How to reinvogorate your intellectual life: Lessons from Michel de Montaigne 429 years after his death
Update on "Five classic books that will change your life"— and read to the end for this week's book give away, "How to think like Shakespeare"!
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!
This week, we’ll explore:
Lessons from Michele de Montaigne, one of the most important intellectuals in history, on how to revive and maintain a robust life of the mind
Reflections from people enrolled in Civic Renaissance’s first course, Five classic books that will change your life
This week’s give away, How to think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education
Reviving your life of the mind: Lessons from Michele de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne is one of the most important figures in intellectual history.
Montaigne (pronounced Mon-tayne) was born on February 28, 1533, in the small town of Montaigne in the Bordeaux region of France.
He died on this day, Sept 13, also in Bordeaux, in 1592— 429 years ago today.
The video above, shot in front of Montaigne’s Tower in Bordeaux— the place where he was born, thought deep thoughts and created some of his most important works, as well as where he died— describes some of the reasons he is worth studying today.
Today, I’d like to consider the many ideas Montaigne offers us for how to reinvigorate our life of the mind today.
Montaigne, central to the Great Conversation himself, reminds us of the importance of engaging with the wise men and women who have come before us. The Great Conversation is the iterative dialogue between the wise men and women who came before us about big ideas, about the most important questions in life. Montaigne was in constant conversation with the great minds—the writers, poets, philosophers, and religious leaders—who came before him. In fact, he quite literally sat in the presence of his favorite thinkers he created his Essais (Essays), his literary master work that influenced nearly everyone who came after him. As you can see in in the video above, Montaigne’s intellectual life was formed and enhanced by his physical surroundings:
His study was lined with thousands of books (he had one of the largest libraries of his day).
His walls were filled with beautiful paintings that depicted scenes and ideas from Biblical history and Greek mythology.
The ceiling panels of his study were engraved with quotes, insights, and ideas from Scripture and from the Greek and Latin authors he loved and admired. Inscribed on the joints in the ceiling structure were nearly seventy quotes from the Bible, Horace and Sophocles, many of which went directly into his Essais, his most famous work.
You can imagine Montaigne sitting at his desk, reflecting on his writing and then taking a moment to look up and draw inspiration from the quotes and insights of the artists and writers whom he loved. The influence of these thinkers appears throughout his work: his Essais brim with quotes and allusions to the classical past, and when you see the place where he did his thinking and writing—lined with beauty and quotes and insights from classical history—you understand why! He absorbed the work of the classical authors, and he in turn went on to influence virtually everyone after him, from Pascal and Tocqueville to Shakespeare and many, many more.
Montaigne thought that an education without joy and a love of learning was no education at all. Montaigne lived during the French Renaissance—a period of time in France, and also Europe more broadly, that came after the Middle Ages, and before the Enlightenment, roughly from 1400 to the early 17th century. It was a time of “rebirth,” as the word renaissance literally means in French. Montaigne saw the revival of Greek and Roman texts, authors, and traditions. He received a classical and humanistic education, meaning he was immersed in the texts of the Ancient Greek and Roman world, and thought deeply about what it means to be human and how we might cultivate our humanity and human potential to the fullest.
For Montaigne, education started early and never ended. He also thought that an education without joy was not an education at all. He rejected and criticized the educational model of his day, under which students were forced to memorize, regurgitate, and accept part and parcel the authors of classical history. Instead, Montaigne thought that we should engage critically with the authors that have come before us, and not be forced to accept their ideas unquestioningly.
Montaigne also thought that education should be fun and laced with joy. This is, in fact, how he was educated. For instance, Montaigne’s father taught him Greek through games! Montaigne grew to love learning because of the way he had been educated, and he carried with him a humility, openness, and curiosity throughout his life. And in light of this experience, Montaigne thought that teachers and tutors should focus on encouraging the natural curiosity of their students, on cultivating among their students a love of learning and a love of the life of the mind that will stay with them through their lifetimes.
Montaigne deployed The Great Conversation to criticize the injustices— ethnocentrism and the delusions of cultural grandeur— of his day. Once again, for Montaigne, the Great Conversation was not a monologue, where people today accept blindly the ideas of those who have come before them. He encouraged the teachers and students of his day to engage critically with the ideas of those who had come before them. But he also practiced what he preached. He himself used the thinkers before him to call out and criticize injustices of his day. Montaigne thought that for true learning to occur, students must engage and disagree with the authors they study.
For example, the era during which Montaigne lived saw re-invigorated interest in Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. Along with a renewed interest in classical texts and ideas came a renewed interest in questions related to what it means to be civilized, and what it means to be a citizen. And Montaigne’s educated and elite peers—who of course thought they were civilized and sophisticated—often argued that other people groups and past eras were culturally inferior, uncivilized, and barbaric.
This is of course the sort of reasoning that informed the colonialism of Montaigne’s day and later centuries, which was often justified on the ground that European domination “civilized” other cultures and people. Montaigne, however, opposed such efforts and arguments. He condemned European colonization of the Americas and deplored the suffering it brought upon the natives.
Montaigne—who was obsessed with the question of what it means to be human—concluded that the only constancy in human nature is our difference, which, he argued, we should celebrate.
Montaigne encouraged his peers to ask themselves:
What if people of other cultures who have different norms and practices than we do are not uncivilized and lesser than we are?
