Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.
Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.
While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.
Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.
Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.
Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.
This can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.
Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.
Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.
Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.
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~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for Ordinary Philosophy in 2017
Learn more about this great master of introspection here:
Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne
Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker
Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time
Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life
Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now
Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica
Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez
Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton
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