Life Tips from a Dead French Guy
A 16th-century philosopher teaches us a few things about fashion, sex, and death
Recently while feeding my pigs, I was moved to consider Michel de Montaigne’s essay “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” As a barn-booted dude who counts a second-place finish in the standard seven maths olympiad as an intellectual pinnacle, I wouldn’t expect to have a lot in common with a 16th-century French philosopher who spoke Latin as a first language, went to varsity at the age of six, and studied law when he was 14. He also held several high-level government positions, hung out (just once, but still…) with the pope, and retired to his country estate at the age of 38 to write essays. (In fact, Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay.)
As you might expect, Montaigne tussled in his scrivenings with humankind’s universal biggies – freedom, power, religion, the nature of existence – and he regularly backed his observations with quotes from the likes of Homer, Cicero, and Lucretius. But he also left us with his thoughts on such topics as hairstyles, farting, impotence, aromatherapy and politics.
Also, killer pigs. That day in my hog pen, the porkers were so hungry and impatient for their mash that they began shoulder-checking me in the shins and nibbling at my kneecaps, reminding me of the long list of unfortunate people Montaigne had rattled off in the aforementioned essay. These folks had died under unusual circumstances: choking on a grape seed, scratched by a comb, hit by a falling turtle, and – pertinent to my situation – “ by jostle of a hog.” One suspects it wasn’t so much the “jostle” as what happened after the jostle that did him in, but still, I felt the chill snout of death. To strengthen my spirits as I forged onward to the slop trough, I focused on the fact that in the selfsame essay, Montaigne cited no fewer than six men who – in the Department of Something to Shoot For – perished “betwixt the very thighs of women.”
And this is what I like about Montaigne: he charges us to consider the power of philosophy as it pertains to preparing ourselves to confront our mortality – and then he reminds us that mortality itself may arrive in the form of angry bacon. He also saw the mullet coming from 400 years away.
Drawing from a 1600s translation of his renowned essays, I hereby present vintage advice on modern topics, otherwise known as “Montaigne on…”
Long before Kardashians roamed the land, Montaigne fretted that style was outstripping substance (“I hate our people, who can worse endure an ill-contrived robe than an ill-contrived mind…”), and he wrote worriedly of the “ delicate and affected” men who “caused their hair to be pinched off.” Ultimately he opted for a simple look. “I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice… I seldom wear other than black or white.” In other words, he really did care about style, with one simple rule: if it makes you feel silly, don’t wear it.
Perhaps because he was a bit of a cue ball (“my old bald grizzled likeness”), Montaigne was especially grumpy about coiffure. In “Of Ancient Customs,” he describes people who “wore their hair long before and the hinder part of the head shaved, a fashion that begins to revive in this vicious and effeminate age.” As a guy who was once all business in the front and party in the back, I have to wonder: Which came first – the mullet or the reverse mullet? Anticipating the 1980s (or perhaps even Bieber bangs), Montaigne went on to warn us that “there will often be a necessity that the despised forms must again come in vogue.” Thus we await the return of the man-perm.
When his friends criticised him for taking too many road trips and leaving his wife behind, Montaigne insisted that he was strengthening his marriage, since “ being continually together is not so pleasing as to part for a time and meet again.” Of course, he also wrote, “Every strange woman appears charming,” speaking for generations of horndogs to come, including professional athletes and rock stars.
After 17 years in politics and law, Montaigne wrote that he would far rather face “an enemy in arms, than an enemy in a gown.” that what he said was not altogether without reason.” Handkerchiefs make lovely do-rags and fine pocket squares; for everything else, use a tissue.
Montaigne missed the Golden Age of ED by 400 years, but he knew men were equipped with a tool of variable reliability, calling it “so unseasonably disobedient, when we stand most in need of it.” He recommended that a man who makes “an ill beginning” and is “baffled at the first assault” should “leisurely and by degrees make several little trials and light offers” until the equipment cooperates. He also cured an impotent but gullible friend by convincing him to conduct a series of silly rituals prior to climbing into bed. Apparently, Montaigne already understood the brain as a sex organ.
“In the critical moment,” Montaigne wrote, “…think of something else.” Decent tip, although you wish he’d specified what to think about, since rugby hadn’t been invented yet. Jousting, perhaps, but the imagery is metaphorically problematic.
n the context of the times, Montaigne was respected as a man who took his duties as a landowner and a politician seriously, and he worked hard to dispatch them fairly. But then, at the age of 38 (supported, it must be said, by a major cash stash), he chucked it all to do whatever he wanted and wound up becoming one of the most famous writers of all time.
Prior to the availability of neon beer signs, Montaigne put together a sweet book-lined hangout in a hard-to-reach castle tower, complete with battle murals and a bed so he could crash anytime he wanted. He loved to be alone (“to disengage and disobligate myself”) and even claimed it a relief when a friend mistreated him, as this meant he didn’t have to hang out with the guy anymore. So you’re not hiding out in the garage, you’re being philosophical.
When Montaigne came into money, he quickly found himself turning into an anxious hoarder: “The more I loaded myself with money, the more also was I loaded with fear [of losing it].” Then, after splurging on a very expensive trip, he found himself “fallen into a third way of living” in which he spent freely if not wildly, and found himself happier. Keep an eye on your 401(k), Montaigne would say, but go ahead and buy the sports car.
Montaigne had the usual high school boy fascination with flatulence. He noted that St. Augustine spoke of “having seen a man who could command his rear to discharge as often together as he pleased.” But he also believed stifled toots were deadly (“how often a man’s belly, by the denial of one single puff, brings him to the very door of an exceeding painful death”) and thus admired the Emperor Claudius, who “gave liberty to let fly in all places.” Frankly, Montaigne’s fears seem overblown, so to speak, and I’d hate to have been trapped in a carriage with him.
When young boys drew naughty pictures on the castle walls, Montaigne was troubled not by the vandalism or sex as much as the “prodigious dimension” of the anatomy, as they “give the ladies a cruel contempt of our natural furniture.” The take-home for 2012: if you want to watch porn with a woman, view it on a laptop, not a 52-inch LCD TV.
In How to Live (R159, loot.co.za), biographer Sarah Bakewell notes that when Montaigne traveled, he made a point of eating native food prepared in the native manner. He thought it a vice “not to make good cheer with what another is enjoying,” and that we should “be curious in what a man eats.” So eat local and don’t be picky and, like Montaigne, you too can live to be, er, 59.
I first discovered Montaigne while reading… um… well, I can’t remember what I was reading. This happens to me a lot, and would bother me, but then as Montaigne himself wrote, “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.” And right there is probably why I like Montaigne most of all: by ruthlessly excavating every corner of his life (dude would have run a topnotch Tumblr) and holding it up for examination, by working hard to better himself even if he doesn’t improve, Montaigne reminds us that even though we are works in progress, the work of self-improvement is more important than the progress.