The Bad Boy of Stoicism

Montaigne's Essays

You certainly know the more popular stoic philosophers: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

They are extremely wideread today and there’s even developed a sort of cult religion around them. And part of their appeal and the appeal of Stoicism is it’s extremely practical, it’s not arguing about whether this couch I’m sitting on is real or not.

But the world of practical, day-to-day useful philosophy, not just Stoicism, is much bigger than just those two. And one of my favorite philosophers who’s actually a great next step if you’re diving into practical and stoic philosophy is Montaigne.

He had a rich and influential family, but he retired from public life at the age of 28 to lock himself in his home with some 1,500 books and work on these essays, which were first published ten years later.

He spans a huge number of topics in his essays, everything from how to manage your jealousy of others, to how to strengthen your mind, to the benefits of solitude.

And he has this odd, jaunty writing style, full of personal anecdotes and he weaves quotations into his sentences. He also goes off topic on random tangents a lot, and self-deprecates to talk about how little he knows, or how lazy he is, or how inferior he is to earlier thinkers.

He’s fantastically readable and the essays are excellent, but it’s also an 800 page tome. So I picked some of my favorite essays and topics to share with you today.

As always, if you want to listen to the audio, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

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Here are a few of my favorite quotations from the book. For more, be sure to check out the podcast episode!

Look to the past:

In all our fortunes we compare ourselves with what is above us and look toward those who are better off; let us measure ourselves with what is below: there is no one so ill-starred that he may not find a thousand examples to console him. It is our weakness that we are more unhappy to see people ahead of us than happy to see people behind us.

A great friend will give you honest criticism:

We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly; and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship; for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him. I find it a rough task to judge a man in whom the bad qualities exceed the good. Plato prescribes three qualities in a man who wants to examine another man's soul: knowledge, good will, boldness.

You can’t escape yourself:

Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. "I should think not," he said; "he took himself along with him.” Why should we move to find Countries and climates of another kind? What exile leaves himself behind?

You can’t be relaxed and ambitious:

The humor most directly opposite, to retirement is ambition. Glory and repose are things that cannot lodge in the same dwelling. As far as I can see, these men have only their arms and legs outside the crowd; their souls, their intentions, are more than ever in the thick of it.

Abandon books you get stuck on:

If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks on them. If I planted myself in them, I would lose both myself and time; for I have an impulsive mind. What I do not see at the first attack, I see less by persisting.

Abstinence is easier than moderation:

Passions are as easy for me to avoid as they are hard for me to moderate. They are more easily torn from the mind than checked [Seneca]. He who cannot attain that noble impassibility of the Stoics, let him take refuge in the bosom of this plebeian stupidity of mine. What those men did by virtue, I train myself to do by disposition.

It’s easier to be healthy once you’ve already started:

Prosperity is discipline and education to me, as are adversities and rods to others. CAs if good fortune were incompatible with a good conscience, men never become good except in bad fortune. Good fortune to me is a singular spur to moderation and modesty. Prayer wins me, threats repel me; favor makes me bend, fear makes me stiffen.

We always imagine things will be worse than they are:

Many things seem to us greater in imagination than in reality. I have spent a good part of my life in perfect and entire health; I mean not merely entire, but even blithe and ebullient. This state, full of verdure and cheer, made me find the thought of illnesses so horrible that when I came to experience them I found their pains mild and easy compared with my fears.

True freedom is having power over yourself:

True freedom is to have power over oneself for everything. He is most powerful who has power over himself [Seneca].

Be honest about your sins and vices:

A man must see his vice and study it to tell about it. Those who hide it from others ordinarily hide it from themselves. And they do not consider it covered up enough if they themselves see it; they withdraw and disguise it from their own conscience. Why does no one confess his vices? Because he is still in their grip now; it is only for a waking man to tell his dream.

That’s all for this week! I hope you learned something, and I’ll be back with another great book to share for Nat’s Notes next week.