Balancing Act

How the Renaissance ideal became a pointless hustle

One of our star students is asking for advice. Opening her laptop, she displays a color-coded spreadsheet on which she has carefully charted the rest of her undergraduate career: coursework to complete for two majors, study abroad in India and then Denmark, work with a nonprofit in Haiti, and an internship on Capitol Hill.

a medieval monk teaches his students
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The work of becoming a serious person may involve setting limits on one’s own pursuits.

A Philosophy Lesson, from Ovide Moralise written by Chretien Legouis (vellum) / Bridgeman Images

a Renaissance man in a room with a large window surrounded by books
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Seeing that life itself—with its attendant suffering—was not balanced, Pascal pursued truth with a disproportionate commitment.

An Alchemist in His Laboratory by Thomas Wyck / Bridgeman Images

The sequence is possible, but just barely. It will require her to overload during the regular academic year and take summer courses as well. Her overtaxed schedule has made for tearful meetings in the past, so we urge her to cut back—to do less, better. But that would mean abandoning the polychromatic splendor of her life on the screen before her, and this she will not do. Asked how she’s going to manage the obvious conflicts among her ambitions, she answers, “I’ll just have to find that balance.”

It was the quest for balance that led her to create the spreadsheet in the first place. Within its grid, she has plotted a picture of what many ambitious Americans imagine to be the good life: virtuosity without narrowness, drive and determination combined with easy curiosity about all the things out there to be discovered. Colleges cater to this vision, offering an ever-expanding array of opportunities to young people looking to find their way in the world. Negotiating the traditional passage to successful adult life now means speeding ahead while sampling everything.

Today’s students seem especially proud when describing their abundant activities, but they are not especially happy or content. Their discontent comes not just from their disappointment with the state of the world, but from despair about themselves. On surveys, they report record levels of anxiety and depression. Administrators say that the appointment books of mental health professionals fill as fast as universities can hire them. When students fail to show up for class or turn in work, they often confide to us that they are struggling to fine-tune the balance of medicines they need to rein in their rushing minds. Even those who seem to have it all together spend countless hours rearranging their schedules, ever on the hunt for the miraculous disposition of activities that will somehow allow them to fit everything in.

This hectic search for balance is, of course, not confined to college or to the young. Many Americans navigating the demands of midlife will recognize the students’ dilemma. Through our own process of perpetual rearrangement, we too strive for balance: balance between the needs of the children and the demands of career, between visits to grandparents and vacations with friends, between the overlapping schedules of the children’s aikido and dance and piano and the wish to be home, all together, for a family meal. Yet when we manage to get everyone seated around the table, cares crowd our minds and give a desperate edge to our attempts at conversation.

We speak of balance as an answer to our problems. But what if it is part of the problem? Why exactly do we aspire to this ideal?

Michel de Montaigne and the Balanced Life
Like many things in modern life, the image of balance that dominates our moral imagination has its origins in the Renaissance. At the time, Europe was exhausting itself in bloody conflicts sparked by the split of the church, the weakness of the monarchies, and the rise of a commercial and literate class. The old moral order, which spoke the language of piety and honor, seemed less to inspire than to irritate. People were ready to consider alternative visions of how to live.

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) emerged in this context as a compelling guide. Born into a recently ennobled French family, Montaigne was deeply educated in law and letters. He served for 13 years as a counselor in the parliament of Bordeaux. But he retired early from politics to write his Essays, a groundbreaking work that would eventually earn him the title of “the philosopher who invented liberalism,” as Adam Gopnik has put it. Montaigne struck a chord with his contemporaries because he embodied the possibility of replacing religious and aristocratic inflexibility with a new moral vision: a vision of balance. He portrayed that vision on an emblematic medallion he had struck, which featured the image of a pair of scales: in French, une balance.

black and white etching of Montaigne
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Montaigne, famous for his Essays, introduced an intellectual antidote to the fanaticism that inspired wars of religion, but the new paradigm brought its own problems.


Montaigne’s personal history gave him a powerful motivation to discover this alternative to the old order. He lived through eight wars of religion and began to write the Essays during the year of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre—the slaughter of French Protestants instigated by the queen mother on the occasion of a royal wedding meant to reconcile France’s religious factions. The carnage spread from Paris across France, and marked the nadir of wars that raged for more than thirty years. On one occasion, sectarians invaded the courtyard of Montaigne’s home in Bordeaux; on another, they took him hostage. His own friends and family split, swearing allegiances to rival groups. In an effort to restore personal sanity and public peace, Montaigne sought a fulcrum upon which to rebalance the European mind.

