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Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Live

image via Wikipedia through Creative Commons
I once considered majoring in Classics. For some reason, admitting this embarrasses me. Probably because it reminds me of my huge, thick glasses and my complete set of railroad tracks, and my adolescent earnestness in search of Wisdom. I distinctly recall telling my interviewer at Wellesley that I'd like to start a Latin club.

Which I did not. I took a final semester of Latin. I'd been hoping for a class on Catullus' dirty poetry; but they didn't offer it. A semester translating 80-line chunks of Pastoral poetry was the fork in the road for me.

What I loved about the classics, though, was that all these guys were busy thinking about how to live, a topic that appealed to me then as much as it does now. Although most of those guys were Greek, and I didn't read Greek. I read them in English.

I touched on this in another post—how it’s easier to admit to materialism (I love my iPhone4s)  than to an interest in wisdom or meditation or things that might be grouped under spirituality.  That in our culture—or at least in my subsection of it—that kind of talk just doesn’t happen. You’ve got your psychological and your rational and your political conversations. It’s harder to get to those other kind,  the How to Live conversations.

So the other day I came across a book called How to Live in our local indie bookstore. It’s by Sarah Bakewell. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer.

How could I resist? It's philosophy, after a fashion, not self-help. But, after all, the essense of most of these self-help books on success is really about how to live in a way that makes success more likely. And that way usually involves delving into what really matters to you, what is most important, so that you can shape your goals around that.

And Montaigne. Well, he wrote all these essays in the 1500s in France, and they became famous, and later infamous (and banned by the Church,) and then famous again. So the book is about him and his essays, but it isn’t his actual essays. It’s about the influences on him, and his influence on those that followed him (pretty much everyone who was anyone read his essays through the early 20th Century);  and it turns out that, it being the late Renaissance and all, Montaigne was interested in the ancient Greeks, the philosophers—and then he in turn influenced the great philosophers of the 18th and 19th Century.

I was reading along and came to a passage about the influence of Stoicism and Epicurianism on him, and about how, in a quest to live well, those ancient Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about how to die well. In fact, they liked to visualize their own deaths, and consider how they would react to various types of death. By poison, by dismembering, by illness—all the wonderful choices available to a philosopher in an ancient Greek city-state. Whatever. The point was, engaged in thought experiments about their own deaths because it taught them what they valued: dying well. It was a way to deal with the fear of death honorably. Rehearsing it with one’s deepest values engaged meant practicing so that in extremis you would die as you attempted to live. Also, reducing the fear of death increases one’s ability to be equanimous, to live with ataraxia.

This stuff reminded me of two things. One, it reminded me of my interviews with my classicists that led to my Mensch Theory of Life and success: How you are judged at your death determines if you lived successfully.

And, two, it also reminds me of Stephen Covey’s Habit #2, where he tells us to visualize our funerals, because that’s how we’ll discover our values and principles. 

(Now Mr. Covey didn’t actually mention that this was not his idea originally. Perhaps he didn’t realize this. Perhaps he never read the classics. Or Montaigne. Then again, it’s not clear that Montaigne attributed his ideas to Epicurius or whoever it was. He borrowed freely. Plutarch, Ovid, whomever, and adapted to his own philosophy. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. I’m just saying that it rubs me the wrong way.)

I want to say one more thing for now about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People because the book is vast and endless and I have a stack of other books calling me, plus the one I am reading, plus the ones I have to read for a project due in March.

So I’ve been through the first 3 habits, which are personal growth habits. The next 3 habits deal with interacting with people, and I’m just going to avoid them now. The way I avoid people.

Haha. Little joke there. But I could go on forever about this one book, which would give it extraordinary weight in the scheme of this blog, weight I don’t want to give it, because while it’s interesting, it’s not definitive. Although it did get me to think about my basic operating principles, which is a good thing.

Habit 7 of Highly Effective People deserves a word or two. Covey says it’s the one habit that helps all the other habits. Sharpening the Saw. Which means getting in the habit of self-renewal. Covey says we should practice it every day for an hour or so. It’s Quadrant II work. Of course. Need I say that?

But more than that, it’s How to Live. It’s the habit “that makes all the others possible.” And all the habits altogether are yet another treatise on How to Live.

So, according Mr. Covey, our lives have four dimensions—all of which need renewal: Physical, Mental, Social/Emotional, and Spiritual.

Because I get all freaked and twitchy with too much “spiritual” this and “spiritual” that, let me say that he says value clarification, study, and meditation are subcomponents of spirituality. He does not say we have to join a church.

So, we are supposed to take care of our physical selves. Take care of our mental selves by reading, visualizing, planning, and writing. Take care of our social/emotional selves by engaging with others in service, empathy, and that very 90s word, synergy.

This is sharpening the saw. 

Seems to me, none of these philosophers, or Stephen Covey, is about making money. None is about achieving fame or other much-desired indicators of worldly success. Scratch a success guru and you get a philosopher. Scratch a philosopher, and you get, you get, um, a treatise.

So I’ve got no great insight for you today, my dozens of readers. But neither did Montaigne. He was a Pyrrhoian—he doubted much, if not everything about the world, and took one position in one essay and a contradictory position in a different essay. He was prolific. He wrote on many topics over decades. He was inconsistent and non-prescriptive. He was self-revelatory to a degree. He would have been a blogger if he were alive now. People read him and loved him because he disclosed his innermost thoughts in a human, and also humane way. And they read him still. And win the National Book Critics Circle Award when they write about him.

And that is definitely success.

But he wasn’t aiming for it. "Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose until itself," he said.

More on that later.


  1. Maybe the ancient Greeks could've left us some wisdom on aging well. They skipped a few chapters on life there. And so we have western society, bent on postponing the inevitable: gray hair and wrinkles, not so much death.

    Montaigne WOULD make a popular blogger today, wouldn't he? My new role model.

    You won't avoid the three habits on dealing with people for long, will you? I NEED to know your take on them.

    1. Well, Scrollwork, I will probably get around to those other 3 habits--they garner me a lot of hits on my site, at the very least. But I've got some other very interesting material to talk about, too!

      There was a nice piece in the Sunday Times about how aging naturally seems to be "okay" now--look at Ellen DeGeneres and Diane Keaton representing cosmetics brands. The article says they're just regular women, but we think they're beautiful because we love them. I like that.

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