The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

237 Comments


Que sais je? (Photo: BLT)

This is a guest post by Ryan Holiday.

At age 21, Ryan became Director of Marketing at American Apparel, the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. He gets more done than five average people combined, and practical philosophies help to make it possible. His previous post, entitled Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs, has nearly 300 comments.

In this post, Ryan introduces another of his guiding mentors, the fascinating (and practical) Michel de Montaigne…

Enter Ryan Holiday

In late 1569, Michel de Montaigne was given up as dead after being flung from a galloping horse.

As his friends carried his limp and bloodied body home, he watched life slip away from his physical self, not traumatically but almost flimsily, like some dancing spirit on the “tip of his lips,” and then return. This sublime experience marked the moment Montaigne began a uniquely playful relationship with his existence and was a sense clarity and euphoria about life that he carried with him from that point forwards. Shortly thereafter he took a bold step, retiring from a promising public career—retired to himself, so to speak—and made self-study his official occupation.

Maybe you don’t know anything about this man, Montaigne; perhaps you know him as the bane of your high school existence for inventing the word “essay.” What I’d like to do in this piece is tell you a bit more about him and hopefully remove him from the realm of people-from-history-you-don’t-care-about and place him in his proper context: as our greatest philosopher of life. And Montaigne was a philosopher in the truest sense; he studied life and how we can wring all that we can from the short bit of time each of us is given. Philosophy can seem boring—truthfully, most of it is—but Montaigne is not only incredibly accessible; just a brush with his brand of thinking can change our lives.

Montaigne’s famous collection of essays ruminates on diverse topics, covering everything from South American cannibalism and animal cognition to Seneca and death. The topics he chose to write about were just jumping-off points, exercises to practice thinking and to discover thoughts he didn’t know that he had. His brand of ceaseless curiosity and self-reflection is something we can learn much from, starting by internalizing his biggest breakthrough.

The Big Idea: Ourselves As A Job

It is easy to become detached from what we do, especially if what we do is predatory, meaningless or boring.

Tim has written extensively about extracting yourself from the mindset of obsessing over your jobs, but the reality is that he and Montaigne transcended this identity crisis by becoming the subject and the end of their own labors. They wake up each day and work on themselves. Seems unrealistic for most of us, doesn’t it? How would we make a living?

Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surpluses looks at the fact that the average American spends 20 hours a week watching TV, or about as much as a part-time job. This time, he says, could be better allocated for great collaborative projects, like Wikipedia. But what if we break out of the paradigm of “giving away” our time? In the early 1570s, Montaigne converted a tower on his property into a personal library where he showed up and worked (thinking) part of each and every day—just like a farmer or a banker or scientist would.

What we could accomplish personally if, like Montaigne, we spent those 20 hours (whether usually spent on news sites, games, or Lost episodes) examining ourselves and learning what makes us tick?

The convergence of self-improvement and his occupation is best shown in an anecdote between Montaigne and King Henry III of France. After Montaigne had published his essays to great acclaim, the King remarked to him that he liked them very much. Montaigne replied, “Then your majesty must like me.” Later, he wrote, “I have achieved what I wanted: everyone recognizes me in my book and my book in me.” We would be proud if we could say the same.

3 Things We Can Learn From Montaigne

1) Self-Experimentation and Observation

The most striking feature of Montaigne’s essays is his observations. They range from incisive to funny to world-altering. One of his most famous essays is a bit of all three. As he played with his cat one day, he asked himself, who was there to amuse who? In other words, which one of them was really the pet?

This is his penchant for finding perspective in the strangest of places and it was something he had much practice at. Montaigne wrote that “having myself since boyhood to see my life reflected in other people’s…I study [them] for what I should avoid or what I should imitate.” It didn’t stop at observation; he was constantly experimenting on himself trying to figure out what he liked or didn’t like. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in French his word “essay” also means “trial.” And these weren’t idle diversions. He practiced this art to learn how to live.

