Self-Help Love-Hate

I’d like to read some Montaigne — partly because it’s like 18th-century self-help, and partly in spite of it.

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of self-help. On the one hand, it’s a genre full of charlatans, fly-by-night money-back guarantees, misguided seekers, and people looking for ways to get rich quick. On the other hand, what higher goal could there be than becoming a better person (whatever that might mean)? What higher philosophy is there than the question of humanity’s purpose? The real allure of self-help is, or ought to be, not finding out how to be “successful,” but to discover humanity’s greatest potential, and find out how one can fulfill it.

When I read an actual piece of self-help writing, I sometimes find myself torn back and forth between the love and the hate. For example, a few years ago I found out about polyphasic sleep, a way of using a rigid nap schedule to sleep just two hours per day. I was repelled by the idea of “hacking” my body’s natural rhythms, as if it were a machine that could be hotwired or supercharged. Nevertheless I tried it — not because I was trying to become more successful or productive (though that certainly was a nice side effect during the 18-month trial), but I because I was after deeper answers: what is sleep really for? And how would it feel to live one’s life in such a fundamentally different way? How much of our sense of ‘being human’ is wrapped up in the daily cycle of sleep and waking? I got some interesting results (which I won’t go into here) and eventually stopped because it was too hard to keep to the rigid nap schedule.

But it’s because of this love-hate relationship that I’m interested in learning more about Montaigne. A while back it was rather fashionable for self-help bloggers to read and discuss him (probably at least in part because of a timely book by Sarah Bakewell that they could link to and get affiliate money from Amazon). Unfortunately, most of the self-help bloggers dismissed the long philosophical tradition he drew from and focused on his cheekiness, his self-experimentation, and his productivity. But I would rather know what he thought of cannibalism, the custom of wearing clothes, warhorses, solitude, sleep (of course), and the complex notion of self (for he famously said “I turn my gaze inward… I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself … I roll about in myself”). And I would rather know his place in the long philosophical tradition of the west, that strange mix of earnest seeking and personality cult.

Cutting to the chase: I’d like to read some good self-help that I don’t have to feel two ways about.

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