The fulcrum Montaigne found was skepticism. For, as he noted, it was dogmatic insistence on small points of interpretation that often sparked the mind-boggling violence of his era. All-out civil war could result from a dispute over the meaning of a pronoun, hoc—as in the phrase hoc est enim corpus meum, “for this is my body,” central to the controversy over transubstantiation. Montaigne sought to temper such debates by reminding people of how little they actually know. It is “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures,” he dryly remarked, “to have one’s neighbor roasted alive because of them.” If a dose of skepticism helped people loosen their grasp on their convictions, they could toggle safely between religious alternatives and Europe’s balance might be regained.

But how could one make skepticism appealing to an audience of fanatics? Refuting any particular claim about life’s purpose would not be sufficient, Montaigne knew. Instead, he wanted his reader to experience doubt about every idea of what makes life worth living, be it honor or wealth or God. In a whirlwind tour of intellectual history, Montaigne makes us confront the proliferation of such ideas, piling up time-honored arguments next to manifest absurdities until our heads spin. “Now trust in your philosophy,” he challenges his reader, and “boast that you have found the bean in the cake, when you consider the clatter of so many philosophical brains!” His point was simply—and perhaps depressingly—that there is no existential prize at the bottom of history’s Cracker Jack box of conflicting moralities.

Having brought us into the darkest recesses of this labyrinth of conflicting opinions about the ultimate purpose of life, Montaigne then reveals a hidden door, suggesting that we might escape by learning to get along without any such opinion. He condenses this thought into a skeptical motto, Que sçay-je?, “What do I know?”—the motto he had inscribed on that medallion bearing the image of scales.

The skeptic’s balance became the centerpiece of a new moral model, one to rival the pursuits of holiness and heroism that were tearing Europe apart. In the unforgettable, semi-autobiographical prose of his Essays, Montaigne shows how skepticism opens up a new and attractive way of life. For if we learn not to care about existential questions to which we have no answers, we may find the secret of gliding “through the world a bit lightly and on the surface.” By letting go of high-minded pursuits, we can free ourselves to discover the lower-key satisfactions of everyday experience. We can find the contentment that comes from devoting ourselves to nothing more than “loyally enjoying our being.”

“When I dance, I dance,” Montaigne writes, “when I sleep, I sleep.” He disdains no activity, however humble, and takes pleasure in a great variety of things—books and horses, travel and love, food and art, playing with his daughter and his cat, tending halfheartedly to the running of his household. Montaigne manages to appreciate it all without becoming attached to any one thing, including his own self: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but nonchalant about it, and still more about my unfinished garden.” No fuss, no tears, no sacraments—out goes the brief candle of a human life, which, to be honest, is not so different from the life of one of those cabbages. The Essays made balanced dedication to the multifarious delights of ordinary human existence into a new moral ideal.

Montaigne’s vision has enjoyed extraordinary influence. For two centuries, his Essays were the bedside reading of educated Europeans; they have remained in print and in fashion almost continuously ever since. They have turned poison-pen critics into gushing blurb writers. Friedrich Nietzsche enthused “that such a man has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.” Through his “miraculous adjustment” of all the “wayward parts that constitute a human soul,” Virginia Woolf exclaimed, Montaigne shows us how to achieve happiness. As recently as 2010, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live—a biography of Montaigne ingeniously organized as a self-help book—became a surprise best-seller.

These authors are part of a complex tradition, winding through Shakespeare and Descartes, Hobbes and Emerson, that has infused modern life with Montaignean skepticism. That skepticism is the forgotten source of the cult of the balanced life whose rituals have been institutionalized in modern education, giving us middle-school archery and marimba sessions as well as the obligatory dabbling required to earn a bachelor’s degree. It makes us reflexively wary of dwelling on the question of the summum bonum—the highest good, the “one thing needful” that makes a human life worth living—and reflexively suspicious of those who do. It has made the effort to discern a singular purpose to life seem both fruitless and wrong, generating only pigheaded pretensions and meaningless controversy. Better to make a bucket list of all the good things one might hope to fit into a life and take a nonjudgmental interest in the lists of others.

