Review: Sarah Bakewell – “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An AnswerHow to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell

In one of the logs that I use to note and review books there are “tags”. These tags are words and terms used to describe the book, e.g. “analysis”, “philosophy” and “war”. I’ve I have never attributed a book so many tags as I have used here, and I’m not exaggerating a single thing.

This book is about Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century nobleman who wrote down his thoughts and ideas in ways that very few other people had done so far. This book provides a somewhat chronological walk through the life of Montaigne, while issuing 20 attempts to twist the question “How to live?” as seen through his ways and eyes, and while being fairly complex, it’s extremely simple to read. And I think a huge portion of why it’s so accessible and laudable, is because it’s unique and understandable:

From page 293 in the book, where Bakewell describes how Marie de Gournay felt when she discovered Montaigne’s “Essays”:

Some time in her late teens, apparently by chance, she came across an edition of the Essays. The experience was so shattering that her mother thought she had gone mad: she was on the point of giving the girl hellebore, a traditional treatment for insanity – or so Gournay herself says, perhaps exaggerating for effect. Gournay felt she had found her other self in Montaigne, the one person with whom she had a true affinity, and the only one to understand her. It was the experience so many of his readers have had over the years:

How did he know all that about me? (Bernard Levin)

It seems he is my very self. (André Gide)

Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished. (Stefan Zweig)

Time and time again, Montaigne struck me as quite marvellous, simply because of his reasoning; he maintained that everything should be experienced with fresh eyes no matter how many times it has been seen before. And also, he believed that everything should be questioned. Yes, everything, but with a purpose.

As Virginia Woolf was, according to Bakewell, prone to quote, this is a line from Montaigne’s last essay:

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

In his writing about everything, his examinations of everything, people who read his gigantic work – which I have yet not read – seem to love and critique it, simply because Montaigne continually examined his own flaws, errors and problems – and he stirs, and quickly traipsing from one subject to another in his writing, by following a trail of thought – not because he’s trying to be difficult, but rather because he is human; I believe he was truly trying to discover what being human was about, and I think that’s why people love his writing, not to forget his fantastic, amazing and provoking reason. All of this is superbly put into historical context by Bakewell; when Montaigne questions that he could have been killed for, it’s clear to see that he meant what he said and did (also, while being flawed enough to go against himself at times; what the hell, he was human and knew it).

Another quote from this book:

But Montaigne offers more than an incitement to self-indulgence. The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgement, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world. It is unthinkable to Montaigne that one could ever ‘gratify heaven and nature by committing massacre and homicide, a belief universally embraced in all religions.’ To believe that life could demand any such thing is to forget what day-to-day existence actually is. It entails forgetting that, when you look at a puppy held over a bucket of water, or even at a cat in the mood for play, you are looking at a creature that looks back at you. No abstract principles are involved; there are only two individuals, face to face, hoping for the best from one another.

Perhaps some of the credit for Montaigne’s last answer should therefore go to his cat – a specific sixteenth-century individual, who had a rather pleasant life on a country estate with a doting master and not too much competition for his attention. She was the one who, by wanting to play with Montaigne at an inconvenient moment, reminded him what it was to be alive. They looked at each other, and, just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment – and countless others like it – came his whole philosophy.

This book is radiant, a marvellous excursion for a Montaigne neophyte like myself, and I recommend this to everybody.

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