How to Know Yourself, Like Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century French philosopher, essayist, and statesman, had much to say about “individuality.” He thought it was the only true path to fulfilment. “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” he boldly said.

He cautioned against self-diminishment.

Montaigne is best known for his collection of essays, “Essais.” He wrote on self-awareness, relationships, philosophy, the human condition, and, of course, his own thoughts and experiences. His work inspired renowned thinkers like René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Born in 1533 in the Aquitaine region of France, Montaigne lived through a difficult period of religious conflicts and political unrest in Europe. His life experiences, combined with his profound introspection, shaped his unique perspective on self-possession. In 1571, Montaigne withdrew from public life, retreating to his family estate to contemplate, read, and write. That valuable period of seclusion transformed his life. Montaigne’s retreat mean’t he had enough time to dig into his thoughts and ponder on human nature.

“I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. I look inside myself. I continually observe myself,” he said. According to Montaigne, introspection is the key to understanding oneself and, consequently, belonging to oneself. But at the time, people thought Montaigne was too self-indulgent, especially when he saidI am myself the matter of my book.” All he wanted to know was the freedom of a soul unbounded. And to do that meant he had to study “himself.” Today, psychology has a lot to say about “knowing thyself.” Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of the school of analytical psychology said, ‘One who looks outside, dreams. One who looks inside, awakens.’

In his biography of Montaigne, Stefan Zweig wrote:

“To be free, a man must feel no obligation or connection to anything, and yet we are all connected to the state, the community, the family; our thoughts are subject to the language we speak, making the isolated man, the absolutely free man, a phantom. It is impossible to live in a void…We do not need to cut ourselves off from the world, to wall ourselves up in a cell. But we need to make a distinction: we can love this or that, but we cannot “form a marriage bond” unless it is with our own selves. Montaigne does not reject everything we owe to passions or lust. On the contrary, he always advises us to take pleasure as far as is possible, for he is the earthbound man who accepts no limits: whoever has a passion for politics must involve himself with politics; whoever loves books must read books; whoever loves to hunt must hunt; whoever loves his house, his soil, his lands, his money, whoever loves things must devote himself to them entirely. But the most crucial is this: you should take as much as brings you pleasure, but not just to acquire things: “In the home, at study, hunting and all other forms of activity, one should strive for the fullness, the limits of enjoyment, but not exceed them, for then suffering begins to encroach.” — Stefan Zweig, Montaigne

Looking inward for answers to your best life may sound selfish. But Montaigne thought clues to personal satisfaction are hidden inside every one of us. “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself,” he said. Even before Montaigne, Socrates wisely said, “Know thyself.” It’s a rule of life. A maxim that will do us good, if we can live by it. “Know thyself” is a philosophical maxim which was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in the ancient Greek precinct of Delphi.”

One must know oneself to belong to oneself.

I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics,” says Montaigne. The more you understand your very self (conscious and unconscious), the clearer things become. You understand what makes you tick. Self-awareness releases a sense of belonging unlike any other. You belong to yourself, finally comfortable in your ownskin. He thought, “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.”

Forget fitting in; forget labels. Look inward.

Turn your attention inside. Because, my friend, it opens so many doors you never knew existed. Become an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and motivations. What drives you? What scares you? What makes you come alive? Explore your thoughts, your feelings. When you fully know and belong to yourself, you’ll know what or who drains you or brings out the best in you. You’ll make choices that align with your values, not someone else’s definition of a good life.

“We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.” — Michel de Montaigne

Belonging to yourself is building a solid foundation with yourself. It’s from that firm foundation that you can connect with others. Self-knowledge is your superpower. The more you understand yourself, the better you can take on the many challenges life throws at you. Relationships improve. Decisions become clearer. You’ll attract people who appreciate the real you, the you that you’ve gotten to know through introspection.

To belong to yourself, as Montaigne knew, is the greatest thing in the world. “I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray,” he said. We often bury our vulnerabilities and shadows deep beneath our conscious selves. But facing them and understanding them is the key to self-mastery.

Accept and understand the evolving nature of your being. Study thyself to know thyself. What truly matters to you? What makes you feel alive, fulfilled? Follow that feeling. Silence the external noise. Listen closely. Your subconscious has wisdom to share.

You’re not locked into one version of yourself. There’s more to you than you can ever know. But that requires the courage to face your imperfections and vulnerability to confront your inner shadows. “Every man carries the entire form of the human condition,” Montaigne said. Open a journal, take a long walk in nature, spend time in quiet reflection. Ask yourself difficult questions. Be honest with your answers. The most fascinating person you’ll ever meet is you. You hold the key to your greatest version of yourself.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” — Rabbi Hillel

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Categorized as Self