The 16th century was a period of extraordinary conflict and violence. Disputes about religious and territorial matters divided the population in factions engaged in continuous wars, persecutions, and torture. Luckily, not everybody fell prey to the dominant ideas of the time and a few men taught us lessons that we should strive to keep always present in our mind.
The French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is one of the most interesting personalities of that time. We would probably never have heard of him if he had been more successful in his profession and businesses, or one should rather say, if he had attempted to become more successful.
An aversion to flattery
After learning Latin, the most widespread language at that time in Europe, and receiving some basic training in jurisprudence, Montaigne spent more than a decade as secretary of different legislative councils and courts of justice in the south of France.
Later on, he resided for a while in Paris, but he was clever enough to realize that his natural aversion to lies, flattery, and pretence made him unsuitable for a lifelong career as civil servant. When he turned 38 years of age, in the middle of one of the worst periods of religious conflict in France, he decided to abandon his career and retire to a farm in the south of France.
Living in accordance with nature
What followed during the next 15 years was a memorable attempt at living life according to nature and common sense. Everyday, Montaigne would devote the necessary effort to his farming activities, but not with the purpose of expanding his wealth, but simply to ensure his subsistence and that of his family.
For the rest, Montaigne set himself the goal of reflecting about the good life and writing down his thoughts as he went along. Surrounded by the books that he had accumulated in the previous decades of his life, he wrote continuously during his forties and early fifties.
While his neighbours in the south of France took sides passionately in favour of some ideological faction or other, Montaigne always called for moderation, pleaded for peace, and recommended tolerance as the best policy to ensure prosperity and maintain human dignity.
Montaigne's essays were published in successive compilations, which he corrected and edited further, until he was happy with the result. The principles of common sense, prudence, tolerance, moderation, and learning from experience, permeate his whole writings from beginning to end.
Since the 16th century, other thinkers have tried to establish the principles of the good life, but few have equalled Montaigne's erudition and literary skills. For those who, in our age, seek to learn how to live in accordance with Nature, Montaigne's essays are, more than four centuries after his death, still a delight to read.
Image: Photograph of medieval painting. Photo taken by John Vespasian, 2015.
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