A Lesson in Self-Esteem – from Michel de Montaigne


A few months ago, I ran into a video series on Youtube called ‘Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness’. I’ve already posted pieces on Seneca and Epicurus based on these videos, dealing with anger and happiness respectively. Today we’ll discuss self-esteem, through the words of philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

Montaigne was not your regular philosopher. He did not dress up in rags. He was not poor. He was not eccentric in habit or dismissive of ‘puny humans’. He was a nobleman, a lawyer, a friend of the king of France, and twice mayor of Bordeaux. At the age of thirty-eight, though, he retired to a life of reflection and writing. At first he is said to have struggled to think of good topics to write about, but soon he hit on the one thing that he could write most intimately about: himself.

His focus was on what makes human beings hate themselves. He said, ‘The most terrible and violent of our afflictions is to despise our own beings.’ Unlike other philosophers who often put reason on a pedestal, Montaigne says that most of our problems stem from the fact that we have reason, that we have thinking minds.

He lists three types of inadequacies that plague human minds:

1. Bodily Inadequacy

The main problem with having a mind, says Montaigne, is that it has an awkward relationship with the body. We’re often disgusted with the way we look. We’re either too fat, too gross or too uncouth. We develop eating disorders, sexual hangups and embarrassments. These become our most dreaded memories. To become more accepting of our bodies, Montaigne suggested that we should always consciously remind ourselves that we’re half-animal. (Or is it whole-animal?) Kings and philosophers shit, he reminds us, and so do ladies.

Animals are wiser than us in many ways. They’re more attuned to nature than we are. They don’t ask why. They’re more naturally accepting of their bodies, and they do so with better grace and a touch of humour that we’d do well to emulate.

2. Social Inadequacy

A big brain also makes us arrogant – makes us think that we know what is ‘right’ and that we can impose that on other people. Every society has an image of what is normal. There is also the fear of the unknown. Whenever something ‘weird’ happens to us, whether it is in the form of a strange person or a strange idea, our first instinct is to react with distrust and close our minds. Many of us accuse the ‘offender’ of all sorts of things. We divide the world into what we think of as ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. We judge what is good or bad on the basis of habit rather than reason.

This leads to thoughts that others are judging us similarly to the way we’re judging them. So we conform. We reject new ideas. We become a clique. Even within the clique, though, we’re always wondering what others think of us. We’re constantly on our toes, forever wondering whether our actions are being disapproved of by ‘the world’.

Montaigne says the only way to escape this is to be open-minded yourself. Go out and embrace diversity, not just in cultures and people, but also in such ephemeral things as ideas, concepts and customs. Value disagreement, revel in friendships borne out of mutual respect rather than formed opinions. That way, when you wish to be different, you will not be cowed down by feelings of low self-esteem.

In other words, only when we’re approving of others, Montaigne says, can we be more approving of aspects of ourselves.

3. Intellectual Inadequacy

This is the painful sense that we’re not as smart as we should be. Cleverness and intelligence is equated to college degrees in our society. A person who has gone to IIT is ‘smarter’, we think, that someone who graduated from, say, the NIT, who is smarter than your ‘average Joe’ who attended the local university.

Montaigne insists that outward symbols of intelligence are often different from reality. He calls most college graduates of his day ‘blockheads’. The kind of intelligence Montaigne was keen on was wisdom. Wisdom, he said, that is within reach of all of us, if only we could practice humility, modesty, and acceptance of our limitations.

In short, to quote magician James Randi, ‘Education doesn’t make you smart. It makes you educated.’

Does that mean he thinks that learning is not necessary? No. He merely observes that people attending universities and colleges are often no wiser or no happier than those who don’t. Once we accept this, feelings of inferiority when faced with the intellectual arrogance of those with fancy degrees will disappear. We will be able to see them for what they are rather than for which college they attended.

Four quotes that inspired Montaigne

To stop himself from slipping into instinctive behaviour and falling prey to his own demons about himself, Montaigne is said to have inscribe fifty-seven quotes culled from the classics and the Bible to the roof of his writing room, so that he could always look up and be inspired. I’m leaving four of them here:

‘Have you ever seen a man who thinks he’s wise? You have more to hope for from a madman than from him.’

‘I am a man. Nothing human is foreign to me.’

‘The man who thinks he knows does not yet know what knowing is.’

‘Why torment yourself with worries that are outside your control? There is nothing certain but uncertainty; nothing more miserable and more proud than man.’

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Reference: Montaigne on Self-Esteem. Video embedded below


  1. I agree with that ‘college degree’ thing. I see most of the frontbenchers (and top rank holders) toiling away in mundane jobs found in IT companies, while the below average students are taking up more challenging (and creative) careers. Fortunately, I don’t have any friends who studied in IIT/NIT/Anna University. I will never be able to put up with their arrogance.

    Destination Infinity


  2. Quite a lovely, thoughtful and extremely practical outlook Montaigne seems to have had, and all his thoughts are quite universal, aren’t they?


    • Yes, and quite timeless too. I recommend you read his book of essays when you have time, Jai. It’s as though you’re talking to a trusted friend – even though he’s doing all the talking 🙂


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