How cool would it be to be born into a noble family in the 16th century, inherit your own castle, and decide in your late thirties to retire and spend your remaining years on earth reading and writing about life in a massive castle library full of books by classical authors?
That’s exactly what French Renaissance philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne decided to do when he chose to remove himself from public life.
Not only did Montaigne write, he gave birth to the modern essay with his three book masterpiece entitled, Essays. Essays were a reflection of Montaigne’s life as he wrote freely about his views on religion, education, friendship, love and freedom.
Many adored Montaigne’s work. His impressive list of fans include Voltaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jean Jacques Rousseau and Gustave Flaubert. His books are still popular today and read by many who seek philosophical wisdom.
Marie Popova of Brain Pickings describes what makes Montaigne unique:
What separated Montaigne from other memoirists of his day was that he didn’t write about daily deeds and his achievements—rather, he contemplated the meaning of life from all possible angles, and in the process popularized the essay as a form.
Had Montaigne been alive today, you wouldn’t see Facebook status updates about “feeling blessed,” the 5k race he finished 27th in, witty birth announcements, or a barrage of check-ins at all of the wonderful places he visited. Instead, you would see a non self-absorbed wall of essays with a sole purpose to serve the well-being of the reader.
It’s mind-blowing how Montaigne was able to achieve such writing prowess in his late thirties with little writing experience throughout most of his life.
Three traits attributed to Montaigne’s transformation into the most influential writer of the French Renaissance:
- Unparalleled Focus
Montaigne isolated himself in his castle library vowing to put all of his thoughts on paper. Writing became his number one priority. He adhered to a strict schedule and eliminated all outside distractions.
Montaigne poured his heart out into his work. Most of his work was a personal reflection of his life’s experiences. He used these experiences to extrapolate life lessons for his audience. He was passionate about writing and strongly felt that his life experiences and reflections could help the lives of others—sounds like the blueprint of a modern day blogger. Popova refers to Montaigne as the “godfather of blogging.”
He doodled. He wrote about anything and everything that struck a nerve. Writing kept Montaigne sane and brought him peace. His appreciation for the world grew with each stroke of his quill pen.
Popova highlights an excerpt from Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live:
His “reverie” in turn gave Montaigne another mad idea: the thought of writing. He called this a reverie too, but it was one that held out the promise of a solution. Finding his mind so filled with “chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose,” he decided to write them down, not directly to overcome them, but to inspect their strangeness at his leisure. So he picked up his pen; the first of the Essays was born. Later, his material grew until it included almost every nuance of emotion or thought he had ever experienced, not least his strange journey in and out of unconsciousness. That, Bakewell argues, is precisely what Montaigne sough—and, ultimately, found—in writing.
Writing had got Montaigne through his “mad reveries “ crisis; it now taught him to look at the world more closely, and increasingly gave him the habit of describing inward sensations and social encounters with precision. As Montaigne the man went about his daily life on the estate, Montaigne the writer walked behind him, spying and taking notes.
I write for the same reasons.
My mind at times feels like a malfunctioned pinball machine, with 50 pinballs dropped into the game, bouncing around at lightning speed while I struggle to keep them all from falling into the trap hole. My only solace is to write all of my thoughts and ideas down on paper. The written word brings order to the chaotic, frenzied pinball machine that is my mind.
Montaigne serves as an inspiration to anyone looking to become a writer or wants to change direction later in life. It’s never too late. All it takes is unparalleled focus, heart, and constant experimentation.