Michel de Montaigne - Go with the flow

Michel de Montaigne, first and greatest writer of 'essays', can cure you of broken-resolution blues. Sarah Bakewell shares his advice

It's 2010: the years have moved on by one notch. At the same time, the calendar circles back to 1 January, giving us the illusion that we can start everything afresh. Some of us think of this as just another day, perhaps an uneventful and hungover one. For others, it means something more vigorous: making resolutions, wiping clean the slate, rejecting old inadequacies and trying to do the right thing, starting now.

All this determination can make us feel good for a while - but what happens next? If our resolutions subside into half-forgotten good intentions by mid-January, are we going to feel worse than if we had never made them? Will we forgive ourselves less, or more, than if we break a similar plan made in mid-August? Is there something about today's date that sets us up for a special sense of failure? When our old selves come back, with their lazy ways and imperfections, refusing to go to the gym or tile the bathroom or get to bed early, will we greet them as familiar friends, or let them depress us?

I don't want to feel like a failure in 2010. I am making no resolutions and will be looking for wisdom from a different source: a man who knew a lot about living and had no patience for wiped slates or clean breaks.

He was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the author of a book named simply Essays, a word he coined to mean "tries". A wine-growing nobleman and Bordeaux government official of the late 16th century, he slipped away from his work and home responsibilities as often as he could to attend to his real labour of love: writing digressive, entertaining, freewheeling thoughts about all that he had read, done or seen.

He spent 20 years filling these with anecdotes and observations, until they occupied three volumes loosely grouped under titles such as "Of Friendship", "Of Coaches", "How we cry and laugh for the same thing", "How our mind hinders itself", "Of Experience" and "Of Thumbs".

The titles often had little to do with the content, but this did not bother either Montaigne or his passionate admirers - for the book met with huge success on its first publication in 1580, and has remained famous ever since. By putting it into the world rather than keeping it to himself, Montaigne was breaking a taboo.

You were not supposed to publish books about yourself, unless it was to record great deeds for the benefit of posterity, or a spiritual quest like that of St Augustine. But Montaigne wrote about eating, scratching his ears, having sex, reading books, talking to neighbours, catching himself being absent-minded or vain or impulsive, sleeping, falling off his horse, playing word games with his wife and daughter, and watching his cat hunting birds.

His real subject was simply Michel de Montaigne: the experience of being himself, an ordinary human leading a fairly ordinary (if privileged) life. His frankness, wit and insight delighted his readers, while giving them a mirror in which they could recognise their own habits and emotions.

As with all of us, some of the things Montaigne did were flawed, and he makes no attempt to conceal this. He lets us see him being petty, lazy or ignorant, or doing things that no longer make sense to him. Yet it is all part of himself, and he accepts it all. "I rarely repent", he says - a strange admission for a good Catholic. He writes, with great cheer, "If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived." It is enough just to be the way he is.

This may sound easy, but self-acceptance is one of the hardest things to achieve. Montaigne manages it partly by treating his past selves as separate individuals. Whatever he did in the past, he was someone else then, and it must have seemed right at the time, so why worry?

Even five minutes ago, he was different, and soon he will be changing again. "We are all patchwork," he says, "and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game." Every minute means a different Montaigne, and a kind of New Year leap takes place at every breath, not just at ritually designated thresholds.

Montaigne could have made New Year's resolutions: they were well established in his day. The Romans had looked back over their past actions at the end of each year so as to plan for the year ahead. When Julius Caesar re-organised the calendar in 46 BC, he set the year to start on 1 January - a month named for Janus, two-faced god of portals and gates.

Montaigne admired Roman traditions, but this particular one ran counter to his temperament. It was the moment-to-moment flow of everyday life that fascinated him, not gateways and rites of passage. He loved looking into his past, but mainly because he was curious about it and wanted to reflect on the variety of his behaviour and experience.

As for the year to come, there was no way to separate it from the general onward flow, or make it adhere to different rules from what had gone before. It is no good climbing on stilts, he wrote; you must still walk on your own legs. And however lofty your throne, it will still always be your own rear end you are sitting on.

He did think, though, that valuable lessons could be learned from looking over a life and taking a longer perspective. Instead of clean breaks and new intentions, what Montaigne sought in his past experience was greater self-understanding. There would always be puzzling areas, but he tried to become familiar with his weaknesses so as to work around them. This is a matter of practical good sense. If, instead of fooling yourself about your nature and making futile resolutions, you understand that you are just too incorrigibly lazy ever to get out of bed at 5 am and start work early, you can look for more appropriate ways of planning your time, or perhaps find an easier job.

Taking accurate stock of weaknesses has another benefit, which goes to the heart of Montaigne's philosophy - if you can use the word "philosophy" of a book which sets out only to describe one man's assorted experience of life. By understanding and accepting your fallibility, you give yourself a means of minimising one of humanity's most damaging tendencies: that of taking personal beliefs and perceptions to be universal truths.

Most people commit this error without realising it. If something looks green to your eyes, it is only natural to think that it really is green, no matter how many other people say it is blue. But if you remember other occasions on which your eyes have fooled you, whether because of optical illusions, fever, or tinted lighting, you are more likely to pause before picking a fight over it. Should the subject be politics or religion rather than the colour of a wall or scarf, the result is a small but significant decrease in the amount of militant bigotry in the world.

Because it kept his mind open, Montaigne welcomed any experience that reminded him how error-prone he was. He even celebrated when he caught himself in a memory lapse, because it made it obvious how little he grasped about the world. If a friend remembered some incident differently, he willingly accepted the friend's version, knowing how wrong his own ideas had been in the past. And he hoped that, should he ever become hard of hearing, he would doubt himself at once, rather than insisting as most people did that those around him had begun whispering and mumbling.

So, if we choose to look back on 2009 and decide that we have done wrong-headed or undesirable things, we are making a small but significant contribution to improving humanity, by becoming more sensitive, less blinkered, and more willing to consider alternative points of view. We also gain useful personal tools for making decisions based on our limitations.

This is very different from making resolutions. It does not mean rejecting past actions, but accepting and even embracing them in order to become what Montaigne calls "wise at our own expense".

With such a source of wisdom at his disposal, it is unsurprising that Montaigne paid little heed to the usual doorways and thresholds of life. He found it more rewarding to observe the river of human experience as it ran through him, from moment to moment, and to question every drop of it. The result, his Essays, is a book filled with real life and rich with ad hoc, accumulated insights into the art of living well.

I make no pretence to knowing how to live well - but maybe this year I will just lie back and accept that fact. I will also do what I have done many times before: read Montaigne, savour his wisdom, enjoy his company, and remind myself to keep marvelling with him at the strangeness of life.

Sarah Bakewell's 'How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer' is published this month by Chatto & Windus. Montaigne's 'Essays' are published by Penguin Classics

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor