How to Live or a Life of Montaigne Essay

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Montaigne How to Live

Dear Friend,

I have heard that you are depressed and confused about life and the condition of the world in general, and even though I usually do not like to give anyone advice, I did find some comfort in this book How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell, which is based on the essays of Michel Montaigne. I cannot claim to be a particularly happy or optimistic individual, either personally or with the overall situation in the world. I have a job that earns pretty good money, at least at times, but I have to deal with people I dislike, and some of who I would even enjoy strangling if I could. If I had the talent of Dante, I would also write a book consigning them all to hell for eternity and inflicting torments on them. I am also unhappy with the political and economic situation in the world, and absolutely loathe banksters, Bible Thumpers, fundamentalists of all kinds, and the general corruption, violence, cynicism and lack of compassion for the ordinary people in this world. I am a misanthrope, though, and prefer to think about humanity in the abstract rather than in person, and Montaigne seems to have found more positive qualities in home sapiens than I have ever been able to locate.

Personally, I loathe this society and the system that runs it and believe there should be a revolution, which is definitely not something that Montaigne would have recommended. He preferred to tone down the violence and religious and ideological conflict in his world and even hoped to escape into a private life of reflection and contemplation, and I can certainly understand why he felt that way, too. In his time, France was in the middle of a religious and political civil war that went on for decades, and plagues, famines and mindless violence were the norm. If you never heard of Montaigne, or only know about him very vaguely, I would point out that he lived in a world similar like ours in some ways and probably even worse in that death at a young age was common and there were no vaccines, antibiotics or modern medicine to deal with all those plagues and epidemics. Most people in his time believed that The End was near, and we have millions of fundamentalists and Bible Thumpers of various kinds running around today saying the same things. I know that Nostradamus was writing and making his famous predictions at that time, and he is also very popular in our time, particularly with those who think that the world will end in December 2012, according to the Mayan calendar.

Just between you and me, friend, I don't care at all if this world does end in December because then it will be out of its misery and so will we. I mean, why should I care? If it ends, then it ends, and I certainly won't miss it or anyone in it, nor will I miss my stupid job, my stupid customers, or the stupid political and economic system in this world -- and I admit that I'm better off than about 80% of the people in this world who are living at or below subsistence level. If the world doesn't end, though, then we are forced to live in it, and Montaigne has some useful advice for how to exist in lousy personal and socio-political situations. Our only other choice is suicide, and I already tried that once -- mixed a bunch of pills with some booze and almost died -- but I concede that I lack the guts to do it again.

At any rate, Montaigne lived in the 16th Century when life was nasty, brutal and short for most of the poor slobs who were unfortunate enough to be born at that time. That was their misfortune, although Buddha would have said it was their karma to be stuck there. I sometimes admire Buddha by the way, but I don't like that reincarnation idea because living once in this rotten world is more than enough. No one back then was surprised that all kinds of prophets, soothsayers and astrologers were predicting wars, famines and epidemics since those were happening all over the place in any event. They are happening all over our world today, for that matter, along with large numbers of very severe earthquakes. Only one of Montaigne's children survived to adulthood, for example, and this was not at all unusual in that time and place. He lived in an age of violence, warfare and extremism, as we do now, when civil wars between Catholics and Protestants went on for decades, and assassination and massacres at St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572 were routine. France had regressed into chaos or a state of nature, where it was unsafe to travel without armed guards, and more than once someone even attempted to assassinate Montaigne (Bakewell Chapter 12). Despite all the violence, terror an extremism of his world, however, Montaigne found room for reason, moderation and respect for human dignity in his personal life, even if he had no illusions about his ability to reform the world. Like Aristotle, he valued the Golden Mean and the private the world and the contemplative life over the public sphere, and like Buddha and the Stoics he found ways to become unattached to world and its cares.

Montaigne did not really believe in any of astrologers, doomsayers and false prophets of his day, no more than he believed in witches, demons and werewolves, although thousands of people were put to death in his time based on such accusations. Jean Bodin, the supporter of the Catholic Church and absolute monarchy, argued in favor of torture and execution of accused witches, based only on rumors, but Montaigne made the same arguments as those who oppose torture in the present, that "people will say anything to stop the pain" (Bakewell Chapter 12). I agree with Montaigne that torture is generally a bad idea, although our previous president and his top officials believed it had some good points. Personally, I always called him "The Chimp," though and regarded him as a vile, corrupt moron, but that's another story. The Chimp was also a Bible Thumper who though that Jesus was coming back soon, although he also used religion to manipulate the yokels and yahoos into voting for him. There's nothing new about any of that since the ruling elites did it all the time in Montaigne's era, either sincerely or just as a means of securing their own wealth and status. Montaigne was correct in doubting that France's troubles had anything "to do with the Antichrist or the End Times, but were merely political," and for this he was hated by both the extreme Catholics and Protestants while his essays were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books (Bakewell Chapter 16). Right there is a very good indication that he was on to something, since the religious fanatics on both sides couldn't stand him and wanted to shoot him for trying to be so reasonable.

As you know, we have a lot of people like that running around in the world today, and they are no more pleasant to deal with now that they were then.

I am like Montaigne in that I am very skeptical about the idea of progress, although any fool can see that over the last four centuries there has been a lot of advancement in machines, technology, science and medicine, which mostly benefit the middle and upper classes of our world. To that extent, though, we can communicate with each other instantly and write silly little letters like these to silly people, even the ones we don't like very much. It's a living, I suppose, and it's better than working in a factory of digging a ditch. Montaigne's views of history were cyclical rather than linear, and he expected the world to pass through "episodes of decay and rejuvenation" just as it always had in the past (Bakewell Chapter 12). I also think that history moves in cycles, such as the generational shift between reform and conservatism in American politics every 30-40 years, which is why we seem to keep fighting the exact same political and economic battles every few decades. I agree with Montaigne and the Book of Ecclesiastes that there was indeed nothing new under the sun -- nothing that had not happened many times in the past and would not happen again in the future. Over time, Montaigne learned to accept the pains and pleasures of life in a Stoic manner, avoiding parties, factions and ideologies and accepting the world as it was rather than demanding apocalyptic or revolutionary change. In all this, he was the opposite of an ideologue or perfectionist, but preferred to go along and get along without raising his expectations too high.

This is what I would recommend to you above all else: grim Stoicism, endurance and lowering your…[continue]

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