This is an additional serving of Montaigne and an addendum to yesterday’s post regarding the book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.
A few more passages and thoughts from the book…
On the relevance of Montaigne to our age and time:
Some might question whether there is still any meed for an essayist such as Montaigne. Twenty-first-century people, in the developed world, are already individualistic to excess, as well as entwined with one another to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of a sixteenth-century winegrower. His sense of the “I” in all things may seem a case of preaching to the converted, or even feeding drugs to the addicted. But Montaigne offers more than an incitement to self-indulgence. The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could cuse his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can outweight the tiniest of selves in the real world.
Bakewell suggests that some credit for Montaigne’s ability to be so open to others is because of his cat (and I’m all for giving credit to insights that come by way of a beloved four-legged):
She was the one who, by wanting to play with Montaigne at an inconvenient moment, reminded him what it was to be alive. They look at each other, and, just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment—and countless others like it—came his whole philosophy.
In Bakewell’s page of Acknowledgments, she describes her unexpected introduction to Montaigne. The final sentence below, the last of her book, is a worthy one:
I first met Montaigne when, some twenty years ago in Budapest, I was so desperate for something to read on a train that I took a chance on a cheap “Essays” translation in a secondhand shop. It was the only English-language book on the shelf; I very much doubted that I would enjoy it. There is no one in particular I can thank for this turn of events: only Fortune, and the Montaignean truth that the best things in life happen when you don’t get what you think you want.