A person who does not sleepwalk through the world, moreover, is freed to respond to situations in the right way, without hesitation—as if they were questions asked all of a sudden, as Epictetus puts it. A violent attack, a quarrel, the loss of a friend: all these are demands barked at you by life, as by a schoolteacher trying to catch you not paying attention in class. Even a moment of boredom is such a question. Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a precisely suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life.
Stoics and Epicureans alike approached this goal mainly through rehearsal and meditation. Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism. The great Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept notebooks in which he would go over the changes of perspective he wished to drill into himself:
Seneca did this too: “Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity.”
Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this maneuver: in Greek, epokhe. It means “I suspend judgment.” Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: “I hold back.” This phrase conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes. This sounds about as uplifting as the Stoic or Epicurean notion of “indifference.” But, like the other Hellenistic ideas, it works, and that is all that matters. Epokhe functions almost like one of those puzzling koans in Zen Buddhism: brief, enigmatic notions or unanswerable questions such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.
He even fantasized about becoming like Hippias of Elis, a Greek Sophist philosopher of the fifth century BC, who learned to be self-sufficient, teaching himself to cook, shave, make his own clothes and shoes—everything he needed. It was a fine idea. Still: a self-sufficient Montaigne, mending his doublet with needle and thread, digging his garden, baking bread, tanning leather for his boots? Even Montaigne himself must have found this hard to picture.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer