Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 10/19/2010
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.—Michel de Montaigne
Please suspend judgment. In January, I read How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.
Now, I offer belated kudos to this 2011 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography… and my favorite read this year.
Bakewell’s biography traces the life and travels of French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who wrote a collection of highly personal thoughts about everyday things. A bestseller in the 1580s, the Essays model how to cope with chaos and loss and how to do good and be content. Centuries later, readers are still drawn to the sincerity and openness of Montaigne.
What sparked Bakewell’s interest in writing about this “accidental philosopher”?
I came across Montaigne completely by accident, twenty years ago, when I was looking for something to read on a long train journey. I didn’t expect him to be that entertaining; I thought he’d be worthy but dull. Instead, I found someone who was warm, witty, wise; full of amusing stories and surprising thoughts. And amazingly open, too. He wrote about himself as if he were sitting opposite me on the train, just chatting about whatever went through his head. From then on, he was never far from my pocket, or shelves, or bedside - wherever I had books. He’s been a constant companion.
What might prompt modern readers to seek out editions of Montaigne’s Essays? According to Bakewell, we follow his example with our constant sharing, uploading and blogging.
This idea “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity” has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
France of his time was divided by religious war. Montaigne’s writings show us how to maintain our integrity in the midst of extremism, both religious and political.
As mayor of the Catholic city of Bordeaux, Montaigne used his sway with the Huguenot Henri of Navarre to broker a tentative stability.
He found a way to preserve his sanity, safety and self, even though this might have seemed lazy and irresponsible to detractors.
Bakewell asserts that this non-philosophy made him free of pride, ambition, habit and fanaticism. Montaigne had been witness to their horrors and he sought a more courageous antidote.
Instead, he thought that the solution to a world out of joint was for each person to get themselves back in joint: to learn how to live, beginning with the art of keeping your feet on the ground.
Bakewell compares Montaigne to Descartes, Pascal and Voltaire and shows that to Montaigne humans are fallible, but not because of some inherent wickedness.
Certainty to him was foolish, so his observations indulged other perspectives: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”
Montaigne “mixed and matched” Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic guidance, according to whim, but the Skeptic ideal of suspending judgment would find its way into the Essays.
In 1576, Montaigne had a series of medals struck with the word “epokhe” and his coat of arms. Bakewell writes that this was fashionable at the time as a personal statement or token of identity, like a 21st century tattoo.
Be temperate, be ordinary and imperfect, accept whatever happens, seclude yourself in work… these might sound dismaying to American readers.
Yet, Montaigne did acquire his fair share of groupies as a literary and public figure. Women found him charming. He even attracted and mentored a future and influential editor, Marie de Gournay.
My essential pattern is suited to communication and revelation. I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship.—Michel de Montaigne
Finding pleasure in the give and take of conversation, he was a sociable host to neighbors at his estate. Be convivial, Montaigne urged. He deplored cruelty and believed we owe others our empathy and compassion.
Theft, violence and civil war threatened the French countryside, but Montaigne never considered locking doors, bolting gates or hiring guards. He preferred winning over others by being open and generous.
Bakewell writes how events proved Montaigne right:
Once, he invited a troop of soldiers in, only to realize that they were plotting to take advantage of his hospitality by seizing the place. They abandoned the plan, however, and the leader told Montaigne why: he had been ‘disarmed’ by the sight of his host’s ‘face and frankness.’
How to Live by Sarah Bakewell is a highly worthwhile read with recommendations for effortless living from an accidental philosopher… no need for a map or a plan.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography