HOW TO LIVE, OR A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by Sarah Bakewell

Book Quote:

“Why write about Montaigne?

One answer is that he is one of the most appealing, likeable writers ever to have lived. Another is that he helped make us the way we are. Had he not existed, or had his own life gone slightly differently, we too would be a little bit different. ”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (OCT 20, 2010)

I was first introduced to Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) about thirty years ago. I was in graduate school. I don’t remember the class, nor the other required readings. But I remember Montaigne. I eventually dropped out of graduate school, but Montaigne stayed with me. It was, perhaps, and I honestly mean this, the most important contribution to my intellectual development from that period. If not the most important, certainly the most long-standing. In fact, when this book came to my attention, How to Live, and I received the reader’s advance copy, I happened to be reading Montaigne yet again, as I have done off and on since we were introduced.

I say, since we were introduced purposely, for that is what it felt like at the time. I read him in that class and recall thinking, Who is this, this kindred spirit, this wise new friend? And the magic of that moment continues to this day. I read him still. I read him this morning. Over and over again, I turn to my old French friend. Let me tell you about him.

It was the 28th of February, 1571, the thirty-eighth birthday of this unusually educated nobleman, Michel de Montaigne, and he had moved a chair, a desk and a thousand books into the château tower of his family estate in Bordeaux. Here, as he writes, he took up a contemplative life of reflection and self-examination, residing “among the bosom of the learned Virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, already more than half expired.” He figured that he’d spent the first half of his life in public service, of which he had grown “long weary” –he’d had a successful career as a Counselor in the Bordeaux Parliament and in recognition of his services was awarded the highest honor of the French nobility. He determined that he would spend the second half trying to figure himself out, using, as he put it, the pen as the vehicle of portraiture. It didn’t happen quite so cleanly, as his wisdom and experience was called upon repeatedly throughout the ensuing years. Yet, in the process of his self study, he would single-handedly create a new literary genre, the essay (essayer – to try). Perhaps, of more importance, he would etch out, revise, add, subtract, color, and etch again an enduring profile of what it means to be human, a profile that would influence thought and literature from Shakespeare to Nietzsche (who wrote: “That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth”) to Virginia Woolf and Flaubert. “Read Montaigne…He will calm you,” wrote Flaubert, then added, “read him in order to live.” His influence still pervades today. (And it’s not just writers and thinkers. From his essay, On Fear he struck this note: “The thing I fear most is fear.” Sound familiar?) He was quintessentially human. For instance:

“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all stepped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off–though I don’t know.”

I mentioned above his unusual education. His father. Pierre, had him raised in a peasant village by a wet nurse, so he would develop an appreciation for the humble and the common. When education began, he was returned to the estate where his tutor, Dr. Horst, taught him Latin. Indeed, the household was prohibited from speaking anything but Latin to the young man.

“My father and mother learned enough Latin in this way to understand it, and acquired sufficient skill to use it when necessary, as did also the servants who were most attached to my service. Altogether, we Latinized ourselves so much that it overflowed all the way to our villages on every side, where there still remain several Lain names for artisans and tolls that have taken root by usage. As for me, I was over six before I understood any more French or Périgordian than Arabic.”

Later, Greek would follow, though it never took root, as the language of ancient Rome did. And it was not just the ancient language that took root. Montaigne was steeped in the ideas and philosophies of antiquity. Hence, you are likely to find, upon opening any random page, quotations from Seneca, Lucretius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, to name a smattering.These are the ancient fields he plowed, seeded and nurtured, the fruit of which would inform his thought and writing. Principal among these influences was Stoicism. For example:

“A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it. I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. If I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky.”

It is here, regarding the ancient thought from which Montaigne drew, I find Bakewell’s book to be most illuminating. The word stoic is part of the common vernacular; less common, but still familiar are the words Epicureanism and Skepticism. It is easy to forget that these words represent ancient schools of thought with doctrines and methodologies long lost to most of us. Not so Montaigne. Writes Bakewell:

“About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life. These were the philosophies he turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing with more minor everyday irritations.”

