Alain de Botton takes the help of philosopher Michel de Montaigne to help us understand how to overcome a feeling of inadequacy in the fourth video in the series of “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness”. The talk is titled ‘Montaigne on Self Esteem’.
“Montaigne was a rather lovable kind of philosopher because he seems to understand what makes us feel bad about ourselves and in his book addresses three main areas of inadequacies,” says Botton, “Firstly, bodily inadequacy; that is we are not comfortable with our body, we feel awkward about it. Secondly, the inadequacy we feel when we think others are judging us; our customs and habits are not being approved of. And thirdly, intellectual inadequacy; when we feel we are just not clever enough.”
As usual Botton takes us to the home place of the philosopher, which in this case is a small French town 30 miles east of Bordeaux. Here stands a castle overlooking hay farms where Montaigne was born. Montaigne’s life was enviable, and as Botton says, could spark a feeling of inadequacy in itself: a nobleman, a lawyer, a friend of the king of France, twice Mayor of Bordeaux…and he retired at the age of 38 to sit in his castle and read, reflect and write.
Montaigne wrote about all that was left out in conventional writing…he felt that we were surrounded by wrong role models who do not give space to what we actually are and this can give rise to hatred when we fail to make the grade. And so he wrote about ordinary things so as to make every reader feel “normal”. As Botton says he took the reader into confidence by sharing some very intimate and not so pleasant facts about himself, like even farting and his bowel habits. This way he let the trappings of sophistication and hypocrisy drop.” The most terrible and violent of our reflections is to despise our own beings…”
Montaigne worked at one tower at one end of his castle. As Botton takes us up to his bedroom he tells us Montaigne loved the idea of drifting into sleep and so he would have the church bells ring in the middle of the night, so that he could drift back to sleep!
Up till Montaigne most philosophers had said that it is reason that brings us the best chance for fulfilment. Montaigne differed. He said our mind creates all our problems. The first problem with having a mind is that, “… we are disgusted with our physical selves, we often think we are too fat or too gross or uncouth and develop eating disorders, sexual hang ups and embarrassments,” says Botton. “Montaigne knew many people around him afflicted by physical shame. He knew a man who killed himself because he let off a cacophony of farts at a banquet. A woman who was so embarrassed to eat that she always ate behind a curtain. Another man was obsessed that he should be buried in his underpants…Montaigne urges to accept that we are half animals…he reminds us that kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies...in this regard he felt animals are cleverer than us because we they are more comfortable with their bodies. We should accept our bodies gracefully and with a touch of humour…says Montaigne.”
All around the world, people tend to view with intolerance anyone who does not share their customs. “We are all liable to face prejudice the day we stray from our customs,” said Montaigne. So he pleads that we should not judge more by habit than experience.
As for intellectual confidence Montaigne asserted that we need wisdom and for wisdom all you need is humility, modesty and an acceptance of your intellectual limits. The wise accept mental limits just as they accept physical limits…College education perhaps misses out on lessons in life... it tests learning more than knowledge…and that leads to a wrong sense of the self.
Montaigne thus cautions against intellectual arrogance and says the best way to live is without thinking…