Coping: If you’re in need of a bit of philosophical comfort, best reach for Montaigne
The French philosopher was scrupulously honest about his own humanity
There’s one philosopher who’s better than anyone for human comfort, and that’s Michel de Montaigne. Image: Culture Club/Getty Images
There is a well-known quote that’s often attributed to Aristotle: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” As far as I know, it was misattributed to him; at least he didn’t say it in that form. But it sounds deep, right? It sounds like something someone clever would say. And it is; the only way to avoid being negatively judged for your actions by others is to undertake no actions at all.
Of course, you will then be judged for doing nothing, being unambitious, and so on. You can minimise criticism by drawing as little attention as possible to yourself, but then you’ll be dismissed.
Aristotle is one of the greatest philosophical figures in history; a behemoth, the sort of fellow you can’t really think of as occasionally getting diarrhoea like everyone else, or tripping on his way up stairs. He’s not the guy I go to when I’m looking for a relatable philosopher when it comes to feeling criticised or insecure. There’s one philosopher who’s better than anyone for human comfort, and that’s Michel de Montaigne. No one is scrupulously honest as he is about his own humanity, and if I were magically allowed to put one philosophy book on the secondary school curriculum tomorrow, it would be Montaigne’s Essays.
I go back to that volume every once in a while, when I’m feeling a bit lost, glum, or generally inadequate. This week, I happened upon the Aristotle quote, and it prompted me to email someone I’ve never met in the hope that it might lead to a new work opportunity. After all, nobody rewards timidity, even if bravery is occasionally punished.
He says: “I sometimes get others to say what I cannot put so well myself . . . to rein in the temerity of those hasty criticisms which leap to attack writings of every kind, especially recent writings by men still alive . . . I have to hide my weaknesses beneath those great reputations.” We are less likely to take people and ideas seriously when they’re recent, or physically close to us. This is why we treat Aristotle with lofty respect, but some more modern thinkers get poo emojis emailed to them. It’s why great artists or novelists or academics are still thought ridiculous by their children. Once you’ve been in the car with someone when they’ve farted, it’s hard to think of them as a genius, even if they are one. As Montaigne says, “few men have been wonders to their families”.
The respected man I emailed didn’t email back. I’d expected a dismissive response, but to be ignored smarts a little. But I can still take comfort in Montaigne’s observation that how good you are doesn’t always come into it. We seem hardwired to dismiss others’ efforts and creations when they are close by. When someone asks who the f**k you think you are, it’s better to be someone making an effort than someone who cowers and stops trying. After all, who the f**k do they think they are, asking you that?