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.
- 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.”
“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
- Montaigne: The Anti-Fanatic (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)