Don’t take life so seriously: Montaigne’s lessons on the inner life

'Que sais-je?'

The bust of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is displayed at the bibliotheque in Bordeaux on September 16, 2016, as part of an exhibition and events through the city dedicated to the French philosopher who was mayor of Bordeaux.

GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images
My dad was an unhappy man. He used to complain about the slightest thing being out of place – a pen, the honeypot, his special knife with the fattened grip.

By the time his health really started failing, his arthritis so bad he could no longer get out of bed, his condition became all he complained about. 'Dorian,' he said, one morning over breakfast, the grapefruit cut up indeed with his special knife, 'I hate myself.' He was 86 years old and, I felt, nearing the end of life, so I took it upon myself to help him die as well as he could, a kind of Ars moriendi for the old man. 'But Dad,' I said, for the first time in our 32-year relationship. 'I love you.' When that didn't help, I sent him some Montaigne.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92) lived a good, long life for a man in early modern France. By all accounts, it was a happy one, at least if his Essais (1570-92) – rangy discourses on varied subjects from thumbs to cannibals to the nature of 'experience' itself – are anything to go by. His writings, autobiographical in nature but highly argumentative, have survived him as somewhat radical (for the time) self-experiments. 'Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book,' he opens, with a letter of warning about the 1,000-plus pages that follow: 'you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.' Since I took my dad to be also involved in so vain and frivolous a subject – namely, himself (right down to the urinary tract diagrams he drew for me on paper napkins at the dinner table) – I figured they'd have a lot in common.

The passage I chose to hand him, from the essay 'Of Solitude', concerned Montaigne's secret to happiness. It says, simply: these are the things we normally think will bring happiness; they're wrong, here's mine. 'We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can,' he writes; 'but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.' In what's become something of a trademark for his life philosophy he adds: 'We must reserve a back shop all our own.' A back shop – or in the original French, arriere-boutique. Of course, this is metaphor. Of course, my dad took it literally.

What is there left for us to learn from Montaigne on the subject of happiness? For one, that 'back shop' doesn't mean the room behind your place of work. Increasingly confined to his bed, in the crummy 17th-floor apartment that doubled as his home office, my dad read these lines with an eyebrow raised. Granted, Montaigne himself penned them from a castle-tower eyrie, overlooking the vast estate of his château. He didn't mean for us to take refuge there – this privileged perch was just where he did his writing (as I do mine now in the storage unit behind my house, a heavy wooden partition setting me off from the boxes and mess). No, the physical 'back shop' is just a writer's den, and this misunderstanding has caused critics to huff about Montaigne's solipsism, as if what he really said was: Go be alone and make great art. This does not lead to happiness, I assure you.

When my dad emailed back, misreading Montaigne in just this way, he nonetheless conceded that the passage I'd sent him was 'thoughtful'. But not, he added 'surprising', as 'Many writers nowadays speak of personal space, meditation, being alone at times, and so on.' He went on to say how there was a difference between voluntary and involuntary solitude. 'Many of us, as we age, become too much involved in that space.' It's not just the confinement but the loss of all able-bodied experience that they're missing out on, and my dad (as ever) listed them: going to the market, dancing, seeing family and friends – precisely the things that Montaigne cautioned his readers not to count on for happiness.

In her book How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010), Sarah Bakewell acknowledges the temptation to read Montaigne as an advocate for a type of isolation (chosen or not), but she qualifies this, saying: 'He is not writing about a selfish, introverted withdrawal from family life, so much as about the need to protect yourself from the pain that would come if you lost that family.' It was after the death of his closest friend and confidante, Étienne de La Boétie, and then later of his father, that Montaigne retired to his private library. In Donald Frame's translation, this period is marked by Montaigne's fall 'into a melancholic depression, to combat which he begins to write the first of his Essays'. The contemporary US writer and essayist Phillip Lopate ventures that, for Montaigne, 'the reader took the place of La Boétie'. But how, exactly, did Montaigne's attempts (the literal translation of essai) assuage grief?

Certainly, an unnamed interlocutor haunts the text, the kind we usually chalk up to self-talk. Talking to people who won't talk back (or who can't because they're no longer with us) is a form of conversational intimacy we might read as an extension of Montaigne's general affability. In life, Montaigne was known about town as a raconteur with an open-door policy for guests. Even Bakewell, who sums up his back shop as a form of 'Stoic detachment', notes that in another lasting dictum Montaigne cried: 'Be convivial: live with others.' If Montaigne's back shop is meant to mend a broken heart, then it is not by avoiding future pain, but by coming into a different relation with it.

Montaigne was well aware that the promise of getting away from it all was a fool's errand since, wherever you go, you take yourself with you: 'It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd,' he writes, since 'we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us.' Instead, to quote Albius Tibullus, one of the Latin poets he grew up with, 'be to thyself a throng'. This is where I hoped my dad might take note: shut in with no one but himself for company, there might still be a chance for great companionship. 'We have a soul that can be turned upon itself,' writes Montaigne, 'it has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give.' Sadly, my dad didn't see his own soul this way and, after falling into a depression of his own, he took his own life.

I wonder now if Montaigne's back shop was less the writer's saving grace, lifting him from the depths of despair, but not the act of writing from within it? 'Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves,' he writes – and I take it he means that the quality of the inner dialogue will determine the quality of the life.

Montaigne's mental chatter had a buoyancy to it, as he bounced from one subject to the next, going with the current. What I couldn't convey to my dad, evidently, was this lightness of attention, distilled in that most famous of Montaignisms: 'Que sais-je?' (What do I know?) In his celebratory portrait of Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837 comments that: 'His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road.' Not taking life quite so seriously – the pursuit of happiness notwithstanding – might then be Montaigne's key to dying well. After all, there might be no surer inner peace in one's final days than not needing it so badly.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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