More than ever, modern life forces us to confront our own mediocrity. Our computers and phones constantly bombard us with news of the achievements of exceptional people: actors winning awards; athletes performing incredible feats; royals being praised for their beauty and philanthropy. As we sit and scroll, we can’t help but feel distinctly ordinary – and inferior – by comparison.
Consolation for our plight can come from unexpected places. Michel de Montaigne (who would have been 483 this week) is the patron philosopher of the ordinary life. In his masterwork, the Essais, he attacks the pretensions of the aristocrats and intellectuals of his day, daring to criticise their work and achievements and reminding us of their fundamental humanity (“Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies”). At the same time, he venerates the lives of average, unheralded people – “In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle, more equable and more constant lives than Cicero.”
The next time we take stock of the success of others, we should keep Montaigne’s perspective in mind and remember that wealth, fame, esteem or glory are no guide to the worth of a person, and that living a virtuous, ordinary life is achievement enough. Read more.