Such a way of life seems eminently reasonable and fittingly moderate. To understand its distinctiveness, we must recognize that it plays the ancient theme of moderation in a distinctly modern key. Austere classical philosophers frequently invoked the adage “nothing too much” to encourage us to discipline our desires and govern our passions. Modern Montaigneans soften that ancient maxim by adding a modern corollary: “nothing too little.” Seeing no necessary connection between moderation and austerity, we find balance not by limiting our appetites, but by diversifying them.

The updated Montaignean formula for balance—nothing too much, but nothing too little—can be seen shaping the lives of today’s meritocratic strivers. Where he took horseback rides, we take bodyfit classes; where he aspired to a place among the Gentlemen of the King’s Chamber, we aspire to an office in the C-suite. Like him, we want health and honor and pleasure and travel and wealth and family and solitude and friendship and dancing and homegrown produce. We seek to moderate our taste for each of them by making room for the others, in lives overstuffed with goods and groups and activities that we try, somehow, to balance.

Montaigne’s motives were humane and generous; his inventiveness worthy of admiration. But does the balanced life actually lead to happiness?

Blaise Pascal and the Art of Choosing
The question of whether Montaigne’s skeptical and balanced life can truly satisfy was asked with unsurpassed brilliance by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Montaigne’s greatest yet most critical reader. Pascal—an anti-Montaigne who knew Montaigne intimately—has been aptly described as a “frightening genius.” His penetration can still unnerve.

Most readers know Pascal through his famous wager, which is the tip of an iceberg of intellectual achievement. Indeed, it would be hard to name another thinker, in any era, who made enduring contributions in as many fields as Pascal. In geometry, Pascal’s treatise on conic sections—written when he was only sixteen—and his later work on a problem called the cycloid are historically significant landmarks. In mathematics, he used the arithmetic sequence known as “Pascal’s triangle” to create modern probability theory. As an inventor, he designed and manufactured the world’s first mechanical calculator, capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers of up to eight digits. This early computer crossed a technological Rubicon by “reducing a science that exists wholly in thought to a machine,” in the words of François-René de Chateaubriand. In physics, Pascal designed experiments on voids and atmospheric pressure that helped demolish the ancient scholastic commonplace that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The standard unit of pressure is called a “pascal” in honor of this achievement.

tinted portrait of Blaise Pascal
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Blaise Pascal was raised in a culture shaped by Montaigne, only to become a penetrating critic of the philosopher.

—Bridgeman Images

Having established an enduring reputation in mathematics and science before his thirty-second birthday, Pascal leapt into literary and theological controversy, penning the Provincial Letters. These were daring, uproarious satires of the most powerful churchmen in seventeenth-century France, the Jesuits, and one of the greatest best-sellers of the ancien régime. Next came his famous Pensées, a haunting collection of fragments that is at once a pioneering work of proto-existentialist philosophy and one of the most important works of Christian apologetics ever written. Finally, Pascal and a friend gave Paris a most practical innovation, the “five-cent carriages”—the first modern system of public transportation. Pascal accomplished all this in spite of suffering immensely from a mysterious disease that would kill him before he reached forty.

Pascal’s mathematical and scientific genius, his literary and philosophic brilliance, and his technological and philanthropic accomplishments are the unimpeachable credentials of a first-order modern mind. When he turned that mind to consider the Montaignean vision of happiness, he would show with arresting clarity that no life that excludes trenchant questioning of what might constitute the highest human good can lead to fulfillment.

Pascal knew the life aimed at balance from the inside. He grew up in the class most influenced by Montaigne’s vision, the literate bourgeois who were the ascendant social group of seventeenth-century France. His contemporaries prided themselves on the refined delights of seventeenth-century privilege: gambling and hunting in their country châteaux, flirting and intriguing in Parisian salons. His father homeschooled him in a Montaignean spirit, and Pascal tasted many of these pleasures for himself. After a time, though, he came to see that his seemingly lighthearted contemporaries experienced their lives not as a banquet of balanced delights, but as a succession of empty distractions.