Montaigne once used the analogy of a man with a bow and arrow to illustrate the importance of meditation and analysis. You have to know what you’re aiming for before it is even worth bothering with the process of preparing the bow, nocking the arrow and letting go. Our projects, he said, “go astray because they are not addressed to a target.” The idea is that an intimate knowledge of ourselves makes it possible (and easier!) to know what we need to do on a daily basis. He advised us to meditate on our lives in general, in order to properly arrange our day to day actions.

2) Keep a Commonplace Book

Montaigne kept what was known as a “commonplace book” or a hand-written compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts.

The idea was that over a lifetime of reading, one can cumulatively amass a fantastic resource of wisdom—wisdom that can be accessed in times of crisis, depression or joy. This doesn’t mean we treat reading like a high school history class where rote memorization is important. Montaigne once teased the writer Erasmus, who was known for his dedication to reading scholarly works, by asking with heavy sarcasm “Do you think he is searching in his books for a way to become better, happier, or wiser?” In Montaigne’s mind, if he wasn’t, it was all a waste. A commonplace book is a way to keep our learning priorities in order. It motivates us to look for and keep only the things we can use.

3) Que sais je? (Don’t take yourself too seriously)

You’d think that Montaigne, as he grew older and more practiced, would have become more certain, more sure of himself. In fact, the more he studied, the more frequently he found himself asking his most famous question: “Que sais je?” or “What do I know?” The answer to the rhetorical question is, “Nothing.” Montaigne practiced the Skeptic’s notion of questioning what he “knew” and deliberately threw his assumptions into doubt.

By building up tolerance to uncertainty, he not only better suited himself for life in chaotic civil war-era France but primed his mind for tackling the big questions that don’t have easy answers. For a second, consider of all our major public thinkers today. They do the opposite, constantly telling how sure they are of their beliefs and criticizing their “opponents” for changing their minds. Changing your mind is a good thing, Montaigne would say. It means you’ve resisted the impulse to think you’re infallible. He wrote that as part of his profession of getting to know himself he found such “boundless depths and variety that [his] apprenticeship bears no other fruit than to make me know much there remains to learn.” If only we could internalize that attitude—instead of feeling cocky when we learn something, acknowledge that it really just taught us how much more we need to learn.

Conclusion

Don’t fool yourself with excuses about being too busy to do any of this. During the course of writing his essays, Montaigne served two terms as mayor, traveled internationally as a dignitary and was a confidante of the King. He never let any of that stop him from his real job:

“The world always looks straights ahead; as for me, I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him: as for me, I look inside me: I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others…they always go forward; as for me, I roll about in myself.”

Montaigne is a special philosophical figure because he didn’t subscribe to one school of thought. Instead, he subscribed to all of them. He was willing to take bits and pieces from anywhere, as long as they had practical application to his life. This was why he tirelessly observed and experimented, jotted down useful notes in his commonplace and repeatedly asked “am I sure about this?”

He worked on and for himself—a true free agent—and the three tools above were how he did it.

###

Further Reading & Tips:

My Favorite Three Essays by Montaigne:
On Experience
Of Cannibals
To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die

This GoodReads collection of quotes is also a good entry point into his thinking.

Books and Related:
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (AMAZING)
Montaigne, philosopher of life (Bakewell’s 7-part series on Montaigne in The Guardian)
The Essays: A Selection by Montaigne (I prefer Penguin’s translation. Favorite essay: On Experience)
Montaigne by Peter Burke (a short but good biography)
Philosophy As A Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot (The best resource on practical philosophy, period.)

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237 comments on “The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

  1. Very random question but I’m curious, If you had only 2,000 dollars to spend how would you try and turn a sizeable profit, a website with an affiliate offer, SEO business, Ebay, offline business?? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Thank you

    Chris

  2. Montaigne is good and I totally agree with his philosophy and what Ryan said. But inevitabelly there is this question that pops in the back of my head:”what for?” Since we are all going to go under the crust of this earth sooner or later. What is the ultimate use of all that learning? And since I still pursue my will to knowledge and experiences anyway, I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory answer to this question. Anyone up to the challenge?

