French philosopher Michel de Montaigne spoke truth when he quipped that the utility of living isn’t a matter of the length of time, but instead its use.
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time. A man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little.” — Michel de Montaigne
A prolific writer, de Montaigne invented a new form of writing: the essay. From the French word “essayer” or “to try”, the genre reflects his way of discovering the world. A man of many ideas, this literary form sprang out of his attempts to put down his thoughts into writing.
The Renaissance thinker would spend the bulk of his last 20 years of life composing pieces on all kinds of subjects, and then coming back to revise them at later periods. This iterative process captured well the evolution of his ideas and knowledge on the topics he was writing about.
While Montaigne discussed a vast variety of things in his works, one overall theme stood out. How to live. In the second book of his “Essays”, he shared that it was the act of living itself that defined his being.
“My trade and my art is living.” — Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne was a strange philosopher. As Sarah Bakewell put it, “he contradicted himself, preferred specifics to generalities, embraced uncertainty, and followed his thoughts wherever they led.” His work was not about creating grand theories of the world. Instead, he spent time just observing himself.
Management of terror
Death is an inescapable facet of life. Humans know this, and it strikes a certain fear in their hearts. In fact, according to anthropologist Ernest Becker the anxiety provoked by death is the primary driving factor of human behavior.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man. ” — Ernest Becker
From early on, this was certainly true for Michel de Montaigne. Death of his father, death of his close friend, death of his brother, death of his kids, the Frenchman faced the Grim Reaper at every corner. Yet, it was a near-death experience of his own that awoke him to life.
One day, he was riding out in the countryside, when someone from his own retinue came galloping by. The large man riding a large horse suddenly slipped and fell over the small-statured de Montaigne and his horse. The force of the fall catapulted Montaigne into the air. He landed on his back, all broken up. Laying still without a sound, his servants pronounced him dead.
Luckily, after two hours Michel started moving again. He tried getting up, but throwing up blood forced him to lie back down. The entire situation made him delirious. So much that as he wrote later “my first sentiments were much nearer the approaches of death than life.” Over the course of a certain time, the Frenchman began switching back into life. Little by little, he recovered his life force.
How de Montaigne found meaning
Coming so close to death, de Montaigne felt that he understood the nature of it. This experience was pivotal for turning his attention to exploring the mental world. No longer afraid of death, he began to study life. The subject of this examination was himself.
“I do not write my own acts, but myself and my essence.” — Michel de Montaigne
In order to follow the ancient Greek maxim to “know thyself”, de Montaigne turned to writing. He discovered that this was the best way to reflect on what he learned. Writing became his life. This is how he found meaning.
It wasn’t the act of writing itself that gave Montaigne meaning. Rather, it was the ability to explore diverse topics that fulfilled him. Writing was just a tool that allowed him to do that, a means to an end. The French philosopher found meaning in discovering how to live.
Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl surmised it was the will to meaning that was a person’s main driving force. Even under the most horrible of circumstances it is this meaning that can push you through. These ideas were not new. A hundred years before Frankl, existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard uttered an incredibly insightful thought.
“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose.” — Soren Kierkegaard
That day, lying near death, Michel de Montaigne found a purpose. From that time on, he began his life’s work. Writing his “Essays” brought him joy. It was what gave him meaning.
Finding your own meaning in life
As humans we are always searching for meaning. Given that our lowest basic needs on Maslow’s pyramid are satisfied, we tend to turn our minds in a more inwards direction. We start asking questions, and trying to find answers.
This need for meaning is tied to humans being suckers for stories. As Jonathan Gottschall discusses in his book “The Storytelling Animal”, humans have an affinity for narrative. It has a powerful grip on our imagination.
And what story is more important than our own? As humans, we want our own tale to make sense. We want it to be coherent. We want it to be leading to something. That’s why we need meaning. As Canadian journalist Robert Fulford noted, having a story and finding meaning are intertwined.
“To discover we have no story is to acknowledge that our existence is meaningless, which we may find unbearable.” — Robert Fulford
Yet, how to find this meaning? The universe often doesn’t make sense. Things happen that make you scratch your head. Many times, it seems as if there is no justice.
Viktor Frankl gives three ways to find meaning.
- By creating a work or doing a deed
- By experiencing something or encountering someone
- By the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering
All of these ways are a path to meaning. Often the road you take, and the sense you discover depends on the situation and the circumstances you find yourself in.
Without realizing it, years ago I had set out on a journey similar to Montaigne’s. Not comprehending the world, not understanding why humans behave the way they do, not wanting to accept the absurd stuff I saw all around me, I decided to try to find out how things work.
This drove me to reading, exploring, and ultimately writing. For just like Montaigne, I discovered that putting words on paper (or in my case on the screen) was a great way to start making sense of things. However, unlike the French Renaissance thinker I took it one step beyond.
Observing human behavior, I noticed that most people waste their time in life. They spend countless hours posting endless selfies on social media. They watch soccer matches, while shouting and drinking beer. They try to get “experiences” by numbing their brains through drugs and alcohol. Yet, at the end of the day, they have nothing to show for it. They stand still.
For me, I have found a sense of fulfillment not just in studying the world, but actively engaging with it. I set goals on who I want to be, and work on achieving them. My sense of meaning comes from discovering what I can do if I set my mind to it. I know I can never reach perfection, but it’s worth trying nevertheless.
In a way, the way I find meaning is very Nietzschian. As the great German philosopher of the 19th century stated, individuals have the power to transcend themselves. They can become Supermen. I guide myself by one simple quote from Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Man is something to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?” — Friedrich Nietzsche
I find this view incredibly meaningful.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.