What if we’re just different— neither better nor worse?
Or, what if we are the barbaric ones?
After all, Montaigne argued, we are the ones currently killing one another over religious disputes—over disagreements concerning ideas we can never fully know or prove.
In his famous essay “On Cannibals,” written in 1580, Montaigne criticizes the ethnographic view that elevates one’s own era and culture above all others. In making his case for a more open and welcoming disposition toward other cultures and places, Montaigne quotes Plutarch, Plato, Horace, and Virgil in the first page of the essay alone.
[side note: As mentioned, Montaigne believed that the Great Conversation was a dialogue—and often a debate—between thinkers across time and place. This is why he used classical thinkers to critique the ethnocentric thinking of his day. William Shakespeare did the same in turn: Shakespeare disagreed with the romanticized depiction of humanity Montaigne offers in On Cannibals and in The Tempest Shakespeare criticized Montaigne’s view though his character of Caliban—an anagram of of the word cannibal. Montaigne would have approved!]
Montaigne shows us how to use leisure well. He reminds us that it’s not about how much time we have, but how we use the time that we do have. There is no question that Montaigne lived a life of extreme privilege. He was born to wealth and aristocracy. He did not have to work to survive, and there was never a time in his life that he was worried about where his next meal would come from. But, unlike many people throughout history, or even today, Montaigne did not fritter away his privilege.
Instead, Montaigne used the ample leisure time at his disposal to cultivate his mind, to read and write and think deeply, and to produce work that improved the human condition. He spent his life reflecting on the biggest questions and highest things. In short, he deployed his privilege—and the leisure time that went with that privilege—very well.
Of course, it’s important to realize not all people have that privilege, past or present.
Consider the philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza is among the most important philosophers in history, forming many of the important ideas about the separation of church and state, and faith and reason, that influenced later thinkers such as John Locke; Spinoza’s thinking thus arguably formed the basis of modern liberal democracy. Unlike Montaigne, however, Spinoza was not born to wealth. He worked as a lenscrafter by day—a vocation that ultimately led to his early death of lung illness—and stayed up late writing and thinking and exercising his interests in philosophy by night.
Both Montaigne and Spinoza, though they came from different walks of life, remind us of an important truth about intellectual life: it’s not only about how much time and resources we have, but about how we use the time and resources we do have.
This is an important reminder for us all as we look for ways to cultivate and re-invigorate our life of the mind today.
Montaigne reminds us of the importance of intellectual humility. Montaigne was the the link between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, who is often thought of as the first Enlightenment thinker, was born just four years after Montaigne died. And Montaigne—who was very aware of his own intellectual limits, as well as the limitations of human knowledge in general—was skeptical of our ability to know things with absolute certainty, an idea that Descartes would later pick up on.
Because there are so many important things in life of which we can never be fully certain, Montaigne thought if fit to treat different ideas, people, and cultures with openness and grace. He made early arguments for cultural relativity and tried to explain why people of different backgrounds have different values and social norms. He was also highly critical of the wars of religion and tensions between Catholics and Protestants that dominated his era.
Why, Montaigne thought, should we be willing to kill other, or be killed ourselves, over things we cannot prove?
Montaigne’s dissatisfaction with the intellectual certainty of his day—and the fanaticism to which he believed it led—greatly influenced the Enlightenment project that followed him as well.
Montaigne’s thought is an important reminder for us, too. There are many serious issues of our day that we may feel strongly about, but may never know for certain. Can we strive to maintain intellectual humility in our own lives and show grace toward others who think differently than we do?
It’s easier said than done, of course, but such humility and tolerance are ideals still worth striving for.
What do you think on Montaigne’s lessons for a revived and maintained intellectual life?
Do you find any of these reminders helpful? I’d love to hear from you.
Write to me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reflections on Five classic books that will change your life
We are now in Week Three of Five classic books that will change your life!
We’ve had some wonderful conversations on death, the nature of the human soul, the meaning of life, the foundations of community, and the importance of friendship to the life well-lived.
This week, we’re reading Cicero’s famous work On Friendship.
Here is what people have had to say about this module on friendship, and the course so far in general:
Really appreciate the course. It is certainly improving my life. I reached out to a long neglected friend this week after being reminded of the value of investing time and energy into friendship this week.
Oddly...I was in a little mini funk for a few weeks for no apparent reason at all. But your course and the ideas has just singlehandedly PULLED me out of it. Thank you!
Thank you again for this course. As you know I will be following the course at a slower pace than the rest. I have begun Phaedo, and find it fascinating. Bits of it I have read in the past preparing to teach my history classes. I am delighted (not really surprised) to see all the pre-figuring of what shows up in the New Testament, some with Jesus, a lot with Paul. You probably cover this in your lecture, but I am waiting on that until I finish Phaedo. And, also no surprise, I find this all quite personally applicable…my own understanding of truth, life, death and heaven.
Stay tuned for future opportunities to enroll in this and other courses!
Book giveaway! How to think like Shakespeare
I’m giving away one more copy of this wonderful new book, How to think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education!
If you’d like to learn more about the type of education Michel de Montaigne— or Shakespeare himself— enjoyed , this book is for you.
To enter, write to me at email@example.com with the subject line SHAKESPEARE!
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!