  3. My commonplace book is still my Bell Labs lab book from 1991 – the amount of wisdom I’ve gathered over the years makes for great inspirational reading whenever I want to leap to a different direction.

    Makes remembering much much easier…

  4. I guess the modern version would be the commonplace blog where part time philosophers and wisdom seekers come together and chat about interesting out of the box topics. Kind of like this one.

  5. Hi Tim or whoever looks after these comments for you ;)

    Just wanted to say hooray to me – I have been building an online information business for about 18 months (and renovating the bathroom, working full time and being pretty pregnant). It hasnt been that hard because I am passionate about the subject, and could tick some of the specialist boxes to start with. I did a soft a launch 4 weeks ago and am now already getting some word of mouth / blogs linked, industry magazine exposure.

    I have always travelled, lived lightly and worked fairly efficiently (when you look at the output), but the tips in your book let me take it to that next level, and make me get off my butt and start my own business…… and focus on working less hours for the boss than giving more and more output for no more pay, recognition etc. So a big hooray for you too – thanks!

    PS Yes aI have a book – its a to do book with everything from that day, to my core values, to builders numbers to quotes and good references. My partner and I brainstorm on whiteboards – which is daggy but enables us to change tack faster than words on paper.

  6. The part about learning for self improvement and practicality is where I agree with the most. I had a hard time with school reading because of the memorization and non-practicality of things learned. Sounds like Montaigne was a brilliant man.

  7. I love the idea of a “commonplace book”. Nothing beats hand-writing notes, quotes and ideas. The old-fashioned act of writing seems to get the creative juices flowing better than anything else, for me.

    Indexing is a stroke of genius and renders that mass of information much more useful and accessible.

    Not sure who said it first but,

    ” Ideas are like fish; if you don’t get a pencil through them, they swim away.”

  8. Nice post Tim and Ryan.

    “instead of feeling cocky when we learn something, acknowledge that it really just taught us how much more we need to learn.”

    Reminds me of something i learnt years ago:

    “The learned learn to humble, like destitute before the rich;
    Only the low never learn.”

    “Learn thoroughly what should be learnt.
    And having learnt, stand according to that.”

    -Thiruvalluvar

    Is one of the greatest philosophers of his time (about 2000 yrs approx). He wrote the book Thirukkural which is a 3 part book of Virtue,Wealth and Love.
    Has 1330 couplets in Tamil script each exactly 7 words only in length and straight to the point.

    One of the best English translations: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=5crolhkjigUC&lpg=PP1&dq=thirukkural&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Or a decent online version: http://nvkashraf.co.cc/nvashraf/kur-eng/closeindex.htm

    Although the book involves a lot of kingship, it is very timeless.

  9. I began writting my thoughts and ideas into a moleskine that I use to bring with me everywhere,and it has helped me not only to know and understand better my own,but all the people around me:family,friends,coworkers… I’m less stressed now!!! I recomend you.

  10. Using yourself as an experiment and your life as a laboratory is one of the most fun things you can do.

    I just finished a one-month experiment with Paleo eating.
    (inspired by the post here a month ago)

    Pondering and debating ideas is good, but actually trying things is what gives you knowledge. Lifestyle design is all about the experiment.

    The Paleo-eating experiment was a big success by the way, although I also experimented with some modifications.

