How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Every bit as good as its quirky title suggests, Montaigne's ideas are still relevant half a millennium later. A must-read for those with existential angst or pretensions to erudition.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 387 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 978-0701178925

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'Chance … really the way things happen,' wrote Howard Beck, the Chicago School sociologist. I visit Bookbag Towers with few preconceived ideas about the next book for review. I'll allow myself to fall for a quirky title or appealing cover, despite only a smattering of interest in the subject matter. Just occasionally this way, I stumble on a golden nugget so fascinating and well-written that I realise how lucky I am to be a reviewer. I'm so pleased to have chanced upon this inviting biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell!

Michel Montaigne was born about 1533 into a noble family whose chateau produced the Bergerac Grand Vin which still bears his name today. His first language was Latin, his early life an experiment in child-centred education that Rousseau would discover and develop a couple of centuries later. As landowners, Michel, like his father, had civic responsibilities in Bordeaux. After legal training he worked for the parlement, then later as mayor for two successful terms, before a period spent shuttling between kings and king-makers. The late sixteenth century in France was a turbulent time of religious fanaticism and bloody civil war. It seems Montaigne was an able diplomat, respected for his moderation and ability to communicate with conflicting factions.

Apparently mid-life crises afflict Renaissance man too. In his early fifties, Montaigne retired to his estate to pursue a reflexive study of ataraxia, or balance, posited by Greek philosophers as essential to eudaimonia, or flourishing. Montaigne used experiential exploration of his everyday emotions, using an ontology of classical philosophical tricks to help him. I found this riveting stuff; I didn't know, for example, that to restore a sense of proportion, the Stoics recommended imagining your world from different perspectives. Or that Epicureans and Stoics set as great a store by 'mindfulness' as today's psychiatrists. Sceptics called for suspending judgement, which MM took up as a mantra of self-doubt, sounding rather post-positivistic to my modern ears. It's hard to believe that his Essays predate qualitative research by four hundred years.

Montaigne bridges Greek philosophy, the Renaissance and the post-modern world with delightful self-deprecation:

Memory is a wonderfully useful tool, and without it judgement does its work with difficulty … it is entirely lacking in me.

Montaigne's rambling self-explorations give contradictory examples of 'how to live', rather than catch-all solutions, but their very divergence inspired thinkers from following generations to the present day. It's probable that Shakespeare read Montaigne, and they have jointly been credited with discovering divided self-consciousness, thus becoming the first two modern writers.

Mimicking his diffuse way of working, the author uses Montaigne's ideas as a format for chapter headings to unravel major themes in his work, provide a biographical portrait, and contextualise his significance within different historical periods. So the chapter on surviving love and loss recounts the early death of his close friend La Boetie while his time as Mayor of Bordeaux is told in 'Do a good job, but not too good a job.' Fortunately Sarah Bakewell eschewed this particular observation in favour of a diligent research job. I'd regard mapping Montaigne's work so coherently a considerable intellectual achievement. That's not all: she writes fine, approachable prose bringing everyone alive, including herself. Here's a taste:

Montaigne is amusingly wry on the subject of women … it was hard to find a woman capable of an exalted relationship, because most of them lacked intellectual capacity and a quality he called 'firmness'.

Montaigne's opinion on women's spiritual flaccidity can be disheartening enough to make one come over quite floppy oneself. George Sand confessed that she was 'wounded to the heart' by it – the more so because she found Montaigne an inspiration in other respects. Yet one has to remember what women were like in the sixteenth century …

It's a virtuoso performance, and it's from a woman … and I think Montaigne would have approved. I'd like to thank Chatto & Windus for sending this fascinating book.

Suggestions for further reading:

Sarah Bakewell published two earlier biographies, The Smart and The English Dane. Another interesting book exploring the ethics of human relationships is On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. Along similar lines Bookbag reviewers recommend The Secrets of Happiness by Richard Schoch and Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith.

Booklists.jpg How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.
Buy How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell at Amazon.com.


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