The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

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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.)

Posted on: October 19, 2010.

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

  1. The “commonplace book” is a fantastic idea! Although, over a lifetime I would think that you would eventually have so much information in it that it would become difficult to easily look through it. Or maybe that’s the point. Raw, powerful, thoughts with no formal order to them. True sources of motivation.

    Like

  2. Great post, Ryan. I love the “Commonplace Book” concept. I have basically done the same thing for language learning (my passion of all passions) with quotes from Tim and other effective language learners who themselves seem to often ask, ” Que sais je?”, and seem to be all the more successful and happy for it…

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  3. I recently read a book, talent is overrated, which mentions how important self observation is. Improving ourselves will inevitably lead to talent. Thanks for the great post.

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  4. Great post, really interesting!

    If you want to live your life via the Bucket-theory, you have to ask yourself “Que sais je?” all the time, same as the question “Qui suis-je?”

    I like people who do this, who give a meaning to their existence.

    All the best,

    Niels

    Like

  5. I love the concept of taking time to explore ourselves. Loving ourselves and who we are and who we want to become should be our biggest priority and our full time job.

    Great reminders.

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  6. No doubt a standup guy, but you also need to find balance in life.

    I haven’t watch TV for months now as I have businesses to run, though you do have to be careful with saying that if people simply stopped their 20 hours of TV a week and focussed it more productively they could get so much more done.

    This in itself is true but then entertainment is also part of living. I sometimes feel like I would be happier if I just had a normal job and was able to come home and watch TV in the evenings.

    Like

    • @Johnny
      Interesting point about entertainment as living. I have thought this as well especially in defence of computer games. I find an accurate way to look at the such things is to consider the mental state it encourages. Principally for relaxation/entertainment I try and get my mind into a state of ‘flow’. Which on a simple level is what I think the lifestyle design movement encourages you to do with your whole life. The way you mentioned it seems as if its not really watching TV that matters to you. Its the structure of the day you would like. If you couldn’t watch TV to relax what would you do instead?

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      • Great point George. I have been developing a social networking website for 3 months now and at times I feel like Johnny. I would love to just slow down and take a deep breath. However, I continue to push through this initial creation period, telling myself I will relax at the New Years (as I have planned a trip abroad). I use such things as Entourage and other shows (once or twice a week) to relax myself and provide my mind with some humor, to escape my flow of constant thinking about how I can better my site.

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    • I think Montaigne would be happy to watch 20 hours of entertaining TV, but how much of those 20 hours are truly entertaining? How many ads to distract you from your entertainment? How many tv shows do you watch just to fill in the time? The problem with tv as a source of entertainment is it can control where your attention goes? Some people will get hypnotised by what they watch.

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      • I recently read a book called “Focus”.
        The title is pretty self-explanatory.

        The point of it is to help not being distracted and narrowing down to priorities. A great tool to manage time.

        It dealt also with information overload. How long can you read a book without being distracted by some loud noise? How many times did a phone call from a telemarketer broke the momentum of your family dinner?

        Simple questions. Necessary questions.

        I was born in France, I learnt about Montaigne in a way that makes one want to know more. Not in a way you or your teacher are uninterested in Montaigne’s work.

        Excellent post. Thanks for it!

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  7. He once wrote Of Anger and I found this extract particularly useful advice.

    I admonish all those who have authority to be angry in my family, in the first place to manage their anger and not to lavish it upon every occasion, for that both lessens the value and hinders the effect: rash and incessant scolding runs into custom, and renders itself despised; and what you lay out upon a servant for a theft is not felt, because it is the same he has seen you a hundred times employ against him for having ill washed a glass, or set a stool out of place. Secondly, that they be not angry to no purpose, but make sure that their reprehension reach him with whom they are offended; for, ordinarily, they rail and bawl before he comes into their presence, and continue scolding an age after he is gone

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  8. Good post. I can see where a “commonplace book” could get dangerously addictive though. I imagine I would want to start it off with a bang and go out seeking all the inspirational stuff I’ve encountered in the past.

    Tim, haven’t created an Evernote account yet, but I imagine a commonplace book could work well with Evernote. It wouldn’t be hand-written…but it would be searchable. Thoughts?

    Like

    • Nothing to say it can’t be handwritten and use evernote. Besides using tabletsetc, the livescribe pen will now sync with evernote. So you get the benefit of it being handwritten on paper and added to evernote. Not got one myself but am very tempted and would be interested in anyone’s experience of evernote’s handwriting recognition capabilities.

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    • I’ve been using a notebook inside my Evernote account for exactly this purpose for some time… it works brilliantly (easy to search, easy to add to, always available, etc.). I’d say go for it.

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  9. Evernote was the first thing I thought of when reading about the commonplace book.

    I use Evernote for a number of things, but one of the best usages I have found is to record new ideas that come to me throughout the day. I find that I don’t just sit down and pump out creativity on command so with a smart phone I can quickly collect ideas in context as I go.

    I’m going to start doing this with the commonplace book and record little tidbits of inspiration and wisdom that I come across.

    It’s like the ‘collection habit’ described in Getting Things Done. Get information out of your short term memory and into a useful format as fast as possible.

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  10. Ryan,

    What a serendipitous time to post this!

    Having just recommenced Jiu-Jitsu, (and cockily determined to “hack” it, if you will), I find myself asking “Que sais je?” after getting pulverized for 2+ hours. ^_^

    I also LOVE the idea of being a “thought generalist”.

    On the same token, Brad Blanton’s “Radical Honesty” (available for free on scribd) is badass. He delves into the nature of belief super incisively.

    Good Vibes~
    Vic

    Like

    • I second the “Radical Honesty” suggestion. Not only does it challenge a person’s comfort zone, but it contains many actionable practices for life-affirming changes.

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  11. Very nice guest post Tim and Ryan,

    I hadn’t heard of de Montaigne before and I’m really grateful for this reference. I couldn’t agree more with the central idea that you are the most important work in your life.

    And @George and @jonny, great points about us actually needing to have some kind of flow experience in our daily lives and how it just might be more generative if it were not TV or video games.

    De Montaigne’s experience is interesting; does this mean that in order to make ourselves the main subject of our work that we need to have a near-death experience like his?
    What was Tim’s initial motivational factor in making himself the subject of his studies?

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  12. Does anybody know of any philosophers who are comparable to Montaigne? Nassim Taleb shares a similar skeptical view of the knowledge he possesses but truth be told, I don’t like the layout of his books. I really like the concept of self-improvement and almost treating yourself like a ‘project’ that needs to be developed and refined and I suppose that’s what draws most of us into Tim’s blog. Thanks for the post Ryan, I will check your website out.

    Freddie

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  13. “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?””

    I think this is smart to keep in mind in the world of fitness!

    Like

  14. Love this post and surprised with myself that I hadn’t come across Michel de Montaigne. With such a great introduction, he immediately goes on my reading list.

    @Anon – My first commonplace books were large. But as I’ve tested over the years, it’s been cut down so drastically that a single mini-comp book has been more than sufficient. I keep one for tested sayings and thoughts (even though I return to them often), then another for new ones to test and take notes on.

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  15. I’ve been wondering what it will be like 30 years from now when people have been reading and learning random things on the internet for 50 years. We have access to the most brilliant people in the world almost instantly, usually in condensed form. How much random stuff will your average nerd know after a life time of surfing?

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    • I think Allen just posted the question of the day, I’ve been thinking about the same thing myself.. A huge amount of top 5-lists, that’s for sure.

      I wonder what my Evernote notebook will look like in 10 years from now. All I know for sure, is that I’d need a truckload of Moleskine journals if I suddenly decided to go analog.

      Great post again!

      Like