Mind you, Montaigne is searching for tools among the ancients, implements with which to live a better more examined life. He is not a preacher nor a proper philosopher nor academic. He is like us, and wants to understand what it means to be alive. All the better for the reader.

I have often, through the years, wondered how one might organize a biography of Montaigne. Imagine a subject who, over more than two decades writes of virtually everything that comes to his mind, revising and editing thousands of pages up until the day he died. So it was equal parts curiosity and thirst that I picked up Bakewell’s book. I hesitate to call it a biography, though it contains all the elements of biography: history, background, genealogy and so forth. But the book reads more like a streaming narration of an intelligent reader reading Montaigne, a sort of parallel reading experience. Like the subject, rambling, introspective, discursive and curious, How to Live, does not follow a strict chronology or sequence of events. She does not attempt to “straighten him out,” but rather compliment his idiosyncratic path.

For instance, she educates us on the religious wars which surrounded him. Though gruesome and horrid, Montaigne never writes about them specifically; instead he uses them as a platform to explore intolerance and persecution. “Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.” She tells us raging plagues and infestations, the background upon which he philosophizes on death and mediates on immortality (or lack thereof). “If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way.”

How does one write a book about a man who admits, “My mind does not always move straight ahead but backwards too. I distrust my present thoughts hardly less that my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.” He is the quintessential moving target. In turn, How to Live I is something of a meditation on a meditation. Bakewell has taken twenty major themes from Montaigne and organized his thoughts, such as they are, roaming and far from definitive, into chapters around these themes. Each theme is presented as a response to the question, How to Live? They 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

Bakewell has done a yeoman’s job of organizing Montaigne’s thoughts along these themes. It is a creative approach and affords one a perspective on the man that is hard to gain in the ramblings of the essays. It is a compliment to the work, certainly. But just that, a tangential and redacted compliment. Part of the lasting nature of the man and his thoughts is the fluidity of his presence in his writing. He heads in a direction as his curiosity leads him, only to switch course, express doubt (“What do I know?), head off on another tangent, then perhaps hone back in on his target. Perhaps not. One will be reading an essay on a stated subject, for instance, and he will pursue the subject, then go off on a direction; we will chase him, attempt to keep up. Perhaps he will circle around to the subject. Perhaps not. His humanness confronts us on every page and we consequently relish in the connection. I was reading To Philosophize is to learn to die this morning. My wife said, what’s so funny? There was no way I could explain how I was reduced to giggling while reading a work of the late Renaissance, by a nobel frenchman sitting in his castle thinking about death and how to “philosphize” about it. How does one possibly convey how that happens? You can’t. You have to experience it and when you do, it is wonderful.

There is an argument to be made that Montaigne was the first modern man, if by modernity we accept the premise that the modern man/woman is given to self-reflection in a fashion that escaped our ancestors. Augustine perhaps invented the auto-biography. But the good Saint wrote with a purpose beyond himself. He was not self-reflective in the modern sense. He was a man with a message, but like so many writers and thinkers through the ages we call dark and mediveal, Augustine was writing with a goal beyond the self. Montaigne set that tradition on its ear. His most immediate literary predecessor, Plutarch, wielded immense influence over him. “I think I know him even into his soul,” wrote the frenchman. Some say Plutarch, not Montaigne, invented the essay and there is some credence to that. But Montaigne found inspiration in Plutarch from which he devised his own lasting and unique scheme of literary pursuit. He became the modern man on the shoulders of Plutarch. Regardless, Bakewell helps us understand, not only the influence Montaigne left behind, but the ones upon which he took action. How to Live is very interesting, even helpful, in this regard. I worry, though, that in assembling Montaigne in this fashion, under this worrisome self-help title, one looses the magic. Only Montaigne can pull the curtain back to reveal himself. The magic is the revelation that words can make for immortality and that the immortals still talk to us. It is the fundamental difference between original and secondary texts.

Let’s close by reading Montaigne’s preface to the Essay’s, To the Reader:

“This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.

If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

So farewell. Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 44 readers
PUBLISHER: Other Press (October 19, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Sarah Bakewell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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October 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction

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