We generally think that philosophers should be proud of their big brains, and be fans of thinking self-reflection and rational analysis. But there’s one philosopher, born in France in 1533, who had a refreshingly different take. Michel de Montaigne was an intellectual who spent his writing life knocking the arrogance of intellectuals. In his great masterpiece, the ‘Essays’, he comes across as relentlessly wise and intelligent — but also as constantly modest and keen to debunk the pretensions of learning. Not least, he’s extremely funny, reminding his readers: ‘to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… (or, as he put it) On the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.’ Montaigne was a child of the Renaissance and the ancient philosophers popular in Montaigne’s day believed that our powers of reason could afford us a happiness and greatness denied to other creatures. Reason was a sophisticated, almost divine, tool offering us mastery over the world and ourselves. That was the line taken by philosophers like Cicero. But this characterization of human reason enraged Montaigne. After hanging out with academics and philosophers, he wrote, “In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle, more equable and more constant lives than [Cicero]. His point wasn’t that human beings can’t reason at all, simply that they tend to be far too arrogant about the limits of their brains. As he wrote, “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom. Whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.” Perhaps the most obvious example of our madness is the struggle of living within a human body. Our bodies smell, ache, sag, pulse, throb and age (whatever the desires of our minds). Montaigne was the world’s first and possibly only philosopher to talk at length about impotence, which seemed to him a prime example of how crazy and fragile our minds are. Montaigne had a friend who’d grown impotent with a woman he particularly liked. Montaigne didn’t blame the penis. The problem was the mind, the oppressive notion that we had complete control over our bodies, and the horror of departing from this theoretical normality. The solution, Montaigne said, was to redraw our sense of what’s normal. By accepting a loss of command over the penis as a harmless common possibility in lovemaking one could preempt its occurrence — as the stricken man eventually discovered. In bed with a woman, he learnt to, “Admit beforehand that he was subject to this infirmity and spoke openly about it, so relieving the tensions within his soul. By bearing the malady as something to be expected, his sense of constriction grew less and weighed less heavily upon him.” Montaigne’s frankness allows the tensions in the reader’s own soul to be relieved. A man who failed with his girlfriend could regain his forces and soothe the anxieties of his beloved by accepting that his impotence belonged to a broad realm of sexual mishaps, neither very rare nor very peculiar. Montaigne was equally frank about limitations of his intellect (and of its usefulness). Academia was deeply prestigious in Montaigne’s day, as in our own. Yet, although Montaigne was an excellent scholar, he hated pedantry in academia. He only wanted to learn things that were useful and relentlessly attacked academics for being out of touch. “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life,” he said. Only that which makes us feel better maybe worth understanding. In this vein, Montaigne mocked books that were difficult to read. He admitted to his readers that he found Plato more than a little boring — and that he just wanted to have fun with books: “I’m not prepared to bash my brains out for anything, not even for learning’s sake however precious it may be. From books all I seek is to get myself some pleasure by an honorable pastime… If I come across some difficult passages in my reading I don’t bite my nails over them: after making a charge or two I let them be… If one book tires me I just take up another.” He could be pretty caustic about incomprehensible philosophers. “Difficulty is a coin which the learned conjure with so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies and which human stupidity is keen to accept in payment.” Montaigne observed how an intimidating scholarly culture has made all of us study other people’s books way before we study our own minds. And yet, as he put it: “We are richer than we think, each one of us.” Montaigne is refreshing because he describes a life which is recognizably like our own and yet inspiring still — he is a very human ideal. We may all arrived at wise ideas if we cease to think of ourselves as unsuited to the task just because we aren’t two thousand years old, or aren’t interested in the topics of Plato’s dialogues or have a so-called ordinary life. Montaigne reassures us: “You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as well as to one with richer stuff.” In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it’s possible to speak no Greek change one’s mind after a meal, get bored with a book, be impotent and know pretty much none of the Ancient philosophers. A virtuous ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough. Montaigne remains the great, readable intellectual with whom we can laugh at intellectuals and pretensions of many kinds. He was a breath of fresh air in the cloistered, unworldly, snobbish corridors of the academia of the 16th century — and because academia has, sadly, not changed very much, he continues to be an inspiration and a solace to all of us who feel routinely oppressed and patronized by the pedantry and arrogance of so-called clever people.