Back in high school I had the opportunity to take a philosophy class and was hooked. To my parents’ chagrin I entered university as a philosophy major and my idealistic 18-year-old brain was convinced I’d be a professional philosopher.
Not surprisingly, that dream died in my first year, but at the very least I came out of it with some pretty interesting books. Years later, one of the only ones I still have and occasionally crack open is The Complete Works of Michel De Montaigne — 1336 bible-thin pages of essays, travel journals and letters written by a retired French guy almost 500 years ago.
Sounds interesting right? Maybe not, but remember, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Before we get into what he wrote, here is a quick backgrounder on his life. Montaigne’s was born in 1533 to a noble family. His father was obsessed with bringing what he considered refined Italian culture to France. Thus, Montaigne was tutored so that Latin was his first language and later sent to one of the best boarding schools in France. He would go on to serve at court and was elected twice as the mayor of Bordeaux. He retired in 1571 at the age of 37 to his castle where he virtually locked himself away with books and started writing.
At first glance, the life and times of Montaigne don’t seem very relatable at all, especially to a place like Terrace, or a time like the 21st Century.
But reading his work and thinking a little bit deeper about his life paints a different picture. For example, he faced criticism for leaving Bordeaux to escape a plague while he was mayor, not totally unlike some Canadian politicians taking international vacations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of Montaigne’s work is in the essay format, where his goal was to describe himself and his observations honestly and with utter frankness.
“I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject,” he says in his introduction. Frivolous and vain as he might have thought it at the time, the book is full of hundreds of insights and thoughts that would not be out of place and are perhaps even useful in 2021.
Reading his essay “Of the Inequality that is Between Us,” it’s easy to consider the message as it relates to social media, and the inequality we see in the world today.
“Why in judging a man do you judge him all wrapped up in a package,” Montaigne says (almost as if he is talking about Instagram profiles). “He displays to us only parts that are not at all his own, and hides from us those which alone one can truly judge his value.”
“If we consider a peasant and a king, a nobleman and a plebeian, a magistrate and a private citizen, a rich man and a pauper, there immediately appears to our eyes an extreme disparity between them, though they are different, so to speak, only in their breeches.”
Montaigne adds some advice which is pertinent today in his essay “A Trait of Certain Ambassadors.” In a time where information (and misinformation) is everywhere on the internet, Montaigne’s message about understanding the source of where knowledge is coming from remains powerful.
“I make a habit to consider who are the authors,” he said. “If they are doctors, I believe them most most readily in what they tell us about the temperature of the air, the health and constitution of princes, and wounds and maladies; if they are lawyers, we must take what they say on controversies over rights, the laws, the establishment of governments, and things like that.”
We should all try harder to follow some 450-year-old advice while on the internet. Judge people by who they really are, not what they show you on their profile. Seek information from experts, not Facebook commenters.