Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Arguably the West’s first self-help coach since the ancient Stoics, Michel de Montaigne reminds us to occasionally escape the world without a trace. To flee to our “room behind the shop” to feel gratitude for all we have, instead of disappointment for all we don’t. A place to feel Wonder.
My Room Behind the Shop
“Read Montaigne, he will calm you."
-Gustave Flaubert, 19th Century French Novelist
Life wasn’t always this good. 450 years ago in France it was downright horrible. No. Horrible is too good of a word. It was apocalyptic.
By the 1580s, after decades of civil war, frozen harvests, and endless outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, whooping cough, and bubonic plaque, the sunken eyed French people had fallen into a pit of despair that’s hard for a modern person to imagine. Just two generations removed from Martin Luther firing the Catholic Church and blazing a trail for Protestantism, Europe was ripping itself apart in a series of religious wars so savage that it would take centuries to recover. In France, Catholics and Protestants (known as Huguenots) simply decided to annihilate one another. Anyone holding a different religious view was branded a heretic and fit for torture, mutilation, and execution. Watching this mayhem, a provincial lawyer wrote this:
"[People are] buried alive in heaps of manure, thrown into wells and ditches and left to die, howling like dogs; they have been nailed in boxes without air, walled up in towers without food, and garroted upon trees in the depths of the mountains and forests; they had been stretched in front of fires, their feet fricasseed in grease; their women had been raped and those who were pregnant had been aborted; their children had been kidnapped and ransomed, or even roasted alive before the parents."
As the world burned in horror, a mild-mannered Frenchman named Michel de Montaigne seemed miraculously unaffected. Though he risked his own life speaking out against the religious wars that boiled priests and burned witches, Montaigne did something perhaps even more difficult: he ignored it all and got on with his life.
Unlike his noble peers, Montaigne chose to accept what he could control, and most of all, accept what he could not control. He refused to allow things outside his own control to make him miserable.
Michel de Montaigne
Statesman, winemaker, philosopher, writer, and most of all, humanist, Montaigne was the premiere intellectual of late Renaissance France. He invented the literary form we now call the essay. His famous collection of essays (over 100) are seasoned by his own experiences and literary heroes like Cicero, Horace, Virgil and other giants of the western canon. Not only was Montaigne the world’s first essayist, but his essays like Of Fear, Of Vanity, Of Anger, Of Diversion, and Of Friendship make him the West’s first Life-Coach. Long before Tony Robbins, there was Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne’s lasting lesson (for me at least) is to periodically disengage from the world’s problems – to let go and drift into a more peaceful existence. Considering the famine, terror, and pestilence of his time, this is quite the achievement. Through his essays, Montaigne offers his readers safe harbor from the storms of life.
Of Montaigne’s 100-plus essays, my favorite is Of Solitude. Here, the great sage urges us to find a private lair for ourselves, an “arrière-boutique,” translated as “a room behind the shop” to escape the world’s madness and find peace. Living up to his message, Montaigne had the ultimate “room behind the shop” inside the tower of his castle 20 miles east of Bordeaux, where he built one of the great book lairs of Europe. History remembers his book lair as “Montaigne’s Tower.”
I still love to envision an aging Montaigne creeping up his tower steps in slippers, rounding the spiral staircase, passing the vaulted ceiling of his first-floor chapel. As his candle flickers across stone walls, he’d continue to ascend above the second-floor bedroom until, finally, he’d step onto the tower’s third and top floor and enter a small round chamber where he wrote his essays. Nestled safe in his keep, Montaigne was free to read, write, and ponder – or as he encouraged his readers, to “retire into yourself.”
Before you think Montaigne was a grumpy old grumper tucked far and away from the world in his tower, think again. He lived with fellowship and often hosted dinner parties throughout his long life. Yet like all of us, he also enjoyed solitude, and the one feeling solitude often delivers: Wonder.
If you were lucky enough to enter the top floor of his famed tower, you’d step into a chamber of wonders that you’d never forget. You’d hear a crackling fireplace and smell and taste the hickory wood smoke. You would see Montaigne’s books – hundreds of them -- lined along his wooden shelves. And you would see his ceremonial canes, medieval swords, handcrafted jewelry, royal memorabilia, heirlooms, artifacts, paintings, statues, and other nick-nacks that brisked Montaigne away from the calamities of his time. It was here in this magical realm of wonder that Montaigne wrote his lasting essays.
Though refined and educated, Michel de Montaigne was certainly a barbarian. Nearly every day, he journeyed “north of the wall” into barbarian country to his "room behind the shop," where all of us, he wrote, “can untie ourselves from society.”
And though our society today is downright pristine compared to the savage one of Montaigne, I (like you) still have to deal with my own inner turmoil (my own “shit”), plus all the flat-screened outrage coming at me each and every day. And though I (like you) don’t have a French Chateau to retire into, I (like you) can still benefit by escaping the noise and retreating into my own “room behind the shop.”
So… where is your room behind the shop?
Where can you travel “north of the wall” and awaken the barbarian in you? Where can you make that quick escape to solitude, wonder, and peace? Where can you catch your breath, light a candle, and check in with yourself?
Maybe it’s a quiet library nook tucked away from the sun? Or maybe it’s your barbells in the garage, your trails at the park, or your workshop in the basement? Wherever you go to escape the world, find wonder, and create -- wherever you go to be alone and feel good -- that my friend, is your “room behind the shop.” Going there and being there, will awaken the barbarian in you.
Despite all the bad in our outer-world and all the frustrations of our inner-world, when we retreat to our “room behind the shop” we feel gratitude for all we have, instead of disappointment for all we don’t.
“Like the animals that rub out their tracks at the entrance to their lairs,” Montaigne reminds us, we can periodically escape the world without a trace. This doesn’t mean permanent isolation or neglecting our family, friends, or responsibilities. It just means a little time for you – a time for you to remember you.
“We should have a wife, children, goods, and above all health,” the great sage wrote, “but we must not
bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must,” he continues, “reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.”
Though he could not stop the destructive impulses of man nor the onslaughts of microbial death, nor even the drama inside his own family (including a bad marriage), Michel de Montaigne could attain some inner peace and wonder inside his beloved tower.
That he could do, so that is what he did. And so can you.
Where is your room behind the shop?