How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne


In her insightful biography of the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell draws from Montaigne a variety of practical guidelines for graceful and authentic living. I have embellished her summary of his counsel and hope you will find the timeless wisdom of Montaigne inspiring:

Don’t worry about death; you won’t be there anyway. It’s good to reflect upon our mortality from time to time but not to be so obsessed with it that we fail to live our life fully and freely each day. The knowledge of our own death may even motivate us to seize the day since we do not know how long we will be traveling upon this earthly sojourn. Who knows whether perhaps we can leave some small legacy that will continue to enrich the lives of others? And even if not, we can do little better to savor and cherish the gift of life, letting that be our example for others to follow.

Pay attention. Cultivate a sense of wonder. Notice small things that others tend to overlook.

Be born. Well, think about it. What an extraordinary luck of the draw that you get to be here for a while to experience life in all its ineffable mystery and in all its wild and crazy diversity.

Read a lot. Forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted. Practice second naiveté.  Read widely rather than in narrow trenches. Make connections between what you read. Don’t confuse reading with  lived experience. Both are valuable in different ways.

Survive love and loss. Don’t let these experiences break your spirit or kill your soul. Let them deepen you and give your experience a richer and darker hue.

Use little tricks. Find ways to get yourself out of a royal funk. Stay engaged in life and savor the simple pleasures that you find most delightful and fulfilling.

Question everything. Don’t by ruled by the conventional thinking and conformist habits of others. March to your own drumbeat. Dare to ask the questions that no one wants to talk about. Point out the elephant standing in the living room. Stay curious about life, even if others are not. Cultivate an active imagination and find new ways to solve old problems.

Keep a private room behind the shop. Take time for silence, solitude, contemplation and reflection. Know how to enjoy spending time alone with yourself. Don’t run away from yourself by keeping perpetually busy or distracting yourself with superficial amusements. In your  times of solitude seek to listen to the deepest part of yourself and overhear the inner dialogue that may be the voice of wisdom. Don’t be worried about mere appearances and impression management. Be as real and authentic as you can possibly be.

Be convivial: live with others. Seek out opportunities for friendship, camaraderie, conversation and dialogue. Have a good sense of human and learn how to tell an amusing story. Get along with others and make friends easily.

Wake from the sleep of habit. Realize that while we need habits to regulate our daily routines that this can lead to mindless complacency and a loss of self-awareness. Ask yourself what you are doing at this moment any why, and whether this is really what your life to be about.

Live temperately. Avoid excesses that lead to addiction. Moderate your pleasures. Learn to enjoy life’s many delights without craving and grasping. Think temperately. Free your mind from excessive, manic, obsessive and compulsive thoughts. Remain open and receptive to counter-balance points of view. Maintain some critical distance from your own pet ideas.

Guard your humanity. Don’t let others terrify or manipulate you. Recognize propaganda in its many guises. Question authority. Challenge those who would do your thinking for you and force you to conform to rigid dogmas and ideologies.

Do something no one has done before. Find your own unique voice.

See the world. Appreciate cultural diversity. Travel widely. Meet people from different parts of the world. Practice hospitality with strangers. Learn from everyone you meet.

Do a good job, but not too good a job or you’ll never have a moment of peace to follow your bliss.

Philosophize but only by accident, or else be an organic intellectual who stays close to the plurality, ambiguity, ironies and paradoxes of lived experience rather than obsessing like a professional academic over abstract systematic consistency.

Reflect on everything; regret nothing; everything you experience in life is a potential learning experiences, including disappointments, defeats, humiliations and failures.

Give up control; you never really had it anyway since life is contingent to circumstances that are beyond your control.

Be ordinary and imperfect; give up on needing to prove yourself to be extraordinary and perfect since the world consists of ordinary people who sometimes surprise us by doing extraordinary things.

Let life be its own answer rather than having the whole thing figured out in advance. live the questions. Learn to be happily at ease in the presence of Mystery and uncertainties, without irratability, rather than needing to “know it all.” Remember that the more knowlege increases the more Mystery abounds.


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