Thursday, 16 January 2020

Finding peace of mind in difficult times: the daily practice of serenity and common sense


The 16th century was a period of extraordinary conflict and violence. Disputes about religion and territory had divided the population in factions that engaged in continuous war, persecution and torture. Luckily, not everybody fell prey to the dominant ideas of the time. A few good men have taught us lessons we should strive to keep always in mind.

The French writer Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) is one of the most interesting personalities of that period. We would probably have never heard of him if he had been more successful in his original profession, or I should rather say, if he had attempted to become more successful.

After learning Latin (the most widespread language in sixteenth-century Europe) and receiving some basic training in jurisprudence, Montaigne spent a decade working as a public official in the legislative council and courts of justice in southern France.

Subsequently, Montaigne moved to Paris to pursue better employment opportunities, but after a while, he realised that he had made a mistake, a large one. His natural aversion to lying, flattery and pretence was in fact making him unsuitable for working as a public official in the centre of power. He just could not stomach the kind of tasks he had to accomplish because he was clever and sensitive enough to see the consequences.

A radical change of lifestyle

Montaigne did not last long in Paris. He had intended to further his career as a public official, only to realise that he was in the wrong place, that he had no desire to keep working in that field. Thus when he turned thirty-eight, he did something that none of his friends or family members was expecting: he gathered his savings, quit his job, and abandoned his profession altogether. He had grown totally and completely fed up with his lifestyle.

After handing in his resignation, Montaigne purchased a small farm in the south of France, and retired to lead a modest and quiet life. As he traversed the countryside on his way from Paris to the farm, he could see the damage, personal and material, arising from the religious conflicts that were devastating France. In the name of God, people of different Christian denomination were slaughtering each other.

Montaigne's life and writings revolve around peace of mind, specifically, about how to maintain your serenity in times of widespread conflict. The lessons you can learn from reading Montaigne's biography will find immediate application today in the twenty-first century, when millions of people can barely sleep at night due to worry, anxiety and stress of all sorts.

What followed during the next fifteen years after Montaigne's retirement was a memorable attempt at living according to nature, at practising serenity and common sense every single day. Every morning, Montaigne would devote the necessary efforts to his farming activities, not with the purpose of expanding his wealth, but simply to ensure his own subsistence and that of his family.

For the rest of the day, Montaigne had set himself the goal of reflecting about the good life and writing down his thoughts as he went along. Surrounded by books he had accumulated in previous decades, he wrote every evening during his forties and early fifties. If you write four pages a day, as he seemed to have done, you will soon produce enough material for several books.

The key to prosperity

While his neighbours in southern France were taking sides excitedly in favour of one religious faction or another, Montaigne always called for moderation. Day in and day out, he kept pleading for peace and recommending tolerance as the key elements for ensuring prosperity. Without tolerance of other people's ideas, there is no way to maintain human dignity. Live yourself and let other people live as they please. Do your own thing and do not interfere in how other people choose to live their lives.

Prudence, tolerance and moderation constitute the key messages of Montaigne's philosophy. He wrote more than a thousand pages, one essay after another, which he then published himself in compilations. Through the years, he kept correcting and editing his essays further until he was happy with the result.

The principles of common sense and learning from experience permeate Montaigne's writings. Since the 16th century, other thinkers have also tried to formulate the principles of the good life, but few equal Montaigne's erudition and literary skills. For those who, in the twenty-first century, are seeking to live in accordance with nature, Montaigne's essays are still a delight to read.


Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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Here are the links to three audio interviews just published:
  1. John Vespasian interviewed by Jackie Pick on "The Jackie Daily Show" about how highly-effective pople deal with disruptions.
  2. John Vespasian interviewed by Geoff Currier on "The Geoff Currier Show" about rational living.
  3. John Vespasian interviewed by Rodney Mathers on "Journey of Hope" about how highly-effective pople deal with disruptions.