Wednesday, August 7, 2013

montaigne #4: on habits of mind

As NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

As you reflect on your own habits of thinking, read the following passage (after the jump) about Montaigne's view of the topic and ask yourself: Do your habits of mind help you achieve your goals, or do they get in your way? Answer in a comment to this post.

Excerpt from: 

Bakewell, Sarah. (2010). How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  New York: Other Press.

pp. 109-112

About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their pedantries and abstractions.  But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life.  These were the philosophies he turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing with more minor everyday irritations.
            The three most famous such systems of thought were Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism: the philosophies collectively known as Hellenistic because they had their origins in the era when Greek thought and culture spread to Rome and other Mediterranean regions, from the third century B.C. onwards.  They differed in details, but were so close in essentials as to be hard to distinguish much of the time.  Like everyone else, Montaigne mixed and matched them according to his needs.
            All the schools had the same aim: to achieve a way of living known in the original Greek as eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness,” “joy,” or “human flourishing.”  This meant living well in every sense: thriving, relishing life, being a good person.  They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which might be rendered as “imperturbability” or “freedom from anxiety.”  Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry.  To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs.
            It was on the question of how to acquire such equanimity that the philosophies began to diverge.  Each had a different idea, for example, of how far one should compromise with the real world.  The original Epicurean community, founded by Epicurus in the fourth century BC, required followers to leave their families and live like cult members in a private “garden.”  Skeptics preferred to remain amid the public hurly-burly like everyone else, but with a radically altered mental attitude.  Stoics were somewhere in between.  The two best known Stoic writers, Seneca and Epictetus, wrote for an elite Roman readership who were deeply involved in the affairs of their time and had no time for gardens, but who desired oases of tranquility and self-possession wherever they could find them.
            Stoics and Epicureans shared a great deal of their theory, too.  They thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present.  If one could only get these two things right—controlling and paying attention—most other problems would take care of themselves.  The catch is that both are almost impossible to do.  So difficult are they that one cannot approach them head-on.  It is necessary to sidle in from lateral angles, and trick oneself into achieving them.
            Accordingly, Stoic and Epicurean thinkers spent much time devising techniques and thought experiments.  For example: imagine that today is the last day of your life.  Are you ready to face death?  Imagine, even, that this very moment—now!—is the last moment of your existence.  What are you feeling?  Do you have regrets?  Are there things you wish you had done differently?  Are you really alive at this instant, or are you consumed with panice, denial, and remorse?  This experiment opens your eyes to what is important to you, and reminds you of how time runs constantly through your fingers.
            Some Stoics even acted out these “last moment” experiments with props and a supporting cast.  Seneca wrote of a wealthy man named Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, “He has lived his life, he has lived his life.”  You could achieve the same effect more simply and cheaply just by holding the idea of your own demise in your mind and paying full attention to it.  The Epicurean writer Lucretius suggested picturing yourself at the point of death, and considering two possibilities.  Either you have lived well, in which case you can go your way satisfied, like a well-fed guest leaving a party.  Or you have not, but then it makes no difference.


  1. I don't set goals because I try to not set myself up for disappointment. However, my way of thinking is very conflicting with what I know I can do and what I think is right. I can't say I know whether my "philosophy" is going to be my success or failure to be exact. I could agree to play the game and conform to what people would like to see and hear, or I could be myself who detests censorship and dishonesty (I dislike saying that phrase of "being myself", it feels so cheesy). It's difficult because when you know how to manipulate, you also have some sense of morality you don't want to break.

    1. There's a lot of truth in these words, Brenna! As far as philosophy goes, I tend to stay away from the one where my eyes constantly gaze at the future while I am standing steadfast in the present. Now, I am not saying that I am against training mentally and physically today in order to contribute to the world later, but I am stating that the future holds many uncertainties that are almost impossible to foresee. In the excerpt above, we are asked to think like a Stoic or Epicurean thinker and imagine if we are ready to face death at any given moment. Surely, death is scary, but it is something we all as human beings will have in common someday, and, ready or not, it is something we all must accept. I believe that the process of a single life can be seen as a journey, because we don't know where we go when we pass away. In the journey of life, I believe it is better to travel well than to arrive. Every step counts.

    2. Brenna, the idea of being your self over what others say should be more valued in our society. Instead of trying to please others by as you said "playing the game", we should allow ourselves to be whoever we want to be. This may sound cliche, but there would be nothing new or to be discovered if we all did or acted the same.

      Ian, I couldn't agree with you more about your point of view on life and death! When I first read your comment, I thought about how living in the moment is a popular concept in our culture. An example of that would be "YOLO", which is an absolute ridiculous saying, but the message in it is some what helpful. We should live in the moment (I'm not saying that you should go do something absolutely crazy/dangerous and use YOLO as an excuse for it), but as you said we should continue to do things in the present in order to create a better future for ourselves and also enjoy the journey.

  2. The ideas of the Stoic or Epicurean thinkers surely different from our ideas today. Our determination of a good life isn't asking ourselves whether or not we wouldn't regret anything if we died today at this very moment. Having said that, I feel like this should be under heavy consideration when we create goals for ourselves in life. I think that we should think about creating goals based upon emotions. I have a goal to be happy, that is truly the main goal of my life. If I'm a struggling artist or a wealthy designer, I don't care so long as I am happy. The biggest thing standing in the way of my goal is truly my fear of change. I constantly like to live in my own world of constants and comfort but as I'm growing up, in order to go out and conquer and to move on with my life, I have to venture out and try new things. If I stick to trying new things, then I will succeed in my ultimate goals in life.

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  4. I have a habit of taking my goals/aspirations and looking at them trough a brutal realistic point of view. At times so realistic that it almost sounds negative. Throughout the years i have changed my ways, but for a while my habitual thinking did get in the way of my goals. It led me to fear failure which led me to be an observer instead of a participant. Once i changed the way i thought i was able to achieve more of my goals.