How to Live – A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live - A Life of Montaigne cover

How to Live – A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer – by Sarah Bakewell was first published in 2010. It was Joan@Planet Joan who got me reading this book, and I’m so glad that she did as I found it to be really interesting and enjoyable. You can read what Joan thought about it here.

I knew very little about Montaigne and his Essays before reading this but now I feel an urge to read some of his Essays. Such is life, reading always leads to more books added to the list.

Michel de Montaigne was a French philosopher who lived from 1533 to 1592. I always think of educational fads as being a modern day thing but Montaigne’s father was keen to give his son an unusual education, which meant that Michel was taught Latin as his first language, as neither of his parents spoke Latin it meant that the only person he could communicate with well was his tutor. Despite this disadvantage (when he did go to school his Latin was no better than anyone else’s) Montaigne obviously flourished as a thinker.

His ideas are centuries ahead of his times and when you consider that he was living at a time of horrific religious wars and turmoil, it’s just amazing that he managed to keep on the right side of the Roman Catholic Church.

He was the first person to write in a stream of consciousness and Virginia Woolf gets a lot of mentions in this book as she was influenced by him.

Montaigne had a near death experience when he was a young man and after he recovered he could remember that although at the time of his accident he was thrashing around and clawing at his body in torment, internally he was actually feeling very calm. It was something which comforted him and so the first question and answer in this book is:
1 Q. How to live?
A. Don’t Worry About Death
I found this part comforting myself as I did witness a very traumatic death. I now live in hope that the person was internally calm.

4 Q. How to live?
A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow witted. – I feel I have perfected that part.

7 Q. How to live?
A. Question everything. All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that. – My thoughts exactly.

8. Q. How to Live?
A. Keep a private room behind the shop.
Virginia Woolf took this advice to heart! – Everyone needs some space of their own.

In his younger days Montaigne had taken part in local politics but he retired from it fairly early and went to live at his country estate, doing very little – on the surface anyway. He has been criticised for this attitude to life but when you consider that it seems to be a lot of overly ambitious people who feel the need to tinker with everything and so justify their existence, greasy poling their way up to power – who cause all the upheaval in the world, then sitting back and not doing too much sounds like a good plan to me.

Of course Montaigne was lucky in that he was well off and didn’t have to worry about where his next meal was coming from, but he had worked out what was important in life. This was a really interesting read and Montaigne has joined my virtual list of interesting dinner guests.

Have you read Montaigne’s Essays? Do you have a fantasy guest list?

9 thoughts on “How to Live – A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

  1. Thank you , Katrina. I’ve always been curious about Montaigne, but have have never had time to read it. I feel inspired now after reading your essay!

  2. Nice post, Katrina. I didn’t know much of anything about Montaigne either, except that he was famous for writing the Essays. I’d read a few of them, but now I’m eager to read more.
    I’ve plugged this book before, but there’s a really fun book called Van Loon’s Lives in which the author, Henrik Van Loon, posits that the author and a friend discover a way to invite people from all times to dinner. It’s fun to imagine what they would say to each other. There was also a TV show called Meeting of Minds that Steve Allen wrote and, I seem to remember, starred in, that had the same premise.

    • Joan,
      I haven’t read that book it sounds like it could be fun. I think it’s a similar idea to having a fantasy football team, people probably do that online nowadays, making their own team of heroes into a computer game team.
      I’ve often seen people naming Jesus Christ as a fantasy dinner guest, I just always think, don’t have thirteen people around the table!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your extracts from Montaigne’s thoughts. And your repartee about J.C. and 13 guests had me roaring.
    How interesting, though. Do you think you’ll add him to your Classics Club List? Or is it time for you to start a new list? Not totally sure how that works.

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