Rules for life. Personal Wisdom. Practical Psychology. Case: Michel de Montaigne

In a translation of Montaignes (1533-1592) collected works from 1877, the editors have written extensive notes summarizing more than a thousand insights, aphorisms or comments based on a thorough reading of all the essays.

You will find the entire list of notes on pages 900-931

In the following I have chosen a handful of notes that seem applicable still.

I have chosen to share these with you as they represent one ingenious person’s development of personal wisdom. A kind of wisdom that we try to embody and inspire to in the work as clinical psychologists – or at least I do.

So you may read the following as an inspiration to your own journey developing your own guidelines for being.

In the brackets I furnish the notes with further notes to better my own understanding and to elucidate the somewhat hidden or abstract nature of the editor’s notes.


A child should not be brought up in his mother’s lap (a child need more than motherly love to develop properly. Montaigne was himself brought up by peasants in his first three years of life even though he had wealthy parents in order for him to appreciate a humble life)

A gallant man does not give over his pursuit for being refused (a courageous or chivalrous man doesn’t give up easily when pursuing something, even if he faces rejection or refusal along the way. It implies that perseverance and determination are qualities admired in someone who continues to pursue their goals despite setbacks or challenges.)

A generous heart ought not to belie its own thoughts (a person with a generous and kind-hearted nature should not contradict or go against their own genuine thoughts or intentions. In other words, someone who is genuinely generous should not act in a way that contradicts their true feelings or beliefs. It emphasizes the importance of authenticity and sincerity in one’s actions, especially when it comes to expressing generosity or kindness. This is a very insightful observation because many kind hearted people become false as they fear making people upset.)

A hundred more escape us than ever come to our knowledge (Knowledge is a strange thing as we forget way more than we remember.)

A lady could not boast of her chastity who was never tempted (many famous people are being hung out to dry on Social Media because they have succumbed to infidelity, drunkenness and what have you. Eg: It easy to call out the golfer Tiger Woods for sleeping around with countless beautiful women when you never yourself had the opportunity to so)

A little cheese when a mind to make a feast (small things may give great pleasure)

A little thing will turn and divert us (we are prone to poor judgment, rash decisions and we are gullible. We ought to think more and think bigger.)

A man may always study, but he must not always go to school (Schools and universities are streamlining thinking and may be considered a “phase”, whereas personal study is more fundamental to becoming educated.)

 A man may govern himself well who cannot govern others so (Here Montaigne notes that his personal wisdom may not be anothers personal wisdom – a crucial commentary of the functions of personal wisdom as a “perspectival wisdom” – the wisdom based on your unique perspective.)

A man may play the fool in everything else, but not in poetry (There is a time for everything. The joker mentality is not always wellcome.)

A man must have courage to fear (You must be able to go where you fear to go to do the right thing)

A man never speaks of himself without loss (People are prone to be suspicious of what people say about themselves. So you may as well say something good as they only believe the bad things anyway)

A man should diffuse joy, but, as much as he can, smother grief (Here Montaigne showcases a stoic mindset in which you do not lose your bearings in happiness nor give in to grief. This is of particular interest in our times in which grief and expression of grief is seen as a virtue – something you must feel, stay with and go through in order to heal/be a good person)

A parrot would say as much as that (People often speak without thinking in any individual sense. They may as well be parrots.)

A person’s look is but a feeble warranty (You can’t judge a book by the cover)

A well-bred man is a compound man (This statement suggests that a person who is well-bred, meaning they have been raised or educated in a manner that emphasizes manners, etiquette, and social graces, is a complex or multi-faceted individual. It implies that their upbringing has contributed to shaping various aspects of their personality, behavior, and character, resulting in a well-rounded or “compound” individual.)

A word ill taken obliterates ten years’ merit (People are prone to take things personally and bear grudges. It is food for thought that we are so quick to judge and rule out people for minor things such as words said in anger, frustration or confusion)

Abominate that incidental repentance which old age brings (It is a fact that we become wiser with age it follows that we may regret or feel repentant about past wrongs – this we should definitely not do as it does not serve us well.)

Accept all things we are not able to refute

Accommodated my subject to my strength (when considering things about life or yourself use your strengths as a guide. Follow what feels natural for you when considering things)

Accursed be thou, as he that arms himself for fear of death (Here Montaigne echoes the sentiment from Lucretius: That death serves no purpose for the living. Focus on living for that is difficult enough in and of it self.)

Acquiesce and submit to truth

Admiration is the foundation of all philosophy (Montaigne was by his own accounts more or less in love with his books and its philosophers which may have inspired him greatly. This here text is in the same way inspired by Montaigne who I consider a true genius and a great example of how to consider life and how this gives rise to personal wisdom.)

Advantageous, too, a little to recede from one’s right (Sometimes you have to pause in order to gain ground / winning the game by losing the game. This may serve you well in any context as being headfast about your rights may lead to a loss of your conceived rights)

Affirmation and obstinacy are express signs of want of wit (Affirming something too strongly and being obstinate or stubborn about it can indicate a lack of intelligence or wit. By always ready to carry what you think you know lightly.)

Agitated betwixt hope and fear (the person who wants things too much gets riled up and uneasy)

Agitation has usurped the place of reason (People tend to rely more on strong emotion than on thinking)

Alexander said, that the end of his labour was to labour (Sometimes for some people doing is being and that may be virtuos.)

