An Introduction to Montaigne

My post on Montaigne is up on Tim Ferriss’s site and it’s called “The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne.”

What I tried to do within the limitations of the opportunity was briefly introduce an immensely complex and curious guy and his unusual job. My premise is that Montaigne was Montaigne for a living. Eventually the world came to see this as a worthwhile occupation and rewarded him handsomely for it, both during his lifetime and in the centuries since. I have had a long fascination with people who are able to successfully do this—going back to the article I wrote about Tucker my freshman year of college that opened so many doors for me. In it, I quoted a line from Hunter S. Thompson that applies as much to Tucker as it did to Thompson and as it does to Montaigne. That myths and legends die hard in America (or anywhere) because they let people know that the tyranny of the rat race is not yet final.

The metaphor is something we can apply to our own lives, even if we cannot do it at the scale of the examples above. For instance, Montaigne famously held that his book and himself were one. Well, it extends that a book is a work—a project—just as we are. We ought to have goals such as a start date and an approximate conclusion in mind. But also, like a good author, we should not be afraid to let inspiration bubble up and explore what seems to pour from our fingertips. Follow where the story takes us. My essays and I are one. My [company, job, website etc] and I are one. Either works so long as it is your calling. But never lose sight of these projects that these are endless, ongoing works. Works that can’t be taken too seriously because they can in turn be taken from us at any moment.

The nice thing about Montaigne is that his lessons queue up almost every other philosophical school. For example, the extension of his self-study is the Stoic notion of “learning the backroads of the self.” Yet, he was equally Epicurean in his focus on pleasure and happiness despite the general bleakness of France at the time. Somehow his epistemological humility manages to satisfy both the Skeptics and Christianity. The point is that when you model yourself as a self-funded, self-employed, self-centered project you instantly become platform agnostic. All that matters is what is real and what has practical application to your life.

That is why Montaigne is so special. It also makes him timely and interestingly connected to Tim and Seth Robert’s work on self-experimentation. However, one thing I learned from Peter Burke’s book on Montaigne is to avoid the tendency to remark about “how modern he seems.” The fact of the matter is that many of Montaigne’s most well known practices can be found in his contemporaries, from essaying on the works of other authors to meditating about himself. One great example, which I have read and do recommend is the The Autobiography of Girolamo Cardano.

I think the final (and most overlooked) lesson from Montaigne is that self-study is important, but utterly worthless without tangible results to show for it. Out of Montaigne’s retirement from public life came not only a better understanding of himself, but nearly a thousand pages of it in writing that he could refer back to whenever he needed it. This is why I made keeping a commonplace book a main point of the article. Taking a long walk every now and then might be calming, but cumulatively, what is it building towards? Ourselves is an occupation, not a casual commitment. We must work at it, create insight and wisdom from it and then in turn plow that capital back into more to work at. In other words, philosophy is not just spending a lot of time inside your own head but articulating what you find there, fleshing it out and turning it into something. This is what Montaigne was and continues to be peerless at.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.