Montaigne’s library was not just a repository or a work space. It was a chamber of marvels, and sounds like a sixteenth-century version of Sigmund Freud’s last home in London’s Hampstead: a treasure-house stuffed with books, papers, statuettes, pictures, vases, amulets, and ethnographic curiosities, designed to stimulate both imagination and intellect.
The library also marked Montaigne out as a man of fashion. The trend for such retreats had been spreading slowly through France, having begun in Italy in the previous century. Well-off men filled chambers with books and reading-stands, then used them as a place to escape to on the pretext of having to work. Montaigne took the escape factor further by removing his library from the house altogether. It was both a vantage point and a cave, or, to use a phrase he himself liked, an arrière-boutique: a “room behind the shop.”
“Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!”
“How does one achieve peace of mind?” On the latter point, Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.
Montaigne used his essays to learn.
Often, books need not be used at all. One learns dancing by dancing; one learns to play the lute by playing the lute. The same is true of thinking, and indeed of living. Every experience can be a learning opportunity: “a page’s prank, a servant’s blunder, a remark at table.” The child should learn to question everything: to “pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust.” Traveling is useful; so is socializing, which teaches the child to be open to others and to adapt to anyone he finds around him. Eccentricities should be ironed out early, because they make it difficult to get on with others. “I have seen men flee from the smell of apples more than from harquebus fire, others take fright at a mouse, others throw up at the sight of cream, and others at the plumping of a feather bed.” All this stands in the way of good relationships and of good living. It can be avoided, for young human beings are malleable.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
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“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.
— Charles T. Munger”
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