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Welcome to The PATH (Monday Meditation): A weekly reflection with insights into daily life. This week’s reflection continues our series exploring the writing and philosophy of Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592).
Mondays with Montaigne
Montaigne described his philosophy this way, “My art and profession is to live.” He believed there is no knowledge so hard to acquire as knowing how to live this life well and naturally. Today, Montaigne is best known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre and describing his goal in The Essays to describe himself with utter frankness and honesty.
***Today’s meditation is Part V of our series on Montaigne. Previously we discussed, The Wisdom of Montaigne (Part I), Montaigne’s view on judgment, curiosity, and questioning everything (Part II), How to Philosophize — Like Montaigne (Part III), and The Wisdom of Solitude (Part IV).
“The changes and contradictions seen in us are so flexible that some have imagined that we have two souls, others two angels who bear us company and trouble us each in his own way, one turning us towards good the other towards evil, since such sudden changes cannot be accommodated to one single entity.”
Montaigne on the Art of Living
How should one think about their length of life? What are the ingredients of a good life? In an Essay titled On the Length of Life, Montaigne observed that one should not expect to die of the failing powers of old age and make that the target of the good life. Dying of old age is the rarest kind of death.
1. Length of Life
We call that death, alone, a natural death, as if it were unnatural to find a man breaking his neck in a fall, engulfed in a shipwreck, surprised by plague or pleurisy, and as though our normal condition did not expose us to all of those harms. Let us not beguile ourselves with such fine words: perhaps we ought, rather, to call natural anything which is generic, common to all and universal.
For Montaigne, nothing is guaranteed in life. Therefore, we should consider whatever age we have reached as an age reached by few. And, in a way, we ought to admit that an abnormal fortune such as that which has brought us so far is beyond the usual procedure and cannot last much longer.
“It seems to me that, considering the frailty of our life and the number of natural hazards to which it is exposed,” suggested Montaigne, “we should not allow so large a place in it to being born, to leisure, and to our apprenticeship.”
2. Consistent Actions
One of the many perennial challenges is the art of consistency. What helps you to align your actions with your principles consistently? Montaigne (and Seneca) suggest that we align ourselves to a single rule of life.
In an Essay titled On the inconstancy of our actions, Montaigne wrote,
It is difficult to pick out more than a dozen men in the whole of Antiquity who groomed their lives to follow an assured and definite course, though that is the principal aim of wisdom. To sum it all up and to embrace all the rules of Man’s life in one word, ‘Wisdom,’ said an Ancient, ‘is always to want the same thing, always not to want the same thing.’ I would not condescend to add, he said, ‘provided that your willing be right. For if it is not right, it is impossible for it to remain ever one and the same.’
Montaigne observed in himself (and others) the nature of inconsistency. He believed that vice was no more than a defect of irregularity. “There is a saying attributed to Demosthenes: the beginning of all virtue is reflection and deliberation: its end and perfection, constancy. If one were to adopt one definite way, the way we chose would be the most beautiful of all, but nobody has thought of doing that,” stressed Montaigne.
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3. Principles for Life
Montaigne quotes the Roman statesman Cicero, “For nothing can be called constant which does not arise out of a fixed principle.” Another figure from Antiquity that helps to shape Montaigne’s thoughts on the art of living is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. In his Essay titled On the constancy of our actions, Montaigne’s words closely resemble a letter from Seneca, On the Supreme Good.
Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have in your head the idea of the whole. What is the use of providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint? No man sketches out a definite plan for his life; we only determine bits of it. The bowman must first know what he is aiming at: then he has to prepare hand, bow, bowstring, arrow and his drill to that end. Our projects go astray because they are not addressed to a target.
Montaigne’s Essay includes a quote often attributed to Seneca, “No wind is right for a seaman who has not predetermined harbor.”
Where are you headed?
What are your principles?
The above are perennial questions that Montaigne, Seneca, and many others wisely pondered. “We are entirely made up of bits and pieces,” according to Montaigne, “woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people.”
Thank you for reading/listening; I hope you found something useful.
Until next time, be wise and be well,
P.S. Feel free to comment, ask questions, or make suggestions on future Stoics, Saints, and Sages to explore!
I look forward to Mondays with Montaigne. And today was no exception. I truly enjoyed what you posted. And I hope I don’t come across as presumptuous to disagree with Montaigne’s idea of consistency. But I do. And the main reason is because of what I have read in so many of the essays you have posted, specifically the ones quoting Heraclitus and talking about how we never step into the same river twice. We are not the same person one day to the next, or even one hour to the next because conditions are always changing, and our ideas about things change as we learn more and experience more. Furthermore, in the essay, I think part two was contradicted by part three where you quoted montaigne “no man sketches out a definite plan for his life; we only determine bits of it.“ As I see it, life occurs in bits and pieces and we adapt and perforce we change as time goes by. But I stand ready to be corrected. All the best,