How To Live or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer
By Sarah Bakewell
Other Press, $25.00 cloth
By Sarah Bakewell
Other Press, $25.00 cloth
Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works
Edited by Donald M. Frame
Everyman’s Library, Alfred A Knopf, $30.00, cloth
Sarah Bakewell takes an interesting approach in her new biography of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, How To Live or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer. She focuses not on a linear telling of the writer’s life, but divides the book up thematically according to the answers Montaigne considered in his essays regarding the most basic of philosophical questions. She succeeds in rendering a complete and compelling narrative while also addressing the more philosophical implications of the French essayist’s work.
As Shakespeare is to drama in the Western Canon, Montaigne is to the personal essay. He was born near Bordeaux, France in 1533, where he grew up to become an emissary, diplomat, and farmer, but his true calling in life was the writing of one hundred and seven personal essays that digress into a myriad of areas. These works have been published in a variety of translations and editions over the course of his life and beyond, with one of the most complete and beautiful books coming from the Everyman’s Library in 2003. Montaigne influenced generations of writers from Virginia Woolf to Joan Didion.
Bakewell actually begins the book by calling out bloggers as one group that might take their inspiration from Montaigne. “Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of self,” she writes. “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…”
Bakewell structures the book around the “how to live question,” focusing on the different possible answers present in Montaigne’s life and work. She begins with a near death experience Montaigne had after a riding accident. This was a turning point for the writer. Before the accident, he obsessed about death, spending “too much time reading classical philosophers.” He was mired in Cicero’s axiom, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” We also learn of his philosophical inquiries into the ancient Greek and Roman ideals of the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics. After the very strange incident where he was literally run over by a fellow horseman, he decided to embrace life and “live for himself rather than for duty.” Thus began a life of most personal self-reflection and study.
His philosophy of how to live takes the form of close observation, both of his fellow human beings and most particularly, of himself. Montaigne was the first writer to compose in this way and use himself and his experiences as fodder for insight and revelation. In fact, such revealing subject matter as his sex life, politics, and bodily functions, served to put off some readers, but the audience also appreciated his candor.
One of many interesting points about the essays, according to Bakewell, is that Montaigne is not a highly structured writer. He tends to digress to the point that many of the essays’ titles do not match up to their content. This allowed readers through the centuries to cast Montaigne in whatever light they wished, and use his work to support whatever cause or position they desired. He is an everyman, a writer that, although composing intensely personal essays, holds up a mirror for all humanity. He wanted to know how to live a good life, and he was willing to dissect his own predilections, foibles, and mistakes to learn the larger lessons. We, the readers, are the benefit of his self-examination, and made all the wiser through reading his work in our own time.
Some of the more difficult periods of Montaigne’s life make for the most interesting chapters in Bakewell’s book. His very short but intense friendship with Etienne de La Boetie, who died of the plague in 1563, left the writer in mourning and in significant psychic pain. The loss colored Montaigne’s life going forward, and the friendship could never be duplicated or replaced. Montaigne used the idea of losing a dear friend in many of his essays, as well as the death of a child, something he experienced many times over. The plague and a variety of accidents contributed to Montaigne’s fear of death, and his writing about the subject served to get him through many of the losses. He felt by writing about these events, he was actively working through them.
Montaigne was haunted by disease, suffering and death all his life. He suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, and because his father died from an attack, Montaigne felt that he, too, could succumb to the pain and complications of the stones. With the plague periodically raging throughout Europe, and France’s bloody civil and political discords, Montaigne was well aware of the fragility of life.
Bakewell devotes considerable space to Montaigne’s critics and detractors, some of them famous in their own right. Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal both had issues with the essays. According to Bakewell, Descartes’ problem “was that his whole philosophical structure required a point of absolute certainty, which he found in the notion of a clear, undiluted consciousness. There could be no room in this for Montaigne’s boundary-blurring ambiguities.” Pascal quibbled with Montaigne because he “feared Pyrrhonian Skepticism,” Bakewell writes. “Unlike the readers of the sixteenth century, [Pascal] felt sure [Montaigne’s views] did threaten religious belief.” Bakewell clearly explains Montaigne’s philosophical underpinnings in this form of Skepticism. “Ordinary dogmatic Skepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge,” she says. “It is summed up in Socrates’ remark: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ Pyrrhonian Skepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, ‘and I’m not even sure about that.’” Montaigne believed that one must live with “the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens,” or amor fati, literally “love of fate.” This did not set well with either Descartes or Pascal.
In the end, there are many answers to the question, How to live. Montaigne ran through a number of philosophies and opinions in the course of composing his essays. Bakewell distills his views for us in several pithy sentences: “Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.” Or, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection.” There is much to quote for the daybook in Bakewell’s biography and in the essays, themselves.
Of course, one should read the essays in a definitive edition. Alfred A. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library imprint has a hefty volume of his complete works, translated by Donald M Frame. Bakewell quotes extensively from the Frame translation throughout her book. Although not an edition that fits neatly into a pocket or purse, this particular collection is most complete, containing all of Montaigne’s essays as well as his travel journal and letters.
Sarah Bakewell somewhat maligns “blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods,” whose authors she characterizes as “fascinated by their own personalities and [shouts] for attention.” But if Montaigne were alive today, he might embrace self-publication in the digital domain. He was a writer who continuously added to his work in revision, growing the essays from a slim beginning to a mammoth tome that could stop a door. Blogging, with its instantaneous publication and the ability to edit and repost on a dime, would appeal to this most personal of personal essayists. His essays have made for great reading for as long as Shakespeare’s actors have lit up the stage. That, in and of itself, makes him good reading for yet another audience in new age.