    I look forward to examining my life deeper still.
    Thank you,
    Ian

      • Wayne-
        I found the Paleo eating to have some interesting effects.
        My blood sugar and moods became very even.
        This was quite pleasant.
        Hunger without feeling crazy was a neat change.
        I no longer felt bloated.
        I lost 4 lbs (which was alot considering I weighed in at 163 lbs.)
        I staggered my diet this way-
        Weeks 1 and 2 – No grains or beans (but still eating some sugar and dairy)
        Week 3 – I cut out sugar
        Week 4 – I cut out dairy
        A great experiment that I will continue to tinker with.
        Mahalo,
        Ian

  11. You are right I did recall this guy from high school and he has been completely out of mind for many years.

    I have never kept my own common place book but I often buy books of quotes. When needing a quote I seldom look at them, rather I recall something and search it out on the internet.

  12. Tim, I know you’re probably sick of seeing my face in the comments :P

    …but I just wanted to say that I am in London and I’m going to meet with my favourite artist in the entire world (Travis McCoy)!! But btw, I saw your new book in an article here that said that the 4HB is about you trying to achieve the perfect pecs… True or not true?

    Un abrazo

    Yanjaa :)

  13. Welcome to the Experiment-Driven Life, Ryan! I loved your essay; thanks for the introduction to a profound thinker – you got my brain going. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart (I’m writing a book on it (working title, “Think, Try, Learn, A scientific method for discovering happiness”). To save space I put my full response to your points at http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2010/10/24/michel-de-montaigne-and-the-experiment-driven-life.html

    At the meta level, you’ve introduced your readers to the growing self-tracking movement, and it’s really exciting. People are collecting data and getting insights into themselves and the world across all domains – there are gadgets and mobile apps for everything from tracking weight, to sleep, to how much power you use, to reading, to sex. (Preferably not all at once, though – bad science :-) In addition to Seth Roberts – the quintessential self-experimenter you mention on your blog (check out Will Butter Make You Smarter? – http://www.kk.org/quantifiedself/2010/10/will-butter-make-you-smarter-i.php) – your readers may want to know about the Quantified Self blog at http://www.kk.org/quantifiedself/. It’s hosted by senior Wired.com editor Kevin Kelly and by Gary Wolf, who wrote The Data-Driven Life in the NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html).

    Thanks again, and happy experimenting!

    matt

    (Note: For the intrepid reader I found his complete ‘Essais’ online at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/montaigne/m-essays_contents.html. Studying this would certainly spend down your cognitive surplus.)

  14. Commonplace book is an awesome thing. I took mine and fast forwarded to the future and put all my notes on a wordpress blog. I take notes from books I read, stuff I learn from others and from experiences, personal thoughts and photos and put it up on the web.

  15. Ryan,

    Thanks for the great advice. I keep a common place book in the form of a single google doc. I think if I printed it out now it would be over 30 pages long. :) Thanks for the post.

  16. Tim,

    Allowing time for self improvement and serendipity, browsing a bookstore last night in my case, allowed me to connect with a stranger over one of my favorite books: the 4HWW.

    After overhearing a guy on his cellphone recommend the 4HWW to a friend, I decided to approach him and chat about the book.

    It didn’t take long for him to hear about how the book transformed my life (going from unemployed in my parents basement to world traveler and successful entrepreneur) to realize he wasn’t alone in lifestyle design.

    I just want to thank you for writing the book that launched by new and improved life.

    Best,
    Brian

  17. Ryan,

    Thanks for the post. I really resonate with the idea of cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky expresses. I first bumped into him online when an old college friend recommended his TED talk. When Shirky used Wikipedia as a metric, and started expressing things in “Wikipedias” it really put things in perspective. No matter what we decide to use the time for, when we start actually analyzing what can be achieved with the time we already have at our disposal, it’s quite revealing.

    My wife and I have successfully avoided the 9-5 grind for the past 4 years, opting instead to work on personal projects, and “crazy” ideas (everything from real-estate investment, to a few web projects and running a fairly successful video production business, to my wife’s first book deal and advance, and now her second).