Distraction, Pascal came to believe, is the true if unacknowledged goal of the balanced life. We perpetually fret about distraction, he noticed, but we also compulsively seek it out. Why? Pascal suggests that distraction’s secret appeal is its power to relieve us of an experience we inwardly dread: sitting in a room, alone and quiet, with nothing to do but think. Such stillness frightens us, because it forces us to face ourselves. When we do so, it becomes impossible to ignore what Pascal finally understood to be the “natural unhappiness of our weak and mortal condition.”

We are unhappy because we are, in Pascal’s language, “disproportionate.” Gifted with unrivaled intellectual powers, we inhabit bodies as fragile as blades of grass: We are “thinking reeds.” Our appetites for life, experience, and knowledge are as limitless as our imaginations. But our time is short, our possibilities finite, and our ignorance insuperable. To be a self-conscious yet mortal animal is to live with an inner abyss—an unbridgeable divide between what we can give ourselves and what we long for. That’s why trying to achieve happiness by balancing our interests often feels like trying to eliminate a black hole by covering it with sticky notes.

What would it mean to seek happiness in awareness of this human disproportion? Pascal’s life provides one example. In spite of his immense accomplishments in what we would call STEM fields, he came to see that such studies did not hold the answer to the question of his life. “The knowledge of physical things,” he wrote, “will not console me for the ignorance of morality in time of affliction,” whereas “the knowledge of morals will always console me for ignorance of physical sciences.” That is why he directed his impressive energies toward the study of philosophy and religion in his final years, endeavors he believed would help him better understand the strange combination of greatness and misery he saw in himself and in every human being. He understood his search for a key that would unlock this human paradox as a search for what he called “the hidden God.”

Pascal did not balance his pursuits—he burned through them. He did not allow the psychic investments he had made in his studies, or the dividends of worldly success, to prevent him from relentlessly interrogating everything to which he dedicated his time. After he had made his religious turn, he remarked to his onetime collaborator Pierre de Fermat that he would no longer “take two steps” for geometry’s sake, for he had concluded that geometry had nothing to say about the decisive human question. He could be so tough-minded because he understood that mortal, rational animals are not born to sample, but to choose.

To many, such a life will appear fanatical—as the Montaignean voice that is the basso continuo of modern thought has been saying for four hundred years. If we look around for a moment, however, we will notice that fanaticism is doing brisk business today. The best defense against fanaticism, Pascal’s life would suggest, is not ignoring such questions, but asking them better.

Is there anything that could make human life—with its unavoidable pain, suffering, sin, and ignorance—worth the effort? Pascal would point out that only a disproportionate answer could speak to the disproportionate question of our strange and mysterious souls. Most of us have not earned the belief that the universe will remain silent about that question. We have taken Montaignean skepticism about such questions on faith, in part because it comes wrapped in the pleasing package of a varied and open-minded life, devoid of hang-ups, and replete with charms and pleasures. We notice the nihilism at the core of the candy only after we have swallowed it. But the fact that we have not earned our cynicism may be reason for hope. Perhaps we have not found what we most long for because we have not truly sought it.

Our student came back a few weeks after that awkward conversation. She had dropped a major, felt better for it, and took justified pride in her newfound willingness to resist the siren song of overcommitment.

That decision could become the first step down the road of a serious life. To stay on that road, she will have to give up the effort to be delightfully diverting, and instead come to admire, and eventually resemble, people with gravity—the balance that comes from moral ballast. To acquire such steadiness, she will need to rediscover a forgotten form of wisdom, using her reason to rank the goods and activities of human life, and training herself to prefer the high to the low and the noble to the base. She will also need to acquire the courage to endure the inevitable disappointments she will inflict on the expectations of others as she becomes less easygoing and more demanding, asking of friends and classes and study-abroad trips whether they really have anything to say to the question of a human life.

Doing so will require her to summon the nerve to go against the grain of the educational institutions she has inhabited her whole life. Those institutions demand, as the price of admission and advancement, that young people show themselves to be virtuosic multitaskers at every stage. Too dispirited to reflect seriously on the reasons for their own existence, they teach students to live by a script formulated to meet the crisis of a vastly different historical moment.

Students today are depressed and angry for many reasons. One we often fail to notice is their justified impatience with the emptiness of the role they are asked to play. If liberal education is to be more than a pointless hustle, it will need to do better at helping people learn to face their lives as beings born not just to sample, but to choose.