How to Live by Sarah Bakewell (Amazon) is a fascinating look at the life of one of the Renaissance’s most treasured byproducts, Michel de Montaigne.
It seems that Montaigne has escaped most modern books and school curriculums. Perhaps one reason is because it’s difficult to categorize him: Part philosopher, statesman, traveler, noble. Fortunately, he decided to give future generations a detailed look into his life.
The Essays of Montaigne
The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which change through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that cry of “How did he know all that about me?”
Montaigne is most well-known for his essays and How to Live is a unique take on traditional biographies because it discusses the life of Montaigne in part through the context of his Essays. This works quite well as his Essays were literally an open book of his life, and by examining the book we can learn about the life of Montaigne straight from the source.
He tells us, for no particular reason, that the only fruit he likes is melon, that he prefers to have sex lying down rather than standing up, that he cannot sing, and that he loves vivacious company and often gets carried away by the spark of repartee. But he also describes sensations that are harder to capture in words, or even to be aware of: what it feels like to be lazy, or courageous, or indecisive; or to indulge a moment of vanity, or to try to shake off an obsessive fear. He even writes about the sheer feeling of being alive.”
Although I have just begun reading his numerous essays, this book gives the reader plenty of insights as to what they have in store. He deals with the questions that so many of us have to deal with throughout our lives: Wine, sex, magic, diplomacy, childhood, dogs.
The trick is to maintain a kind of naïve amazement at each instant of experience – but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.”
The most profound question that Montaigne asked was ‘How should you live?’ How do we go through life embracing virtue and family, while still achieving great things and enjoying all this world has to offer?
A down-to-earth question, “How to live?” splintered into a myriad other pragmatic questions. Like everyone else, Montaigne ran up against the major perplexities of existence: how to cope with the fear of death, how to get over losing a child or a beloved friend, how to reconcile yourself to failures, how to make the most of every moment so that life does not drain away unappreciated.”
It’s a tough question, which is why Bakewell plays 20 questions to fish for the answer.
The Life of Montaigne
Montaigne lived a fascinating life, starting from childhood. His father had a ‘unique’ approach to education, such that he wanted his son to learn Latin as his first language. Despite a millennia having passed since the Fall of the Roman Empire, and Latin being an all but dead language, Montaigne’s father managed to procure a tutor that immersed young Montaigne in this classical language. Beyond that, Montaigne lived a life worth writing about:
He weathered the disorder, oversaw his estate, assessed court cases as a magistrate, and administered Bordeaux as the most easygoing mayor in its history. All the time, he wrote exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles:”
Montaigne also had the benefit of being born into a noble family. He had a large estate with an impressive 1000 volume library—where he often retreated to get away from it all.
France’s 16th Century Turmoil
Although a period that doesn’t get much attention, the latter half of the 16th century in France was filled with turbulence. The country was rocked by religious wars and regicide, creating lasting instability that Montaigne was reluctantly dragged into.
Montaigne’s half-century was so disastrous for France that it took another half-century to recover from it—and in some ways recovery never came, for the turmoil of the late 1500s stopped France from building a major New World empire like those of England and Spain, and kept it inward-looking.”
Had Montaigne not been born in this period, who knows if he would have ever given posterity is essays. Montaigne’s life shows that we are truly products of our time.
Near Death Experience
Perhaps the most profound event in Montaigne’s life was his close encounter with death in his mid-30’s. Montaigne enjoyed horseback riding as a means of physical fitness, and as a way to shirk responsibilities at his estate or elsewhere.
As he was riding one day he got in a devastating accident and was left in a horrid condition. He was knocked unconscious, vomited blood, and was bed-ridden. Though Montaigne was no stranger to the idea of death—he read the Stoics and took their philosophy to heart— this brush with mortality was so illuminating–truly it was a life changing experience.
Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life…it is not worth wasting any anxiety over.”
Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”
Montaigne’s Lasting Legacy
Montaigne is often described as the first modern writer. Bakewell even suggests that he would have been the first blogger, perhaps if he had been given a Mac and an internet connection.
He sets himself apart from other writers before and during his time by approaching his writing as a free flowing stream of thoughts. He let his pen touch the paper and then let it work its magic.
One impact of this writing style is that it is accessible and relatable to its readers. In fact, some of the most amazing minds over the last 500 years have read this book. The most notable readers featured in How to Live were Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes, who in fact fundamentally disagreed with the premise of the Essays.
How should one live?
This is a tough question, as Bakewell provides 20 different answers, such as :
-Don’t Worry About Death
-Reflect on Everything; Regret Nothing
Certainly one of these answers will resonate with you, although likely more than one.
Beyond How to Live…
This book gives a fantastic insight into the life of Montaigne, and through him and his essays, a looking glass into ourselves. This book alone is not enough to understand the vast content in his Essays, but it is a fantastic start.
Click here to to purchase How to Live by Sarah Bakewell on Amazon.