    The hardest part for us has been losing the social aspect of the work place. I find that working on our own ideas can be quite exhausting, and we can get sick of hearing our own voices all day. We’re in a rather small town, and have some close friends, but it’s hard to find people who are like minded when it comes to some of these ideas. All of our closest friends are at work during the day and have other responsibilities at night. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of going back to the 9-5 grind even if only for the social interaction.

    So in some ways we kinda have the problem of ALWAYS thinking about ourselves as a job, constantly surrounded by our work/life because it seems to be one and the same now. Any suggestions for how to avoid that?

    Tim,

    OT – I notice with your articles you use photos from Flickr and attribute them. I’ve actually been working with a few friends on Wylio, a startup that reduces the number of steps it takes to get a Creative Commons Flickr photo onto a blog post.

    We currently have a working prototype online and since you’re a blogging heavyweight, I would love to get between two and five words of your feedback on it if you have a few seconds to spare.

  18. Thank you !
    I found just the inspiration and food for thought I needed with this post – and your blog. which I discovered after watching your TED talk and have been browsing ever since.

    as a non-bloggess and non-American I usually do not comment, so I hope you don’t mind my “seizing the moment” to do it now to thank you.
    Blogs like yours (possible because of the www) have become my preferred tool for self-coaching in a process of “working on and for me” I started two years ago (and dedicate most of my free time to).
    An exciting and joyful journey.

    And you inspired me also to continue my collection of bon-mots/aphorismen in a “commonplace book”.

    And I always stop to smell the flowers and watch the sun set ;-)

    Cheerio & all the best,
    Angelika

  19. SR. FERRISS:

    Actualmente, estoy leyendo tu libro, eres increible, revolucionario, tengo 22años y hoy me has dado una respuesta, como hace 7 años me la dio R. Kiyosaki con Rich dad poor dad..
    No se si conoscas esta palabra: Chingon… eso es lo que eres, te felicito.

    Algun dia prometo invitarte un coffe o un TEQUILA ( La cerveza no me gusta)..
    si, cuando te alcance y estemos al nivel..
    En la cima del Mundo…

    Un abrazo..

    David.
    Guadalajara, Mexico

  20. taleb is a big fan of the 4hww

    so am I

    80/20 is the way, about such things, ‘what is important, what can i delegate and should I go have a walk in the park now ?’ this is the killer question you have to ask yourself each day :)

  21. The “incredible sex” tagline on your new book strikes me as a marketing hook, rather than a true result.

    After all, you have self confessed being single for years now. And sex is not that incredible without true intimacy.

    Then again, perhaps it was incredible for you, but did you ask the lady? :)

  22. This is a great post. I think keeping a notebook on inspiration quotes and sayings from great speakers and thinkers is an excellent idea, as it will always give you a reference back to people who have made it in life, and you can take many things from even small quotes, but collectively they will provide you with a sense of belief in yourself and what we as humans are capabale of. I’ll be starting my book today! :D

  23. I use the bow and arrow analogy all the time. It’s so easy to get bogged down with the tasks or even to be great at the tasks, but you must have a purpose. Often your day to day tasks aren’t driving you towards your target at all…but they do become habit forming.

  24. Brilliant article – thank you to Ryan for bringing Michel de Montaigne to our attention and thanks to Tim for introducing Ryan.

    Lots of thoughts – love the common ideas book, love the idea of our “job” is to understand ourselves, love always questioning and looking for answers that will move ourselves forward!

    Bravo all ’round!

  25. Admittely, before, I actually felt that I had known all the things that I need to know. But through this article, I just realized that I do not know everything, that I still need to know a lot of things to able to survive longer. I still need to continually observe and experiment as well to be sure of what I should do. And most of all, I need to enjoy life while doing all of these. I guess there is no real harm in trying things we haven’t tried yet as long it can help us become better persons.

