in: Character, Featured, Knowledge of Men

• Last updated: December 15, 2022

Live, Laugh, Life Is Hard! The Ceiling Word Art of Michel de Montaigne

Step inside the homes of many middle-class, middle-aged Americans, and you’ll find decorative wooden signs and vinyl lettering upon the walls that declare things like:

“Live, Laugh, Love”
“Bless This Mess”
“Family Is Everything”
“It’s Wine O’Clock”

It’s the kind of stuff you see at Hobby Lobby or in the Instagram feeds of moms pumping out relatable mom content. 

It’s the kind of stuff the Zoomer generation thinks is dorky and calls “cheugy.”

It is pretty dorky. At least as far as the tired, cliched phrases people tend to choose to adorn their abode.

But the basic impulse to surround oneself with inspirational quotes isn’t unique to our time, and is actually a pretty sound idea.

The philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne was a fan of the practice all the way back in the 16th century. He inscribed inspirational sayings on the ceiling of his study that were decidedly more heady and less eye-roll-inducing than “Live, Laugh, Love.”

But before we get to those inscriptions, we’ve got to talk about Montaigne’s study, surely one of the most interesting of history’s various libraries and man rooms.

The tower of Montaigne’s castle chateau.

Montaigne lived in a castle, and when he retired from public service in his late thirties, he had one of its towers renovated to his specifications. The tower’s first floor had a chapel for private worship, the second floor served as a bedroom, and the top floor contained his study and his massive library of over a thousand books.

Montaigne’s desk where he wrote his famous Essays.

Montaigne’s study.

Montaigne’s private chapel.

While occasionally interrupted by domestic duties and political responsibilities, Montaigne spent much of the next twenty years within the walls of this three-story sanctuary, studying and writing his famous essays. The tower was a physical manifestation of his metaphorical idea of having a “backshop” of the mind — a place where one could be alone with his thoughts and privately tinker with ideas without worrying about the mundanities of day-to-day life and the opinions of others.

According to French Wikipedia, this is “The hiding place that Montaigne used to hide from unwanted visitors.” Brilliant!

I’d love to have a tower like Montaigne’s. A retreat where you could worship, sleep, and study all in one place. Heavenly!

But back to those inspirational ceiling inscriptions.

To stimulate philosophical inquiry as he wrote his essays, Montaigne had fifty-four Greek and Latin maxims painted on the ceiling beams of his library/study. The quotes came from the Bible (the book of Ecclesiastes, often paraphrased in Montaigne’s own words, was a favorite) and classical authors like Lucretius, Horace, and the Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus.

Montaigne sometimes sprinkled the ceiling maxims verbatim into his writing, as they related to the general, reoccurring themes of his work: the vicissitudes of fortune and the limits of human reason and knowledge. Basically, “Life is hard, man!”

I can imagine the philosopher staring up at the ceiling with his hands behind his head, reading a quote and being inspired to jot down some adage of his own on the finitude of life.

Below you’ll find some of the quotes Montaigne inscribed on the beams of his ceiling. (For a full list, and more on their sources, you’ll find a scrupulously documented and analyzed collection here.) Maybe you’ll get some philosophical inspiration from them.

While everyone’s ego could use a prodigious, humility-generating punch from time to time, most people aren’t likely to find Montaigne’s skeptical, sobering brand of motivation to be their cup of tea. But use the overarching idea of his practice as inspiration for creating your own: consider making some signs or vinyl lettering of quotes that mean a lot to you personally and sticking them on the walls, mirror, or ceiling in your bedroom, bathroom, or study. Such “moral reminders” can help you keep your principles at the forefront of your mind and improve your character — at least when they point beyond simply living, laughing, and loving.

“I do not understand—I stop—I examine—I take for my guide the ways of the world and the experiences of the senses.”
Sextus Empiricus

“One lives but a little, shelter yourself from evil.”

“Autonomy is the only just pleasure.”

“God gave to man the desire for knowledge for the sake of tormenting him.”
Ecclesiastes 1:13

“Happy is he who has fortunes and reason.”

“As the wind puffs out empty wineskins, so pride of opinion, foolish men.”

“Everything under the sun follows the same law and the same destiny.”
Ecclesiastes 9:3

“It is hard!; but that which we are not permitted to correct is rendered lighter by patience.”

“For I see that we are but phantoms,
all we who live, or fleeting shadows.”

“O wretched minds of men! O blind hearts! in what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life whatever its duration.”

“To not think at all is the softest life,
Because not thinking is the most painless evil.”

“What man will account himself great,
Whom a chance occasion destroys utterly?”

“All things, together with heaven and earth and sea, are nothing to the sum of the universal sum.”

“The fool has more hope of wisdom than the man who calls himself wise.”
Proverbs 26:12

“No new delight may be forged by living on.”

“You who know nothing of how the soul marries the body, you therefore know nothing of God's works.”
Ecclesiastes 11:5

“It is possible and it is not possible.”
Sextus Empiricus

“The good is admirable.”

“Impiety follows pride like a dog.”

“Be not wise in your own conceits.”
Romans 12:16

“Neither fear nor desire your last day.”

“God permits no one but Himself to magnify Himself.”

“I shelter where the storm drives me.”

“I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me.”

“Be not overwise lest you become senseless.”
Ecclesiastes 7:16

“If any man thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing.”
1 Corinthians 8:2

“If any man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
Galatians 6:3

“Be no wiser than is necessary, but be wise in moderation.”
Romans 12:3

“No one has ever known the truth and no one will know it.”

“Who knows whether that which we call dying is living,
and living is dying?”

“Nothing is more beautiful than being just, but nothing is more pleasant than being healthy.”

“All things are too difficult for man to understand them.”
Ecclesiastes 1:8

“The whole race of man has overgreedy ears.”

“All is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2

“To keep within due measure and hold fast the end and follow nature.”

“Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes.”
Isaiah 5:21

“Character is fate.”
Cornelius Nepos

“Enjoy pleasantly present things, others are beyond thee.”
Ecclesiastes 3:22

“To every opinion an opinion of equal weight is opposed.”
Sextus Empiricus

“Our mind wanders in darkness, and, blind, cannot discern the truth.”
Michel de l'Hôpital

“The only certainty is that nothing is certain, and that nothing is less noble or more proud than man.”

“That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin, you who think yourself to be somebody.”

“That which worries men are not things
but that which they think about them.”

“It is fitting for a mortal to have thoughts appropriate to men.”

“Why with designs for the far future do you weary a mind that is unequal to them?”

“I determine in nothing.”
Sextus Empiricus

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