The fear of silence holds us down, but we must face that time alone. We must turn those voices into our greatest motivators.

For Montaigne, the dialogue with the self is the highest level of art to be attained,

Zweig says.

In the freedom of the arts, let us begin with the one which makes us free.

We have the ultimate authority to dictate that dialogue, as we decide what thoughts to believe and which ideas to actualize. We choose to be courageous when we listen to our hearts and let it speak.

This is perhaps Montaigne’s most valuable lesson — communication is everything.

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” he says.

When religious wars ravaged all of Europe and turned neighbors against one another, Montaigne, the free spirit that he was, strove to find love in the world.

“To share is our duty; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.”

When we keep our thoughts inside of us, we make ourselves sick. If we continue moving forward and speak from our hearts, no matter what happens, we will be okay.

Time heals all; movement heals all.

When we become stagnant, confusion and fear set in. As we keep moving, no matter what people think, as we continue to let our souls breathe, the universe opens.

Through the communication of his soul and the writing of his Essais, Montaigne transcended the borders of countries and religious dogma — through better understanding himself, Montaigne could genuinely appreciate others.

Catholic or Huguenot, king or peasant, French, Italian, Swiss or German — it didn’t matter what title one held or what country one called home: Montaigne saw the beauty in all.

Montaigne was far ahead of his time. It seems he would fit better in a day like today, where we have the freedom to express ourselves and can tell our friends we cherish them.

But we don’t choose what period we call our own. 

Montaigne wrote his Essais not to become famous or wealthy. He simply did so to reflect and better relate with his people.

He longed to understand the subtlety of living, the art of every day, not one to endure — Montaigne wanted to live.

Books, people, cultures, cities, and history are all intertwined when we expand our scope and dig a bit deeper. We must learn from Montaigne and ask ourselves: Que sais-je?

What do I know?

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