  26. What a great blog post!
    I am absolutely flabbergasted that this was written on a blog this popular and that so many resonated with it (it can be dangerous to wake a sleepwalker). This post makes me so happy. I am usually not very concerned with where the masses put their attention, but if this is any indicator i think we might have a few more people on the happy side of the fence so to speak. Yep i think that was my favorite blog articles i have ever read. If i was more inclined to write i would most certainly write about Self development which is also my main occupation. But it is most appreciated that you took time to share this inspiration. I have never heard of this man “Michel de Montaigne” but i am already a fan. It seems that all the people i am truly inspired by follow the same path of introspection until one realizes that all opinions are vanities and their small individual self (cockyness etc) merges with the the larger Self (the admittance of “i dont know everything” “anything is possible” etc). I am more inspired by experiencers rather then thinkers (buddha, krisha, jesus, huang po). but i love seeing all the different paths there are to one destination (true happiness, eternal liberation). I am thrilled that you (Tim) have this kind of content on your blog, which adds to my respect for you. I feel it is such a worthy pursuit to conquer your fears and discover the reality of life is as perfect and exciting as you experience it to be. Not to say that one does not feel pain or emotions but they are just brief clouds obstructing the sun.

    THANK YOU!!! All involved

  27. be aware that a magazine called ‘philosophy now’ exists, and is very popular, perhaps tim could write an article for it sometime ?

    It is philosophy for the public and attempts to avoid complex wording.

  28. Great article. This kind of thinking is important to keep the daily grind in perspective. Bought and very excited to read the Sarah Blakewell book.

    Tim, nice cameo in “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” – very believable as a cop.

  29. This is a superb post. I spend much more than 20 hours a week on self-study for last 9 years digging into things from Jungian shadow work to how did the artist ecosystem in 1910s-20s Paris tick. More or less following the interests of the child–the Montessori method and I’m the child ;) Mostly it’s been a vertical journey inside; and it’s not one particularly supported in most cultures today.

    I relate to Montaigne’s near death experience–as I asked myself ‘What is Deathless?’ as an inquiry and kept going until I grokked it for myself, directly. It is quite humbling to realize the vastness of infinite wisdom that keeps showing up every time I think I might be reaching some kind of finite summit.

    I think too many times when I was young I’ve deferred to other’s knowledge, which is kind of a second-hand knowledge, instead of exploring for myself what is true. My spiritual teacher used to have a practice of journaling and he’d only write in it what he knew for sure was true (more here, http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2010/03/bg-165-im-not-babysitting-your-ego/).

    I’m usually hesitant to say I know nothing (which feels true) as everyone in the professional world seems hell-bent on answers rather than questing and proving their expert dominion. In comparison, I can appear like a dilettante. But I’ve also seen the downside to maintaining a niche–you can get pinholed and/or assume that you already know everything there is to know. I rather be shown day in, day out what I don’t know I didn’t know.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  30. I have to admit, I am at an utter loss to explain the rave reviews this post is getting in the comments. I can’t tell if they’re just sycophantic or truly a sad reflection on our lack of depth as a culture. Having spent every day from age 14 studying philosophy (that would be more than 20 years), I found this post a bit trite; frankly, downright boring. I suppose for people still caught up in the false dichotomy of materialism who have neglected their interior life entirely, these 3 points are a starting point. And little more.

    This was seriously less interesting than I expected from a wunderkid who rose to the head of marketing at AA at such an early age.

  31. I’m wondering if someone could answer a few questions. I
    have built a mock site to test the response from an adwords campaign to sell a specific book. I have been recieving anywhere from 20 to 50 “clicks” per day…I have no idea as to what the average conversion of clicks to purchases is for an item selling for say $40.
    Second question…I have been quoted $6,000 to build out the site and develop a traffic campaign, does that seem right?

  32. Shawn: That’s kind of the business I’m in. I’d build you a basic store for < $1000, something with powerful deep Social Media stylings for about $20K or you could just use one of the various services out there with a pre-built template for $50 a month or so (which we offer as well).

    Whoever prices this work is doing so with far more information than we or Tim has been provided.