A French nobleman, Michel de Montaigne, shut himself up in his castle tower in 1571 and wrote a series of essays for his family and friends over the course of more than twenty years. One essay in particular, Of Experience, explores his thoughts and feelings on life with an uncommon intelligence, wit, bluntness, and masterful insight.
Montaigne’s essays are of himself, and by himself. He is an accidental philosopher in the sense that his purpose in writing is private and without a clear end. Montaigne, in fact, calls himself such. His fundamental assertion in his collection of essays is to tell of his own being and way of life. He turns away from deliberate philosophy because he sees too much presumption in human thinking and instead seeks to re-understand concepts and ideas that he is already familiar with.
To read his essay Of Experience is like revisiting an old, well-loved friend. For those reading it again, it is like sitting in a comfortable chair and savoring a steaming cup of coffee or tea. His topics in Of Experience are mainly his health, the value of experience, how life is to be lived, fatherhood, the importance of family, food, and moving forward even if you have to crawl. “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been welling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, in the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.” (p. 850) To read this section is a gift; it is to be content.
Even though this essay was written in the 16th century, Montaigne speaks to the modern world because of his honesty, common sense, and direct language. He does not hide his human frailty or his imperfections: “My mind is quick and firm; and I know not which of the two, my mind or my body I have had more difficulty in keeping in one place. I have never succeeded in keeping some part of me from always wandering…” (p. 848) He writes of his likes and dislikes, his health, his past illnesses–in other words, personal experiences. He is a philosopher and writer living in the real world, not just the world of the musings of the mind.
For Montaigne, living appropriately and finding contentment takes resolve. Even in the face of ill health, an unhappy marriage, and old age, happiness should be pursued and never postponed. Death awaits us all. Life’s moments of joy are to be savored, in all the messiness and suffering of human existence. The pursuit of peace and serenity are much preferred to pondering life’s miseries or planning revenge: “I hold this temperature of my soul has many a time lifted up my body from its falls. My body is often depressed; whereas if my soul is not jolly, it is at least tranquil and at rest.” (p., 842) For Montaigne, spiritual balance is important; his remains unflustered despite setbacks and life’s travails.
Montaigne’s essays are not an attempt at an autobiography, but a conversation with the reader about his life experiences, his thoughts, his judgments, his ideas and his deeply held beliefs. For him, living well meant asking who he was and writing about it. Living well meant one should face life with humor and an honest assessment despite its curveballs. He felt one needed to be hardy, broad-minded, balanced, open to learning new things, and content to keep moving forward. Sometimes the ideas that are most familiar are the most astonishing.