How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne

Montaigne's ceiling | Lessing Photo Archive

One of the remarkable things about Montaigne’s Essays and his biography by Sarah Bakewell is that your Montaigne could be just as present and real as mine. In How to Live, the man comes to life so paradoxically and so well, as a comforting, endearing, spontaneous human being, that I can’t help calling this Pyrrhonian skeptic a close friend. As the subtitle of the seventh chapter goes, “All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”

I first read Montaigne’s On Conversation twelve years ago – it was a charming discovery. A friend brought me a volume of his complete essays on a breezy winter morning in early 2000, and from there, in the flush of banter, youth and cheer, I began my systematic study of this most unsystematic writer. I have often noticed with some gratification – as if I know him best, as per the impression he makes on countless readers – that he can even perplex poets. T. S. Eliot suspected:

Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

Emerson was characteristically more trustful:

He parades it: he makes the most of it: nobody can think or say worse of him than he does. He pretends to most of the vices; and, if there be any virtue in him, he says, it got in by stealth. There is no man, in his opinion, who has not deserved hanging five or six times; and he pretends no exception in his own behalf. “Five or six as ridiculous stories,” too, he says, “can be told of me, as of any man living.” But, with all this really superfluous frankness, the opinion of an invincible probity grows into every reader’s mind.

“That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth”. — Nietzsche

“Montaigne, affecting ease and comfort, contributed more to saving his country than his zealous contemporaries. Some of his work was directly political, but his greatest contribution was simply to stay out of it and write the Essays. This, in the eyes of many, makes him a hero”. — Sarah Bakewell

Que sais-je?

Listen to Sarah Bakewell as she discusses ‘How To Live” in the Blackwell Online podcast [33:45]:

philosophy bites interview with Sarah_Bakewell on Michel de Montaigne [16:42]:

Watch this brief introduction:

Read Sarah Bakewell’s series of Guardian articles about Montaigne.

Montaigne’s Complete Essays have been translated by Donald Murdoch Frame and M. A. Screech.


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