Review of How to Live, A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live, A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

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Book Review of How to Live, A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

Like many people, I occasionally flirt with philosophy, but usually find it too abstract and inaccessible – unless of course it is set in the context of a life well-lived (or perhaps not so well!), when the personal story of the philosopher helps his teachings come alive. 

For this reasons, I enjoyed reading the books of Alain de Botton such as his Consolations of Philosophy, which manages to extract the main thrust of the great philosophers and apply it to modern problems and complexities.

Sarah Bakewell has provided me with another highly accessible book of wisdom in How to Live – A life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  The added value of her book is that she has extracted the core of Montaigne’s thought but set it in the context of a very readable biography, containing not just the story of his life, but also the historical context in which he lived.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) had a successful career as a Counselor in the Bordeaux Parliament and in recognition of his services was awarded the highest honour of the French nobility.  However, he tired of public life and at the age of 38 retired to his Chateau to live a life of solitude among the 1,500 books in his library, where he began work on his Essays.

Sarah Bakewell has somehow taken the 16th century material of the Essays and has distilled them into a very readable book for the 21st century.  Understanding that few people have the time to wander through the 1000 page original, she had summarised Montaignes messages in 20 chapters, with titles such as:

  • How to Live – Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted,
  • How to Live – Survive love and loss
  • How to Live – Wake from the sleep of habit
  • How to Live – Reflect on everything, regret nothing.

In each of these chapters, she takes a free-ranging journey through Montaigne’s life, providing biographical material which explains how he arrived at his conclusions, and also showing what  people down the centuries have made of the essays.  While summarising his thought very succinctly she warns of the difficulty of abridgement and summarising –

Montaigne’s spirit resided in the the very bits his editors are most eager to lose: his swerves, his asides, his changes of mind and his restless movement from one idea to another.

One Amazon reviewer describes Montaigne rather imaginatively as the “first blogger”,  I can see what she means, for Montaigne’s essays came from his life-experience, being peppered with anecdotes and references to the things around him –

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

I could almost see Montaigne sitting at a computer pouring his thoughts into cyberspace – how he would have loved the dialogue this would have provoked, for he believed passionately that it is only through conversation with others that we can move beyond the prison of our own thoughts –

Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses

and perhaps combining this insight with humilty, his often-quoted statement –

I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that binds them.

What have I learned from Montaigne?  Well perhaps it confirms my belief that the best place to learn the lessons of life is in the everyday.  There is enough material in daily “stuff” to provide a lifetime of philosophy, but few people actually reflect on the circumstances of their life and what happens to them. 

I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau, another philosopher of the domestic world, who when asked if he had travelled much, replied, “I have travelled a great deal in Concord County”.  Montaigne in his library tower managed to do enough thinking to keep people discussing his work for centuries, even to the point where in 2010 publishers are still prepared to stake their investments on more books about him.

I am grateful to Sarah Bakewell for writing this fascinating introduction to Montaigne.  I for one was inspired to get hold of the Complete Essays and it sits on my bedside table ready to be dipped into whenever the mood takes me.

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