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Montaigne and the wisdom of uncertainty: to think better in order to live better

By Béa Aaronson

“What do I know?”
“There is a plague on man, the opinion that he knows something”
“Everything is but a passage”
Michel de Montaigne

Progenitor of the human sciences, pioneer of cultural relativism, precursor of the liberation of animals and the liberation of earth, creator of a new literary genre, the essay, Michel de Montaigne paved the way to much of our liberal ecological modern thinking. Together with milestone biographical and historical information, I shall talk about his stoicism, skepticism, epicureanism, relativism and the way these philosophical theories, once put into practice, have inspired both his life and work.

“Montaigne and the Wisdom of Uncertainty: To Think Better in Order to Live Better”
Wed, Dec 4, 4:30 & 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde Annex
San Jorge 45 (off Refugio)
Colonia San Antonio
120 pesos
Reservations: 121-1026 or

Montaigne re-assures us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself! By recognizing the rule of appearances and the loss of connection with the truth of being, he warns us against the fascism of thought and badly digested knowledge. Montaigne questions the possibility of all knowing. He sees human beings as creatures of weakness, inconstancy and uncertainty, incapacity and fragmentation.

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 in the southwest of France, in his château 30 miles from Bordeaux, and died there in 1592. He lived during most exciting and troubled times: the Age of the Renaissance, an age of contrasts, extremes and upheavals, and an  age of art, philosophy, but also rebellion, religious wars, tortures, the plague and death. Montaigne saw his times as ones of dissimulation, corruption, violence and hypocrisy. Not much different from ours really.

The first half of his life was spent in the midst of human affairs… lawyer, courtier, mayor. But in 1570, renouncing this glittering socialite vapid way of life, he retired in his château and begun to write. Celebrated as the inventor of the essay form of creative writing –a liberating almost stream of consciousness way of writing, which espouses the movements of the thinking process – Montaigne does not project a proven confident knowledge. His essays rather imply a tentative exploration, a humbling attempt at understanding the human condition. Throughout the essays, Montaigne wants to open minds, to reach and maintain freedom of judgment by avoiding commitment to any particular theoretical position. He wants to understand the human condition and uses himself as an exemplum.

I shall share with you his most important thoughts about vanity, glory and fame — all illusions — about anger, smell, education, marriage, animals and nature, torture, cultural relativism, conscience, fanaticism, superstition, imagination, friendship, fear, and death. I chose these topics for their pertinence in our world today.

I do not think the word philosopher suits him. He does not propose any theory at all, no system, only common sense, and most of all, free individual thinking. Montaigne is a thinker. Montaigne’s form of critical thinking gives great weight to doubt. There is no pedantic arrogance in Montaigne. It is no surprise that Shakespeare, Rousseau, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to name but a few, borrowed from him.

Through the humbling acknowledgement of our imperfections, we can follow Montaigne’s advice in rejecting, avoiding pedantic dogmatism, totalitarianism, and greed. Montaigne’s guide to a better life can truly help us reach higher levels of humanity.


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