Sarah Bakewell’s expert life of Montaigne should bring new admirers into contact with one of history’s most remarkable and enduring inner worldsby AC Grayling / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer By Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
After inheriting his father’s estate in the interior of Aquitaine, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) decided to quit public life as a magistrate in the Bordeaux parlement and devote himself to leisurely study. Instead of leading to the Horatian idyll of self-cultivation he expected, the inactivity and desultory reading led to a nervous breakdown. To steady himself, he began to write.
Since he was neither a military man nor a man of affairs, his only subject matter was himself; so he resolved to try (essayer) to assay himself, his nature, his opinions, his attitudes and reactions, pretending nothing and confessing all. “I am myself the matter of my book” he wrote; and he knew that he was engaged in producing something wholly original by being so. The result is a classic that has been admired, imitated and enjoyed ever since.
A reason for the enduring attraction of Montaigne’s Essays is that they do what all classics do: they illuminate the universal in the particular. In one way this should be a surprise, because Montaigne was a highly individual man and, by his own account, a rather unsuccessful one. He frankly confessed his inabilities and shortcomings, his dislike of business, his yearning for solitude, his regret at being forgetful and not very clever, his physical lacks (he was short and had, he tells us, a small penis). Yet his frankness is refreshing and full of human truth. He found a method of writing suited to the character of his mind—an aleatory, divagatory, exploratory method which meandered along with his thoughts, making his essays unsystematic and random, full of unexpected, entertaining detours.
Sarah Bakewell adopts Montaigne’s own method to give an account of him and his views. Because Montaigne’s great question was Socrates’s question—“how to live?”—she arranges her portrait of him around the answers he offered. The outcome is an instructive journey around Montaigne, exemplifying his charm and the universality of his appeal.
Bakewell rightly treats Montaigne as a contemporary for all times. Scholars, by contrast, like to emphasise the respects in which he was of his epoch, rooting him in the turbulent mixture of Renaissance and Reformation that made it possible for him to write as a pagan in the bitter midst of the 16th century’s wars of religion.…