How To Live
Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
By Sarah Bakewell
Reading Montaigne’s essay should be compulsory. Arguably the inventor of the essay as a literary format, his writing is so specific and personal that it becomes universal at once. We can al relate to his troubles and longings.
And while the essays are great in their entirety Sarah Bakewell does a great job in distilling their essence and guides us through Montaigne’s world giving all the historical and philosophical context of the times he lived in and put pen to paper.
Notes & Highlights#
Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did
Essayer, in French means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl. One seventeenth-century Montaignist defined it as firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight, or trying out a horse to see if it handles well. On the whole, Montaigne discovered that the pistol shot all over the place and the horse galloped out of control, but this did not bother him. He was delighted to see his work come out so unpredictably.
The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out a fresh almost every time with that cray of “How did he know all that about me?”. Mostly it remains a two-person encounter between writer and reader.
Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life 1
In dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there.
In his most mature essays, he wrote admiringly of men such as Petronius and Tigillinus, Romans who died surrounded by jokes, music, and everyday conversation, so that death simply flowed into them amid the general good cheer. Instead of turning a party into a death scene, as Montaigne had done in his youthful imagination, they turned their death scenes into parties.
“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.”
“Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!”
Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature. Montaigne tried to do this, but he took “nature” primarily to mean the natural phenomenon that lay closest to hand: himself.
“How does one achieve peace of mind?” Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it. 2
Learning how to die was learning to let go; learning to live was learning to hang on.
“Observe, observe perpetually” what he observed was, above all, this river of life running through his existence To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.
We are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it
Often, books need not be used at all. One learns dancing by dancing; one learns to play the flute by playing the flute. The same is true for thinking, and indeed of living. Every experience can be a learning opportunity: “a page’s prank, a servant’s blunder, a remark at a table” Traveling is useful; so is socializing, which teaches the child to be open to others and to adapt to anyone he finds around him. Eccentricities should be ironed out early, because they make it difficult to get on with others. 3
It was in real-life stories, he said, that you encountered human nature in all its complexity. You learned the “diversity and truth” of man, as well as “the variety of the ways he is put together, and the accidents that threaten him”
he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family. He preferred to converse with the ancients in a tone of camaraderie 4
The greatest problem with the law was that it did not take account of a fundamental fact about the human condition: people are fallible. A final verdict was always expected, yet by definition it was often impossible to reach one that had any certainty. Evidence was often faulty or inadequate, and, to complicate matters, judges made personal mistakes. No judge could honestly think all his decisions perfect: they followed inclinations more than evidence, and it often made a difference how well they had digested their lunch.
No pleasure has any savor for me without communication. Not even a merry thought comes to my mind without my being vexed at having produced it alone without anyone to offer it to
Seneca had advised his followers to use their friends in this way. Having found some admirable man, he said, one should visualize him as an ever-present audience, in order to hold oneself to his exalted standards. If you would live for yourself, he wrote, you should live for others—above all for your chosen friend 5
Prosoche, another key Greek term. Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and this also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view.
Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.
A Stoic behaves like a man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites an opponent to punch them. An Epicurean prefers to invite no punches, and, when bad things happen, simply to step out of the way. If Stoics are boxers, Epicureans are closer to Oriental martial arts practitioners.
Nature has its own rythms. Distraction works well precisely because it accords with how humans are made: “Our thoughts are always elsewhere”. It is only natural for us to lose focus, to slip away from both pains and pleasures, “barely brushing the crust” of them. All we need is to let ourselves be as we are
Epheko functions almost like one of those puzzling koans in Zen Buddhism: brief, enigmatic notions or unanswerable questions such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Philosophy is incarnate. It lives in individual fallible humans: therefore, it is riddled with uncertainty. “The philosophers, it seems to me, have hardly touched this chord.”
The essayist’s casual remark, “If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived,” embodied everything Nietzsche spent his life trying to attain. Not only did Montaigne achieve it but he even wrote about it in a throwaway tone, as it if were nothing special.
“My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.”
“We are in almost all things unjust judges of their actions, as they are of ours”
We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when tie time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.
“Wonderful brilliance may be gained for human judgment by getting to know men. We are all huddled and concentrated in ourselves, and our vision is reduced to the length of our nose” He liked being contradicted, as it opened up more interesting conversations and helped him to think. Freedom of expression was the law of his house
“Locked places invite the thief. The burglar passes by what is open.” Locks made a place look valuable, and there could be no sense of glory in robbing a household where one was welcomed by an elderly doorkeeper.
Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking
“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations” — Rebecca West
History proved Zweig’s generation wrong. Just as Montaigne himself had grown up into a world full of hope only to see it degenerate, so Zweig was born into the luckiest of countries and centuries, and had it all fall apart around him
- Be free from vanity and pride.
- Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties.
- Be free from habit. 6
- 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.
The 1570s were Montaigne’s first great writing decade, but the 1580s would be his big decade as an author. The coming ten years doubled the size of the Essays, and took Montaigne from being a nonentity to being a star.
“We are all patchwork,” he wrote, “and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.” 7
- Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer. It has the same quality as the answer given by the Zen master who, when asked, “What is enlightenment?” whacked the questioner on the head with a stick. 8
Memento mori. ↩︎
Concentrate like a roman ↩︎
Mastery requires constant practice. See also Range and Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. ↩︎
See The Lessons of History. ↩︎
See My heroes are real and My Standard Of Performance ↩︎
See The Goal Of Habits Are Practices ↩︎
See Change Is The Only Constant ↩︎
See Man’s Search For Meaning ↩︎