Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How to Live or A Life of Montaigne - Sarah Bakewell

I've dipped into Montaigne's Essays over the years.  It's not the sort of book you sit down and read from start to finish.  The ones I've read have been funny, honest, like talking to a good friend, or to an interesting and gabby stranger.  Katrina, at Pining for the West, and I were to read How to Live together, but she rocketed through and I've just caught up.

Michel de Montaigne, known for his essays, was born near Bordeaux, France, in 1533 to a reasonably wealthy family.  His father decided that Michel's first language would be Latin.  His family and servants were required to learn Latin and speak to him only in Latin.  An usual start, to be sure.

His brother was killed playing tennis, hit by a ball.  Michel was almost killed in a riding accident.  He had been terrified of death, but his experience with the accident was peaceful, although others said he appeared agitated and distraught.  He and his wife had several children, but only a daughter survived.

France in the 16th century was a violent place.  There were repetitious religious wars, there were tax riots, there was plague.  Life was uncertain, even for the privileged and rich.  Montaigne was raised a Catholic but was seldom in church.  He was horrified by the wars between Christian sects and thought 'there is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility'.

Montaigne probably started writing his essays in or around 1572.  The first edition of his Essays was published in 1580.  He spent the rest of his life enlarging the body of that work, writing new essays and adding to the originals.

I was interested to read that he held animals in high regard.  He observed them and felt that they have attributes that humans don't and that allow them to be more perceptive than humans.  He thought we did them a disservice by comparing them to our limited faculties.  He was sympathetic to their plight.  The book ends with a great couple of paragraphs about him and his cat.

Montaigne wrote about sex, too, sharing his thoughts and observations of his own sexual being.  He thought that women knew more about sex than men think.  He even admitted to being 'unfairly and unkindly' endowed by nature himself.

What he is good at is viewing from other perspectives, whether human or animal.  He wrote what he thought, but he ended his essays by saying something to the effect 'or maybe not'.  He doesn't really tell us how to live, he tells us how he lives.

He was a man different in many ways from men of his time.  His essays were his thoughts and feelings about everyday things and about everything.  Often, people who read them thought that they could have written them, the kind of things people think but don't say or write about.  He had his detractors.  Descartes and Pascal hated him.

The essays have a quality of humanity, something we all share, something we can all identify with.  They've transferred well through the centuries.  Each person who reads the Essays reads them differently.  You should read them (and this book) for yourself.


  1. I love Montaigne! I made a project of his essays many years ago and read one a week. It took me a little over two years to read them all but it was well worth the effort. I have this book and keep meaning to read it but you know how it goes. Sigh. Glad to hear how much you enjoyed it.

    1. I've had this book for years, too. I'm on a crusade to read the books I have that I don't want to keep, so I chose this one. You seem better able to stick to a reading project than I. I've started and failed with so many projects. I'm deluded enough that I think I'll reach some Edenic point in my life when there will be oodles of time, no interruptions, and my powers of concentration will be at a peak (instead of diminishing with each day), and I'll read all the classics I've missed and all the 'difficult' books I've set aside. But my favorite new phrase is 'There is no Eden.'

  2. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book Joan. I never would have found it on my own!

    1. That's the wonderful / awful thing about blogging. More TBRs!

  3. He was an interesting fellow.

    I read somewhere that he's sort of identified as the person who originated the type of writing that we now call the "essay". Apparently at the time he wrote such a configuration wasn't in place or common or even named such.

    Thanks for this.

    1. Yes, that's true. People before him seemed to write in a less personal and more formal fashion. At least that's what I understood. I hadn't really thought about it before. I'm not well versed in ancient writing, like the Greek and Roman writers. It's an interesting book and I learned about Montaigne's life and about French history of that time and other tangential things.