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.

Leaving Alexandria

Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway, is subtitled ‘A memoir of faith and doubt’. It is a timely book for me to be reading, at this time when I’ve recently retired, and am reflecting very much on my own ordained ministry: what did it mean? What was it all about?

Richard Holloway was born in a working class family, north of Glasgow. As a young teenager, he was persuaded by the local vicar to sing in the church choir, and there the beauty of holiness, the magic and mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship, captivated him. With little prospect of getting a good education through the local schools, let alone being able to gain a university place, he was encouraged at the age of 14 to go to Kelham Hall, at that time the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, whose vision was to educate working class boys for ordination. Holloway never joined the Order, but he was drawn to its ethos of total commitment and self-sacrifice to Christ. (The founder of SSM, Herbert Kelly, used to say of the altar in Kelham’s chapel, “We sacrifice young men on this altar.”) For the whole of his life, Holloway felt both unable to give himself so totally to Christ, and at the same time guilty for being unable to do. His abiding feeling was of being “a disappointment”: to God, to his superiors, to the churches and congregations he served, to his wife and children.

His drivenness to become the best priest he could, led to some extraordinary works of ministry, in serving the homeless, the poor, the alcoholics and drunk addicts, AIDS sufferers, in parish after parish. Yet in spite of these ‘successes’ and heroic achievements, which led to his eventual call to be Bishop of Edinburgh, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Holloway continued to feel he was a disappointment. He wrestled, too, to believe in God in the way his Anglo-Catholic background seemed to require. His belief in the place of human reason and experience led him to embrace the liberal theology of the 1960s, and the supposedly liberal agenda of women’s ordination and the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church. This made him feel increasingly at odds with large sections of the Church, which regarded him as a dangerous liberal and heretic.

The last straw was the Lambeth Conference of 1998, the one that was hijacked by the more conservative, reactionary bishops of Africa and elsewhere, who forced through the infamous motions condemning homosexual practice and gay and lesbian people. Holloway knew that he could not continue to serve a Church which he believed had departed so far from the message of the Gospel. He had written a book called Godless Morality, which advocated conducting discussions on morality, without recourse to religious imperatives which could so easily be used without realism, reason or compassion. Many critics (including plenty who had not bothered to read beyond the title) condemned the book as heretical, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Since he was a guest of the Scottish Church at the time, Holloway was not the only person present who felt this was not only wrong, but also bad manners. The ABC had no business to be issuing what was effectively a fatwa against a fellow primate who was also his host.

Soon after this incident, Richard Holloway resigned from his position and retired, after famously throwing his bishop’s mitre into the River Thames.

This book is a fascinating memoir of one man’s experience of a lifetime’s ordained ministry in the latter half of the 20th century. It is honest, challenging, often laugh-out-loud funny. I think that anyone who has been involved in ordained ministry in the Church will recognise many of the questionings and wrestlings the author describes. It is also, at times, almost unbearably sad, as here when he describes his final sermon.

In the spring of 2000 I announced my resignation. At the end of October I preached my last sermon as Bishop of Edinburgh in Old St Paul’s, and I used it to look back. I told them that when I arrived as their Rector thirty-two years before I had just emerged from a period of radical doubt and had fallen into a very common trap. I reacted against my own uncertainty by attacking doubt and uncertainty in others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I had been afraid to look at in myself. My first book, written in the attic at Lauder House thirty years ago, was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now wrote and was condemned for. It was the deepest irony of my life that I had ended up the kind of bishop in my sixties I had despised when I was a priest in my thirties. Now I had come back to where I started from and knew the place for the first time. I could no longer talk about God.

My heart goes out to a man who has made this decision. I am currently still presuming, or daring, to talk about God. But really, it’s with a growing fear and doubt: how can we speak about the Unspeakable, the Mystery beyond and behind all things? So much of human speaking about God amounts to little more than a blasphemous exaltation of the idols we set up and name as ‘God’. Usually with the principle motive of massaging our own egos, or shoring up our own power over others. Richard Holloway’s memoir challenges us and invites us to a more honest caution and modesty about what we take upon ourselves to say about God. Lest

“The Word made flesh is here made word again.”1Edwin Muir. I think. If you know the exact source, please let me know.

The Naked God

I know Vincent Strudwick and have met him socially on numerous occasions and enjoyed his company. I have the greatest respect for him, and admiration for his learning and opinions, even though I haven’t had the opportunity to learn from him as much as I might wish. So reading this book has been a real treat.

