Nathan's Reviews > How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
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's review
Feb 17, 11

bookshelves: history
Read in February, 2011

"How to Live" is an ambitious title but that is the subject of Montaigne's essays. Rambling, self-contradictory, and yet still endearing, the man Montaigne comes through clearly in them and every century has recognized itself in him. Montaigne's works have been lauded and scorned, recommended and banned, according to the interpretations placed upon them by the age and the critic: Descartes found him appalling in his claim to recognize an intelligent peer in his cat.

Blakewell does a lovely job of putting the man in his time, and then showing what happened to his reputation and his works after he died. I learned a lot about the politics and lifestyles of the time, and Blakewell is insistent in her probing into the character of Montaigne. He sounds a wonderfully endearing man: he was raised to be a native Latin speaker by his enthusiastic father (family had to learn baby Latin to talk with him, no French permitted, and he quickly outstripped his tutor in proficiency), was a magistrate and eventually mayor, preferred to be free of work and loved to read and think, had a passionate friendship with a chap in his youth, had a fall from a horse and near-death experience that convinced him to be a mellow Stoic, practiced seeing both sides of a situation and deferring judgement, and debated all sorts of topics in an eccentrically rambling style including how to negotiate with kidnappers and the state of his kidney stones (which stones eventually killed him).

While this book is about Montaigne, I found myself admiring Blakewell as much as I was admiring Montaigne. She is a deft writer with a very convivial style. She is never dismissive of his critics, but rather endeavours to show them in the context of their age and beliefs. For example:

Montaigne works his spell through his nonchalance, his meandering and casual tone, and his pretence of not caring about the reader - all tricks designed to draw you in and take possession. Subjected to such a machine, modern readers are often happy to lie back like Barbarella and enjoy it. Seventeeth-century readers felt more threatened, for serious matters of reason and religion were at stake.

and when Montaigne has a medal made, a scrapbook-like collection of imagery and quotes from his Stoic philosophy, Blakewell says:

The imagery he used was unusual, but the idea of inscribing such personal statements on medals or jetons was not: it was a fashion of the time, and functioned both as an aide-memoire and as a token of belonging or identity. Had Montaigne been a young man of the early twenty-first century instead of the sixteenth, he would probably have had it done as a tattoo.

I put a forest of markers in my copy, for wonderful quotes such as:

it supports Sebond 'as the rope supports the hanged man'

the chancellor Michel de L'Hopital said, 'It is folly to hope for peace, repose and friendship among people different faiths.'

I'll leave you with this wonderful paragraph.

It is true that he [Montaigne] showed little sign of real interest in religion. The Essays has nothing to say about most Christian ideas: he seems unmoved by themes of sacrifice, repentance or salvation, and shows neither fear of Hell nor desire for Heaven. The idea that witches and demons are active in the world gets shorter shrift than does the idea of cats hypnotising birds out of trees. When Montaigne broods on death, he apparently forgets that he is supposed to believe in an afterlife. He says things like, 'I plunge head down, stupidly, into death ... as into a silent and dark abyss which swallows me at one leap and overwhelms me in an instant with a heavy sleep free of feeling and pain.' Theologians of the following century were horrified by this godless description. Another topic Montaigne shows no interest in is Jesus Christ. He writes about the noble deaths of Socrates and Cato, but does not think to mention the crucifixion alongside them. The sacred mystery of redemption leaves him cold. He cares much more about secular morality - about questions of mercy and cruelty. As the modern critic David Quint has summed it up, Montaigne would probably interpret the message for humanity in Christ's crucifixion as being 'Don't crucify people.'
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