Philosophers come in all shapes and sizes. Some prefer to ask questions, others prefer to dive into metaphysics and explore the origins of the universe. Michel de Montaigne was a patchwork quilt of worldviews, weaving together his own unique perspective that turned him into one of the most celebrated thinkers in history.
Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is a remarkable book recounting Montaigne’s philosophy, his life and how it can be applied to the modern day.
Bringing The Essays into a contemporary format
Renowned for his essays, Montaigne wrote about all kinds of topics: death, freedom, impotence, travel, sex, marriage, war, animals more. His body of work veers off in many directions and Montaigne constantly questions and contradicts himself. It’s one of many reasons why people find him so relatable and find their own journeys reflected in the words of The Essays.
“Every few phrases, a new way of looking at things occurs to him, so he changes direction. Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dream-like, his writing follows them. ‘I cannot keep my subject still,’ he says. ‘It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.’ Anyone is free to go with him as far as seems desirable, and let him meander off by himself if it doesn’t. Sooner or later, your paths will cross again.
Having created a new genre by writing in this way, Montaigne created essais: his new term for it.”
Bakewell takes a similarly Montaignian approach, writing essays that chart Montaigne’s life that shoot off into tangents. Yet she always manages to bring the point back to the central question she attempts to answer across the book:
The answers to her question are:
- Don’t worry about death
- Pay attention
- Be born
- Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow-witted
- Survive love and loss
- Use little tricks
- Question everything
- Keep a private room behind the shop
- Be convivial; live with others
- Wake from the sleep of habit
- Live temperately
- Guard your humanity
- Do something no one has done before
- See the world
- Do a good job, but not too good a job
- Philosophise only by accident
- Reflect on everything; regret nothing
- Give up control
- Be ordinary and imperfect
- Let life be its own answer
Retelling the life of Montaigne
While finding these answers, Bakewell covers Montaigne’s life in stunning detail, starting from his humble beginnings as the son of a nobleman to his status as mayor, best-selling author, revolutionary, adoptive father, husband, brother, politician and so much more.
Intriguing chapters include Montaigne’s interest in Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism. While he used techniques across all three schools of thought, Montaigne is perhaps best known for being a Skeptic who was critical of academic scholars and far more interested in putting words into action.
Another chapter highlights the intense affection Montaigne held for his closest friend La Boetie and an analysis on how their relationship was interpreted by the generations that came after both men.
Bakewell also points out how Montaigne was co opted, reviled, worshipped and praised by different groups of thinkers. To Rousseau he was a hero who championed all the virtues of nature. To Decartes and Pascal he was a source of terror and frustration. To the Romantics he was a radical and a sellout. To his adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay he was a fount of endless inspiration.
It’s fascinating how each new generation adds their own take on Montaigne’s work and how we all see a portion of ourselves in his work. Bakewell is no different and she brings the philosopher back to life with wit, panache and resonance.
How To Live: A Life of Montaigne is a must-read introduction to the man who created The Essays and you may very well discover a piece of yourself in the book.