The premise of The Naked God is that every age and generation clothes God in their own particular way, in doctrine, dogma, liturgy, religious institutions, and ethics. They do this in order to make the Mystery that is ‘God’ somehow comprehensible and accessible to themselves and their contemporaries. But of course, the clothes are not God, and when that generation passes (possibly even before that) these ‘clothes’ actually obscure the Mystery, rather than make it known. The underlying reality of God is still there, present and underneath the ‘clothes’ that have been laid upon it. Each new generation has the task of discovering that reality for itself. Ideally, I suppose, we might continue to know the naked reality. In fact, that is impossible for us, so we will always find our own way of clothing it, if we go about the business of God seriously.

In this book, the fruit of Vincent’s life of wrestling with God and seeking to understand how God should be known in the world of today, there are too many ideas to take in all at once. Although clearly stated, they are sketched in in broad outline. This is, after all, a book for the general reader, though it includes a useful bibliography and notes for further reading.

It has been a lifetime in which the institutional Church has pretty much lost the plot (cf. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead’s book, That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English People – though it is a global, not just an English, phenomenon). This isn’t just the Church’s fault, because the last several decades have been a time of rapid and turbulent social, political, technological and cultural change. In times like this – there have been several during church history – the Church has usually at first resisted the changes, then floundered as it is widely seen as irrelevant, then succeeds in adapting to the new understandings and idioms, leading to a time of renewed growth in influence in society.

It is a hopeful, though urgent book, addressed to desperate times. But it also makes me think that much, if not most, of what I was doing during my ministry was contributing to that inward-looking irrelevance of the Church, rather than the new directions that Vincent calls for. The only times I was kind of on the right lines, with the good guys rather than the villains of the story, were being in support of women priests and bishops, and (alas, somewhat more slowly) of same-sex relationships and the full acceptance of LGBT people by the Church. I may have tried to keep up with some of the social trends, but a great deal of what I did in the church was keeping the show on the road, rather than making the church truly the embodiment of Christ serving the world.

I commend this book to lovely friends and colleagues who are still working – including the brilliant young clergy and ordinands I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Read it; and don’t weep, as I’ve felt like doing, but carry on the wrestling to find the ways of doing it.

The first book I bought

Can you remember the first book you ever bought? I can. It's not a title or a choice I'm especially proud of, but it reminds me of the way things were and have been in my life.

When I was a child in the 1950s, ours was not a very bookish household. I remember one shelf of books in the dining room, and some other books on the top of the bureau. There were a couple of single-volume reference books, a large five-volume pictorial encyclopaedia called I See All,

some books which I think Mum had as a girl, including Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. There were a few that Dad had won as Sunday School prizes: Adventures of a Three-Guinea Watch by Talbot Baines Reed is the only one I can remember the title of. There was E. V. Rieu's Penguin Classics translation of The Iliad. From later years (probably), I remember Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Sir Richard Burton's translation of Kama Sutra, a bright yellow paperback. Both of these looked like books I wasn't supposed to read, so I naturally looked inside them and found them too boring to tolerate. What was the parents' interest in them?

But, books of my own? I really can't remember the first book I read or was given as a present. But The Book as a thing, an idea – it compelled me like nothing else. I longed to have, to own, to read.

I think I was 8 that year, when we went on our summer holiday to Greatstone in Kent. Mum and Dad gave me five shillings holiday pocket money, so naturally on the very first day I was in the small village shop, looking how to spend the money that was burning a hole in my pocket, looking at the books on the shelves. The selection was small in the extreme. The book I had to have cost, I think I remember, three shillings and fourpence. That was two-thirds of my allowance for the whole fortnight. My mother was horrified. That five shillings was supposed to buy me sweets, ice creams, buckets and spades, rides on dodgem cars, all the important things I was going to need while on holiday. And I had spent nearly all of it on a book!

And the book? It was, alas, The Boy Next Door, by Enid Blyton.

All I remember of it, the very first book I ever chose and bought with my own money, is that I had finished it by the end of that day. I learned something about disappointment that week, because I didn't read it again and again (it wasn't that good), and the village shop wasn't going to function like a lending library where I could trade in my finished book for another. I probably wouldn't have wanted to anyway: it was my book, my very own, my precious.

Since then I have bought, and owned, many books. Most of them I have wanted and loved more than that one. But, even though I can't remember an iota of the plot – even reading the summary on the Enid Blyton website stirs not the least memory – I will never forget that longing, that agony of choosing and sacrifice, that having and owning. That book.