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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell
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“Over the centuries, this interpretation and reinterpretation creates a long chain connecting a writer to all future readers- who frequently read each other as well as the original. Virginia Woolf had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how "minds are threaded together- how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato's & Euripides... It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind." This capacity for living on through readers' inner worlds over long periods of history is what makes a book like the 'Essays' a true classic. As it is reborn differently in each mind, it also brings those minds together.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
“Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“The trick is to maintain a kind of naïve amazement at each instant of experience - but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
“Seneca had an extreme trick for practising amor fati. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him almost to the point of suffocation. He often felt that he was about to die, but he learned to use each attack as a philosophical opportunity. While his throat closed and his lungs strained for breath, he tried to embrace what was happening to him: to say “yes” to it. I will this, he would think; and, if necessary, I will myself to die from it. When the attack receded, he emerged feeling stronger, for he had done battle with fear and defeated it.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them—much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us. It does not matter, he wrote, whether a person one loves has been dead for fifteen hundred years or, like his own father at the time, eighteen years. Both are equally remote; both are equally close. Montaigne’s merging of favorite authors with his own father says a lot about how he read: he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. [On witchburning in France during the 16th Century.]”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
“Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it. Our being is cemented with sickly qualities … Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Tuna fish demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of astronomy: when the winter solstice arrives, the whole school stops precisely where it is in the water, and stays there until the following spring equinox. They know geometry and arithmetic too, for they have been observed to form themselves into a perfect cube of which all six sides are equal.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“to see the world exactly as you did half an hour ago is impossible, just as it is impossible to see it from the point of view of a different person standing next to you.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don’t know. That”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“He did write, “Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.” And he believed that, by nature, “males and females are cast in the same mold.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“As one of [Montaigne's] favorite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk only on our own legs, and sit only on our own bum.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
“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.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
“Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Sometimes they go to it with only one buttock.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“every abridgment of a good book is a stupid abridgment.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry;”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“In an essay almost entirely about sex, Montaigne cites the wisdom of Aristotle: “A man … should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The physicians warned, too, that excessive pleasure could make sperm curdle inside the woman’s body, rendering her unable to conceive. It was better for the husband to bestow ecstasy elsewhere, where it did not matter what damage it caused. “The kings of Persia,” relates Montaigne, “used to invite their wives to join them at their feasts; but when the wine began to heat them in good earnest and they had to give completely free rein to sensuality, they sent them back to their private rooms.” They then brought on a more suitable set of women.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“just look around you and interest yourself in the variety and sublimity of things. Salvation lies in paying full attention14 to nature.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer
“See how Plato is moved and tossed about. Every man, glorying in applying him to himself, sets him on the side he wants. They trot him out and insert him into all the new opinions that the world accepts.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“a gang of killers confessed to a murder for which someone had already been tried and was about to be executed. Surely this ought to mean a stay of execution? No, decided the court: that would set a dangerous precedent for overturning judgments.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“The world was a cosmic wobble: a shimmy.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer
“The great adventure of our epoch, he says, is “to discover who inhabits the world, one individual at a time.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Virgil: “It gathers force as it proceeds.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“Contemporary demonologist Jean Bodin argued that, in crisis conditions such as these, standards of evidence must be lowered. Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to “legal tidiness and normal procedures.” Public rumor could be considered “almost infallible”: if everyone in a village said that a particular woman was a witch, that was sufficient to justify putting her to the torture. Medieval techniques were revived specifically for such cases, including “swimming” suspects to see if they floated, and searing them with red-hot irons. The numbers of convicted witches kept rising as standards of evidence went down, and the increase amounted to further proof that the crisis was real and that further adjustment of the law was necessary. As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. It was all accepted with hardly a murmur, except by a few writers such as Montaigne, who pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain—and that, besides, it was “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures” to have someone roasted alive on their account.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
“He blushed to see other Frenchmen overcome with joy whenever they met a compatriot abroad. The would fall on each other, cluster in a raucous group, and pass whole evenings complaining about the barbarity of the locals. These were the few who actually noticed that locals did things differently. Others managed to travel so ‘covered and wrapped in a taciturn and incommunicative prudence, defending themselves from the contagion of an unknown atmosphere’ that they noticed nothing at all.”
Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

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