All actions equally become and equally honour a wise man (If you develop your wisdom your actions will. be good)

All defence shows a face of war (Be wary of defending yourself as it portrays a willingness to fight!)

All I aim at is, to pass my time at my ease (You should take it easy and enjoy your own peace of mind as a great place to be)

All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice (It is better to talk about things than to give advice as giving advice makes you risk committing errors through others by way of giving bad advice or poorly communicated advice. As the old viking saying goes: “Council is often bad advice” – In other words people should talk about things and reason as to the best options for themselves instead of merely taking and giving advice.)

An advantage in judgment we yield to none (If you think for yourself and draw your own conclusions you are not owned by anyone)

Any old government better than change and alteration (Be wary of people who want to upend old systems as they are fraught with violence and despair. Revolutions should be feared.)

Anything appears greatest to him that never knew a greater (In our understanding of the world around us we are bound by degree of our experience. This topic is imminently discussed in Alexander Popes “An essay on Criticism”

Anything becomes foul when commended by the multitude (Whatever people flock to should be considered with suspicion as it may signal that they are drawn to what they want to hear and not what is good for them. It may also signal that someone is duping people for their own benefit. A suspicious attitude to the truths of the masses is an ongoing theme in philosophy – also evident in the writings of Seneca from ancient Rome.)

Anything of value in him, let him make it appear in his conduct (Judge a person on his actions. A theme in Marchiavelli, Goethe and others. Traditionally and particularly in the times of Montaigne a man was noble by birth – not by action. In that sense Montaigne, Marchiavelli, Goehte and others were modern when they insisted on goodness being linked solely to action.)

Appetite runs after that it has not (We ought to be moderate with appetite as it makes us lose our sense of a pleasant now)

Appetite to read more, than glutted with that we have (We read way more than we understand. Rather study one book than read ten books in a week)

Archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short (doing too much is as bad as doing to little)

Armed parties (the true school of treason, inhumanity, robbery) (Again a comment on revolutions. Any unrest carries with it brutality and stupidity. Which was evident in the recent “Black Lives Matters” protest well meaning as it may have been it cost many lives and livelihoods – we still havn’t fathomed the beast of riots.)

“Art thou not ashamed,” said he to him, “to sing so well?” (we fear our own greatness)

As we were formerly by crimes, so we are now overburdened by law (Rules, regulations and bureaucracy may make things much worse)

Avoid all magnificences that will in a short time be forgotten (Be careful with attributing something great to your 15 minutes of fame)

Away with this violence! away with this compulsion! (Montaigne was a skeptic – “what do I know?” is one of his most fundamental sayings but he was however adamant about brutality. He despised brutality. In this you see the influence on Albert Camus who was also a skeptic who abhorred brutality – which was the reason for his anti-communist stance.

Beauty of stature is the only beauty of men (A man should excel in what he does – and that is his only beauty; the only beauty he should aspire to.)

Become a fool by too much wisdom (Some people think so much that the can’t act. “Paralysis of analysis”. Expanded upon by Shakespeare another avid Montaigne reader, in Hamlet’s monologue:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”


In other words: Personal wisdom has a lot to do with you experiencing things and doing things. You must not only read but also endeavour to live a strong and brave live to develop your own wisdom.


In the following there are some more of the original editors notes, that I have not commented on my self:


Being as impatient of commanding as of being commanded

Being dead they were then by one day happier than he

Being over-studious, we impair our health and spoil our humour

Belief compared to the impression of a seal upon the soul

Believing Heaven concerned at our ordinary actions

Best part of a captain to know how to make use of occasions

Best test of truth is the multitude of believers in a crowd

Best virtue I have has in it some tincture of vice

Better at speaking than writing—Motion and action animate word better have none at all than to have them in so prodigious a num

Better to be alone than in foolish and troublesome company

Blemishes of the great naturally appear greater

Books go side by side with me in my whole course

Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose

Books have not so much served me for instruction as exercise

Books I read over again, still smile upon me with fresh novelty

Books of things that were never either studied or understood

Both himself and his posterity declared ignoble, taxable

Both kings and philosophers go to stool

Burnt and roasted for opinions taken upon trust from others

Business to-morrow

But ill proves the honour and beauty of an action by its utility

But it is not enough that our education does not spoil us

By resenting the lie we acquit ourselves of the fault

By suspecting them, have given them a title to do ill

“By the gods,” said he, “if I was not angry, I would execute you”

By the misery of this life, aiming at bliss in another Caesar: he would be thought an excellent engineer to boot Caesar’s choice of death: “the shortest”

Can neither keep nor enjoy anything with a good grace

Cannot stand the liberty of a friend’s advice

Carnal appetites only supported by use and exercise Cato said: So many servants, so many enemies

Ceremony forbids us to express by words things that are lawful

Certain other things that people hide only to show them

Change is to be feared

Change of fashions

Change only gives form to injustice and tyranny

Cherish themselves most where they are most wrong

Chess: this idle and childish game

Chiefly knew himself to be mortal by this act

Childish ignorance of many very ordinary things

Children are amused with toys and men with words Cicero: on fame


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