Montaigne and how to live

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell cover

I just love this book: I’m currently reading it for the second time; it gives me that kind of warm glow of comfort and pleasure, that makes you want to sigh “Aah” as you read it; I’ve marked and commented on so many passages throughout the book, smiled at many of the annotations I made the first time round, and added many more. Hey, I’ve even picked up my copy of Montaigne’s Essays and am trying again to actually read them.

The title and sub-title tell you exactly what’s between the covers: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Sarah Bakewell knows and loves Montaigne, and she delivers so much more than she promises. This isn’t just the life of Montaigne, but his after-life as well, as she tells the story of how Montaigne has been loved and hated, interpreted and misinterpreted, by readers in every century since his own. He was a hugely popular author from the first publication of the first edition of his Essays, yet the Roman Catholic Church placed it on the Index of Prohibited Books less than a hundred years later, where it remained for nearly two centuries until 1854. Descartes and Pascal, Diderot and Rousseau, George Sand, Flaubert, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot and the Woolfs, Stefan Zweig: the list of writers and intellectuals who have been fascinated and attracted or repelled, but certainly, always, influenced by this modest 16th century French writer-philosopher, still goes on. And together with them, goes the crowd of ordinary, anonymous readers who have loved Montaigne and feel they know him as an intimate friend.

Just what is going on here? What’s this all about?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French nobleman who in 1570 ‘retired’ from local politics and resolved that from then on he would write down his thoughts. About life, the universe, and everything; but chiefly about himself. He looked into his own heart and soul, and saw there the whole of humanity. His resulting Essays are a kind of ragbag of stories, drawn from his own life, from his wide reading of classical and contemporary authors, like the rambling conversation of one of your closest and most entertaining friends. And that’s what generations of readers have found: not just amusement and entertainment, but a mirror of their own souls also. Bernard Levin wrote, ‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, “How did he know all that about me?”’

So the Essays become something like the sea in e.e.cummings’s poem:

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Montaigne lived through the terrible and destructive civil wars of religion, which ravaged France between 1562 and 1598; a time of violent turmoil which makes even our own fear-filled times look peaceful. So his way of living and writing has something for us in our own troubled times: it speaks of how we can remain human, when the whole of society around us seems insanely intent on tearing itself to pieces. And what are these answers to the question, How to live?

Here’s just a selection of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at an answer:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Question everything
  • Be convivial: live with others
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect

Montaigne has been described, e.g. by Brainpickings, as the godfather of blogging. That sounds fun, and maybe my ‘essays’ on this blog will be a way for me to explore thoughts in retirement, as Montaigne did.

And in the mean time, let me pick up my copy of his Essays again.

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