For Montaigne, it was getting rear-ended by another horse that started his twenty year journey of introspection and observation. He had started to write for himself about death but, from 1572 to 1592, he wrote and gave his opinion on anything and everything – horses, thumbs, death, fear, education, cannibals, smells, liars…
In How to Live – A Life of Montagne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell writes a painless tutorial of a best-loved philosopher. In a conversational style, she introduces Montaigne and explains his approach to life through a series of simple questions that would make the master proud.
Each chapter addresses the question – “how to live?” and in Montaigne’s style offers a selection of twenty answers that framed his life. A sample:
- How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.
- How to live? Do something no one has done before.
- How to live? Be ordinary and imperfect.
Don’t be fooled by Bakewell’s simplistic phrasing. She uses each chapter answer to describe Montaigne and how he used everyday incidents to examine life – and write about it in his famous Essays. Her organization allows Montagne to emerge effortlessly from the pages, but this is not an easy read. Be prepared to delve into French history and Greek schools of philosophy.
Once started, I found the book hard to put down – educational and informative -although I admit I did not read every chapter studiously. Bakewell sprinkles the narrative with Montaigne’s quotes, using them as a frame of reference in telling his biography, for example, the poor memory attributed to Montaigne prompted this line…
“unless a man feels he has a good enough memory, he should never venture to lie.”
The chapters on Montaigne’s early life, political leanings, and the death of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie are methodical, but the pace picks up a little with a chapter on “little tricks and the art of living” and the beginning of “question everything”…
“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that.”
Montaigne’s ideas are timeless, and Blakewell knew how to draw from them. Take from her book what you will, as Montaigne would advise; it’s not necessary to read everything – unless you want to.
Interested in the primary source? Read some of The Essays
or another book on Montaigne with a great title…
- Montaigne: The Anti-Fanatic (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)