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

Non-Fiction Reviews

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

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
by Sarah Bakewell
Other Press, 400 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

The Thinker

If you could pick one book to inspire your mind and lift your spirits through troubled times, what would it be? Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh?

This choice would be a hard one for me. But I would definitely keep The Essays of Michel de Montaigne close to hand. And right next to The Essays, I would put Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Born nearly five hundred years ago, Montaigne was one of the last great thinkers of the Renaissance. He can also stake a claim to be the first recognizable writer of modern times. Montaigne’s Essays are stocked with insights of such relevance, inspiration and humanity that they might well have been written yesterday – or tomorrow.

“Life is full of fireworks; death, of love and courtesy.”

“I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself.”

“We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our own real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.”

“There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge how to live this life well and naturally…”

When the good times cease to roll and “stuff” hits the fan, I want Montaigne nearby so that I can benefit from the words of wisdom and humor that make him one of the world’s great voices of sanity.

Montaigne is famous for having created his own refuge, his “back shop” being one of the towers of his estate in the south of France. Being an aristocrat, with a castle and band of retainers, might disqualify Montaigne from receiving the kind of reverence that has been accorded to Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others “great souls” who suffered for their principals. As Bakewell points out there have always been critics who have taken Montaigne to task for using his privileged position to hold forth on whatever struck his fancy, without much, if any, risk.

Yet, Montaigne was a “great soul,” even if mentions of God or theology are notably absent from his writings. His “soul” was that of a man of toleration in an age of fanaticism and it was frequently tested.

Montaigne was born toward the tail end of the Renaissance in 1533. He was fated to live during one of the most abysmal epochs in French history, the age of religious warfare between Catholic and Protestant factions that lasted from 1562 to 1598. Caught in the cross-fire of a very “uncivil” war, Montaigne wrote as the spirit moved him and the direction of his thought was always in the path of moderation. Rather than judge a person or philosophy too harshly, Montaigne reserved the right to remain silent. His famous dictum was: je soutiens. Roughly translated, this means “I hold back” or “I reserve judgment.”

That kind of moral evasiveness usually enrages self-appointed leaders of “great causes” and such was the case with Montaigne. Following his death in 1592, The Essays began to attract a legion of enemies. Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, the Roman Catholic Church and the great 19th century historian Jules Michelet were only a few of his influential detractors. Jean Jacques Rousseau, who owed Montaigne a huge intellectual debt, wrote of him with contempt, “I place Montaigne foremost among those dissemblers who mean to deceive by telling the truth.”

If Montaigne suffered centuries of abuse and neglect in France, his Essays attracted almost immediate and long-lasting favor in England. Bakewell follows the trail of how Montaigne’s moderate ideals and essay-writing techniques entered the mainstream of English literature. In 1603, John Florio published his translation of The Essays, one of the jewels of the Elizabethan age. Bakewell contends that Shakespeare, who knew Florio, likely read the new English version of Montaigne, perhaps even in manuscript form.

So what play or plays by Shakespeare show tell-tale signs of Montaigne’s influence? Bakewell writes that “signs of Montaigne seem faintly discernible in Hamlet, which predates Florio’s edition.” Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1599, with the play being performed in 1600 or 1601.

With The Tempest, written and performed around 1610-1611, the parallels are uncanny. Bakewell compares a speech in the play by Gonzalo with Montaigne’s reflections on the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil which shows, almost beyond dispute, that Shakespeare was indebted to the French thinker. In this case, Montaigne’s reflections concern life in a pure state of nature “that hath no kinds of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches, or of povertie…”

In Act 2, Scene 1 of The Tempest, Gonzalo expounds about the existence of an ideal society with:

…no kind of traffic
Would I admit: no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be know; riches, poverty,
And the use of service, none…

Such fascinating literary insights, however, do not account for the continuing appeal of Montaigne. The free thinking French aristocrat of the late Renaissance is still read today because he wrote as an individual to like-minded individuals. His one great objective was to reflect, think and write about what is needed “to live.” And being an individual of wide-ranging interests, he found the subject matter of life everywhere he looked and where we, his modern readers, are looking still.

Bakewell takes Montaigne’s theme and variations and uses it to structure her account of his life and thought. This is no ordinary, cradle to grave, biography. Instead it is a meandering river of a book. Just as the rambling mind of Montaigne would cut a course through a densely wooded bank of life experience, double back to a classical author or two, descend through rapids of bizarre current events and find his way ultimately to the sea of thoughtful conclusion, so does Bakewell’s provocative, unorthodox book.

But why did Montaigne write at all? For Montaigne, the word “essay” was defined as an “attempt.” If he was attempting “to live” through the crisis of his times, then he could just as well have stayed in his tower with his books and shut the door. However, there is no castle gate so strong that Death cannot break it down. Well aware of the power of this fatal adversary, Montaigne made his “attempts” to outmaneuver Death on the literary field of battle. And in so doing, he gained immortality for himself and also for the great friend of his life, Etienne de La Boetie.

La Boetie, born in 1530, was a fellow humanist scholar and a member of the local governing council, the parlement of Bordeaux. While still in his teens, La Boetie wrote a political tract entitled On Voluntary Servitude. La Boetie, with powerful foresight, warned of the hypnotic power of political despots over the free will of even well-educated and talented individuals. In a memorable phrase, La Boetie cautioned his contemporaries not to surrender their souls to a “deep forgetfulness of freedom.”

This is an ever-timely insight but in the depressing last decades of the Renaissance, with the rise of the nation state and the near-universal tide of religious war, La Boetie assumed the role of a prophet. Montaigne was deeply impressed. For a few, brief years, the two young scholars joined efforts in a passionate friendship and a joint exploration of the great ideas. So linked were the two in mind and spirit, that later critics contended that Montaigne wrote On Voluntary Servitude, using the name of La Boetie as a cover.

Bakewell disagrees. She maintains that the intellectual debt of Montaigne to La Boetie was great, though the fact that the latter is remembered at all today is due to Montaigne. The two friends, Bakewell writes, “shared everything: they blended into one another, not as a writer blends into his pseudonym, but as two writers develop their ideas in partnership, often arguing, often disagreeing, yet constantly absorbing.”

And then suddenly, the idyllic moment was shattered. In 1563, La Boetie was struck down by plague. Montaigne, with reckless disregard for his life, stayed by La Boetie’s deathbed for the agonizing week that it took him to die. The effect was devastating. Montaigne eventually recovered, his fortitude further tested by a riding accident in 1569 that nearly cost him his life.

From these traumas, Montaigne emerged with a mind’s eye able to look both life and death in the face. Far from withdrawing into an “ivory tower,” Montaigne went on to work for the restoration of peace in France, while all the time working on The Essays, first published in 1580 and then in revised and expanded editions until his death.

Bakewell’s off-beat, good humored and very astute reading of Montaigne and his works is a perfect accompaniment to The Essays. Bakewell’s book is not an all-encompassing biography of Montaigne, a book which does indeed need to be written. But How to Live is just the book for the kind of intelligent, far-sighted, tolerant readers in the contemporary world that Montaigne aimed to reach in his lifetime with The Essays.

Montaigne’s Essays, Bakewell writes, “test and sample a mind that is an “I” to itself, as all minds are.” A book like this serves as a powerful inducement to all of us to sample the “I” in all our lives and then to share our conclusions with like-minded souls.

Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books. Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and the "Philadelphia Daily News," 1985 to 2003. It was with the "Daily News," that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O'Toole. For the "Inquirer," he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the "California Literary Review."    History of Yoga

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