Michel de Montaigne is perhaps one of my favourite philosophers. Rather than spouting obscure phrases or finding ethereal ideas – his writing was very much based upon the real world. He could be considered something of a narcissist as he largely wrote about himself, but as his anecdotes were largely combined with insightful observations about the world… I think he can be forgiven.
Montaigne believed that many people were unhappy because they felt inadequate in some way. For anyone who has lacked self-esteem at any point, this is an easy concept to identify with!
Montaigne identified different areas that he felt were particularly problematic – our own bodies, society as a whole and the world of intellect. It strikes me that although Montaigne was writing in the 15th century – his ideas still pervade the world today.
Montaigne observed that people are often disgusted with the way that they look – they may be too fat, too gross, or too uncouth. Whilst the issue of body weight is obviously prevalent in society today, equally I would say that many people would also be mortified to burp or fart in public today!
He had the novel idea of looking to the animal kingdom to find a resolve to these issues. He argued that animals are far more accepting of their bodies, and do so with grace. They are not striving to continually get thinner or to repress how they are feeling – and as a result seem at much more ease with the world.
As to social inadequacy, Montaigne argued that we often feel like we don’t fit in because society so sharply divides what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ This leads to a situation where people are constantly being judged upon their decisions or life choices.
Nowhere is this more starkly felt than in modern parenting – How are you feeding your baby? Are you using a ‘naughty step’ to discipline your children? Are you going back to work? Is your teen allowed free access to the internet?
Obviously, we all have opinions on these issues but I find that so often it’s hard to get away from that feeling that we’re constantly being judged – and am probably entirely guilty of doing exactly the same thing!
Montaigne recognised that trying to change this trend would be a futile exercise but rather urged his readers to be more open-minded themselves. He encouraged people to travel the globe and to embrace other cultures and ideas. He believed that upon discovering how vast and varied the world truly is, difference would therefore be celebrated rather than seen as a source of conflict.
I found myself reminded of this idea when I was torn with the concept of co-sleeping when Katie was a baby. All the literature I had been handed by the midwife spelt out all the reasons not to co-sleep. In my mind it had been painted as the source of all evil (and bad parenting). But there also was no doubt that it was the right thing for my baby – as it meant we actually slept! I was entwined in a big cycle of fear and guilt that I was doing the wrong thing – until I talked to my friend from Nepal. She couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t co-sleep and that it was actually completely the norm! This inspired me to look to other cultures where co-sleeping is encouraged and actually, how low infant mortality is there. In short, Montaigne’s advice worked.
Finally, he observed that many people lacked confidence because they believed they were intellectually inferior. Montaigne argued that intelligence doesn’t equal happiness and that it made much more sense to aspire to wisdom. For Montaigne, wisdom was practising humility, modesty and an acceptance of our limitations. He said not to look at what qualifications or positions of power a person held, but rather to see them what they truly are – people, just like us.
I think there is much to be learnt from Montaigne’s view of the world. It is so refreshing to meet people who talk openly and honestly about themselves. I like to leave conversations feeling built up by the experience rather than feeling like I’ve gone through ten-rounds of a competition!
I think within British culture there is a tendency to avoid things we find embarrassing or uncomfortable. But this does nothing more than acerbate the feeling that we are alone in those situations! I’m absolutely NOT saying that I want people to embrace the animal within and start farting in my company – but I think there is room to talk about what is really going on in life.
Did anyone see the Graham Norton show last November when Kate Winslet revealed why she can’t jump on trampolines anymore? I wonder how many women found themselves laughing in recognition with her statement, ‘When you’ve had a few children you know, it’s just what happens… It’s amazing, two sneezes, I’m fine. Three, it’s game over.’
The fact that this became NEWS is no doubt an indication about how much such conversation is avoided in society. It’s also striking that incontinence is one of the more minor problems that many women suffer with following pregnancy.
Whilst I’m not about to start writing about the state of my own nether regions (thank the lord) – I absolutely am grateful for the fact that I have friends that I can be honest with. I think back to the amount of texts I’ve sent my friend Checi about the state of my boobs or the hours I’ve spent with Megan wondering when my pelvic floor will be up to running again and think that Montaigne really had it spot on.
Find yourself people who don’t judge what’s ‘normal’ but embrace you for who you are. Who let you talk about what matters to you without sneering or mocking you for your decisions. But most of all, accept yourselves and realise, once everything is stripped back – as Montaigne himself wrote – ‘Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies.’
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