You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Saturday, February 5, 2011


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
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bakewell's book follows three threads. She does offer a life of Montaigne, but she focuses on the highlights with only whatever background is needed to sketch in the world he inhabited -- as an aristocrat, a public official, and as a writer reflecting unashamedly on himself.  He invented the term essay as it is used still today. I assume there are six-hundred page biographies out there, none of which I have ever read, but I felt Bakewell gave me just enough to move me quickly and intelligently  through her book.

Then there is Montainge's philosophy, if that is what you can really call it. Today we think of philosophies are complex programs interrogating the essence of being-in- the - world in language that makes liberal use of both  hyphens and slash marks, and place parentheses  around the first part of too many words per (sen)tence. Montaigne, writing in the 16th century, was an Hellenisticc philosopher, influenced by Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism,  Greek schools of thought that arose around the third century BCE. Their common goal was "happiness" and "human flourishing", achieved by living well in every sense. They advocated "imperturbability" and "freedom from anxiety." Those last qualities could be carried to outrageous ends as when the Stoic Seneca admonished a friend for grieving over a wife and child lost to a fire. A milder, theoretical formulation, was put forth by Epectetus:

Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.

From Skepticism Montainge learned to question everything. "But then again..." "But what if..." It was this seemingly admirable trait that clouded his career for centuries.

The third thread of Blakewell's book concerns Montaigne's reputation not only during his lifetime but to the present day. For me he has always been an unassailable classic whose 1200 page complete essays sits gathering dust on the shelf. During his life he was alternately loved and reviled, at times considered too wishy-washy in his politics as the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics raged through the region of which he was mayor. And yet his essays went through man editions and constant revisions during his lifetime.  (That is why so many copies you find today are littered it (A), (B), and (C) emendations to let you know what was added when.)

The Vatican finally got around to noticing that all Montaigne's essays never concerned themselves with an afterlife or other canonical matters, and in 1663 they listed The Essays on the Index of Proscribed Books.(They stayed there until 1854.) This did not prevent a steady flow of the books from England, where his reputation never suffered the upheavels it did in France. Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal, the leading philosophers of the time whom Backewell describes as two the the great horror writers of the 17th century,  had no fondness for one another but joined in their hatred of the not-too-recently deceased Montaigne. Both their philosophies relied on certainties to which Montaigne's skepticism seem a direct assault. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Romantics tried to take him up, but Montaigne frustrated them with his indifference to the sublime. His journal of a trip through Italy ignored the breathtaking landscapes that called into questions man's place in creation, focussing instead on the local cuisines and his gall stones.

Bakewell's book introduces a man you want to spend more time with. I have only on quibble with her admirably accessible style. She tends to end her chapters with the type of semi-cliffhanger we have learned to expect from commercial breaks on the History Channel.


View all my reviews

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review. Can't wait to read it. The book was nominated for a National Book Critics award.