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A common theme in my postings over the last few weeks has been the very basic question, “how are we to live?” While it is sometimes hard to be objective about the prevalence of a trend when it is a topic you yourself are interested in (I call it the “car buying syndrome”—all of a sudden the type of car you are considering starts showing up everywhere) it does seem to be a topic of increased interest in the culture in general. I referenced several new book titles that address various aspects of these concerns in my earlier post, The River of Knowledge, as well as a few inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s very successful book on Montaigne, How to Live (here and here.)

In writing about her review of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller for the New York Times Book Review, Bakewell states her belief that “philosophy is poorer when it loses sight of the messy lives of those who do the philosophizing.” And certainly her book does a great job of bringing together the events of Montaigne’s life with his philosophical writings. “Montaigne’s idea of philosophy, which he inherited from the Greeks and Romans, was mainly of a practical art for living well,” says Bakewell. “It would have seemed odd to him to spend all day studying philosophy in a university classroom, but then have to go to a bookstore’s self-help department to find a book on how to cope with bereavement or depression.” Bakewell’s answer to the query of how to live? “Let life be its own answer,” she said. “You learn to live mainly by living — and making a lot of mistakes.”

More “how to live” wisdom showed up in James Ryerson’s essay, Thinkers and Dreamers. Posing the question, “can a novelist write philosophically?”, Ryerson quotes novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. The two pursuits are contrary, says Murdoch in a BBC interview from 1978. Philosophy uses the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, and literature calls upon the imagination to produce something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world.

Murdoch’s distinction between philosophy and fiction applies to life in general it seems to me. The conscious—and conscientious—deployment of our analytical and imaginal skills is an ongoing balancing act. In my case the “mysterious, ambiguous and particular” is where I spend most of my time. For someone else, it may be the reverse. In spite of my own proclivities, I want to be competently bilingual. And as Bakewell suggests, you learn how to do that by living your life. And by making lots of mistakes.


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.

As unpleasant as air travel has become, it still serves up that delicious, “put your headphones on and block out the world” slot of time to just read. This weekend it was spent devouring Sarah Bakewell’s captivating and award winning book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Always on the lookout for innovative ways of sharing, expressing and communicating, I found Bakewell’s format well suited for our current style of information ingesting. Ideas are chunked into chapters that can be read easily from start to finish on a subway ride or in a waiting room. Perfectly sized at blog post plus, each chapter is one of the many answers Montaigne offered to his overarching question: How to live?

A few of my favorites:

Don’t worry about death
Pay attention
Question everything
Keep a private room behind the shop
Wake from the sleep of habit
Reflect on everything; regret nothing.

In each chapter we learn a bit more about how Montaigne employed his point of view. While moral dilemmas interested him, Montaigne was less compelled by what people should do. His focus was on what they actually did. His voice is so refreshingly nonmoralistic or instructional; he observes everything—other people, animals and himself—with a spirit of compassion, non-judgment and genuine delight.

Bakewell’s approach allows her to deftly bring 16th century France right up close to the window of our own world. From her introduction:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention…This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not exited forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…

Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds…A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjust to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life.

In some ways Montaigne is a writer for middle age. I remember first reading his Essays when I was in high school. But the wisdom is the kind that rings true later in life, after you’ve explored a thousand ways things DON’T work. His willingness to say “who knows?” to just about everything (and that 100 years later enraged both answer-crazed thinkers like Descartes and Pascal) is a way of living in a world being torn apart by extremism.

A few excerpts:

Montaigne…proved himself a literary revolutionary from the start, writing like no one else and letting his pen follow the natural rhythms of conversation instead of formal lines of construction. He omitted connections, skipped steps of reasoning, and left his material lying in solid chunks, coupe or “cut” like freshly chopped steaks. “I do not see the whole of anything,” he wrote.

“Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.”

How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison. To quote Hugo Friedrich…Montaigne had a “deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorized, what is mysterious.”

As T. S. Eliot also remarked:

“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.”

Ah Montaigne, beloved master of the both/and.