An Introduction to Montaigne

October 20, 2010

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.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

13 responses to An Introduction to Montaigne

  1. Thank you, that was very clearly written. I lack focus and suffer doubt about the direction I’m taking in life, in attempting to balance filial duty and trying to find my passion and a calling in life. From your description, Montaigne seems to have chosen an immensely satisfying path without succumbing to self indulgence.

  2. Ryan,
    I posted the following over at Tim’s blog, but wanted to make sure you saw it, as well. Beyond that, with respect to this post, I definitely gravitate toward the idea that we are what we produce. It’s such a simple concept, and it has amazing power. The corollary might be this: if we produce nothing, we are nothing. A little extreme, and probably only correct in a very narrow sense, but still interesting to consider.

    Glad Tim put you on my radar.

    Comment posted to Tim’s blog in response to your guest post…
    I agree with everything Ryan has written here. I’d just like to add something that has been vastly useful to me in self-exploration. That is, gaining a knowledge of who we are as a species. In other words, what are we working with before we ever start the process of introspection? What tendencies, in terms of how we interpret reality and respond to it, are built in to our human minds?

    It turns out that our emotions were tuned – by natural selection – to get us to succeed socially. Not to succeed now, but tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was still evolving. Back when we were cavemen. It’s no wonder then that our ancient brain, when left on its own, has all sorts of problems in dealing with this modern world. What brought about social success back then – paying attention to status, mainly – can absolutely crush our ability to be happy if we let it.

    So a big part of our journey to improve ourselves has to be coming to grips with what our caveman mind is driving us toward, and then deciding – consciously – to accept that which makes sense and furthers our worthwhile desires, and to reject that which does not.

    I wrote the book on this concept. You can check it out at my site or you can grab it from amazon. Sorry for the plug, but this is so directly relevant to the topic here, I thought it might be excusable.

    Healing The Unhappy Caveman

  3. “Taking a long walk every now and then might be calming, but cumulatively, what is it building towards?”

    People take walks for a different reason, but for me they are not moments of introspection. Instead, they are meant to declutter my brain so when I get back to my home, I can focus on the task at hand. On my walks, I tend to forget everything going on in my mind and look at what surrounds me to “live in the moment.”

    I found your post on Montaigne at Tim’s blog extremely informative and am glad I was introduced to your work.

  4. Found your post(s) on Tim’s site and have really enjoyed them. Pragmatism at its finest! I just started readying some of your posts here and finding more of the same…very good reads. If you’re like Tim, you will appreciate some levity as well. I was reading your example from Montaigne about who really is the pet and when I saw this…well very fitting. You might even use it sometime in your illustrations.
    Great work Ryan!

  5. First, a big congratulations on your contribution to Tim’s blog. Super impressive, Ryan. Second, the idea of treating life as an experiment is near and dear to my heart. I wrote a short reply to your post at Tim’s blog, and a longer one at . Thanks so much for introducing me to the man, and for the fine essay.

  6. Loved your post on Tim’s blog. Thank you sincerely for introducing me to Montaigne.

  7. Ryan – delighted to have found you through Tim Ferriss.

    Thanks for introducing Montaigne to me – your article sparked lots of thoughts. I am sure this feeding of my brain will produce some fantastic results down the track!

  8. I was catching up on Tim Ferriss’ blog this morning and read this — I had no idea that the guy who emailed me banner design requests also writes articles like these. Nice job on breaking down Montaigne in a very concise and applicable manner. When I first read Montaigne as a college freshmen I didn’t have the patience to even digest the Wikipedia entry, but now your article has inspired me to give him another try.

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