How Michel de Montaigne Inspired me to Continue my Self-Examination

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I’ve always been curious about myself. Though I didn’t keep a diary as an 11-year-old arriving to a new school in a new country, I did reflect heavily on myself. After my school years, I got distracted with life and my environment and stopped my self-examination, instead getting lost with the concept of ‘fitting in’ and the flow of life.

However, with my renaissance at forty, adversity reminded me that my life is nothing but a critical analysis of the self. I started journaling and critically observing myself.

A journey of self-discovery is also one of self-enquiry, so the more information we gather on ourselves, the clearer we become. We should know every little detail about ourselves; what excites us, what puts a smile on our face, what makes us tick. What are our dreams? What are we willing to suffer for? Who are our heroes? Why are we here on earth? How do we fit in with life, and in the grand scheme of things?

The reality is that when it comes to ourselves, we presume we know it all, without dedicating enough time and effort to research who we truly are. We allow the world to judge us, give us titles and names that don’t apply to our true selves. We end up being tagged and put into a compartment that isolates us for many years and stops us from finding what our true aspirations are.

Not many in our history, epitomized observation of the self than Michel de Montaigne, the creator of the essay. A blogger before there was the internet.

In 1571, Montaigne at age of 38, retired from public life and retreated to his ‘Citadel’, in the Dordogne, where he isolated himself with thousands of books and began work on ‘Essais’ (Essays).

He had a Latin inscription carved on a beam in his study; “Worn out with the slavery of the court and of public service, Michel de Montaigne … retires to the bosom of the learned Muses … to pass what may be left of a life already more than half spent, consecrating this ancestral dwelling and sweet retreat to his liberty, tranquility and repose.”

Though, at the time, Montaigne was seen as self-indulgent when he declared that, “I am myself the matter of my book.” He was a man before his time. All he was seeking was the freedom required to free his soul, and to do so means to study thyself.

Stefan Zweig’s biography of Montaigne captures the essence of Montaigne’s life philosophy:

To be free, a man must feel no obligation or connection to anything, and yet we are all connected to the state, the community, the family; our thoughts are subject to the language we speak, making the isolated man, the absolutely free man, a phantom. It is impossible to live in a void…We do not need to cut ourselves off from the world, to wall ourselves up in a cell. But we need to make a distinction: we can love this or that, but we cannot “form a marriage bond” unless it is with our own selves. Montaigne does not reject everything we owe to passions or lust. On the contrary, he always advises us to take pleasure as far as is possible, for he is the earthbound man who accepts no limits: whoever has a passion for politics must involve himself with politics; whoever loves books must read books; whoever loves to hunt must hunt; whoever loves his house, his soil, his lands, his money, whoever loves things must devote himself to them entirely. But the most crucial is this: you should take as much as brings you pleasure, but not just to acquire things: “In the home, at study, hunting and all other forms of activity, one should strive for the fullness, the limits of enjoyment, but not exceed them, for then suffering begins to encroach.

Over the past ten years, I have asked many questions, delved deep into myself. I’ve experimented on myself seeing what piques my interest and what doesn’t. I’ve found that I need a lot of solitary time; I’ve found writing to be the best way to share parts of me in this world and recognising that what my soul needs more than anything is inner peace, presence and freedom.

It’s like we’re a river flowing effortlessly downstream, manoeuvring easily around any obstacles that get in our way.

We must like a river understand ourselves deeply enough to become self-accepting and thus free.

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