APRIL 25, 2011
FOR AS LONG AS self-help books have been around, highbrow readers have seen fit to sneer at them. When Samuel Smiles published the original of the genre, Self-Help, in 1859, one representative detractor called him “the arch-Philistine” and dismissed his book as “the apotheosis of respectability, gigmanity, and selfish grab.” A century and a half later, that tradition endures, resulting in a persistent two-way deficit: books about bettering your life don’t have many literary champions, and literary champions don’t have many books about how to better their lives.
Into this rift comes British author Sarah Bakewell with How to Live, an intellectually hefty book that restores both history and legitimacy to the project of trying to help ourselves. “How to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life”: problems like these, Bakewell reminds us, were the stuff of philosophy long before they were the ingredients of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
In fact, Bakewell’s book is so sincerely engaged with the question of how best to muddle through life that it takes a chapter or two to remember that what you’re actually reading is a biography of the great French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. And no sooner do you get your mind around this fact than you realize that there’s more. How to Live not only tells the story of Montaigne, the man; it also tells the story of (in Bakewell’s wonderful phrase), “Montaigne, the long party.” For more than four centuries, readers have crowded into the capacious chambers of the Essays to listen, laugh, think, thrill to, and argue with one of the greatest minds in history. It is that conversation, as much as the man who started it, that How to Live animates and explains. In sum, this book, like its subject, is expansive, genre-defying, and preposterously smart.
Montaigne was born in 1533, to an aristocratic father with distinctly experimental ideas about child-rearing. Montaigne père promptly sent the boy away to be raised by peasants — not to disown him, but because he believed his infant son would absorb, in Bakewell’s words, “an understanding of commoners’ ways along with their breast-milk.” Once this phase of the experiment was over, the elder Montaigne swung dizzyingly in the other direction, summoning the toddler home and decreeing that his mother tongue would be Latin. Never mind that nobody’s mother tongue was Latin anymore; in Renaissance France, hiring a Latin tutor was like setting up a trust fund — a way to set your kid on the path to a swanky school and a lucrative career. The Montaigne family merely took the matter to its logical extreme, securing a tutor and then forbidding everyone in the household to speak to the boy in any other language.
This strange start in life explains much about Montaigne, or at least can be made to. There is his sense of being simultaneously common and extraordinary. “On the loftiest throne in the world,” he observed, “we are still sitting on our own rump,” using a characteristic combination of erudition and vulgarity — old hat now, but extraordinary at the time. The mix annoyed a lot of critics. Half demanded to know what kind of over-privileged aristocrat sits in a tower and contemplates his thumb. The other half demanded to know why he wrote about “cuckoldom and privy-parts, and other things of this nature,” as Lord Halifax put it. There is also the strange unfrenchiness of the French in which the Essays are written. Then as now, French purists prized formality, elegance, and correctness; Montaigne was casual, discursive, and indifferent to rules. Give him a column inch and he’d take twelve pages. And above all, there is his sense of being a living experiment. Montaigne invented the genre of the essay, one suspects, because he himself was an essay: an attempt, as the word originally meant, an experiment, a work in progress.
In addition to his unusual childhood, a few other events in Montaigne’s life loom large in Bakewell’s account. As a 15-year-old boarding student in Bordeaux (his father having by then relinquished his education to others), Montaigne watched an angry mob brutally murder the town governor. That incident got him thinking about how to comport oneself bravely yet prudently in the face of danger — a question grimly relevant for someone destined to live through the bloodiest years of France’s religious wars. Later, while serving in the Bordeaux parliament, Montaigne met fellow parliamentarian and poet Étienne de La Boétie. The pair fell in Platonic love, in the original, capital-P sense of the phrase: a love of the mind. Just a handful of years later, La Boétie died of the plague. Among other things, the loss intensified Montaigne’s already acute and unhappy obsession with death. It was only when he himself almost died, after being thrown from his horse, that the current reversed itself: mortal angst gave way to immortal insouciance. The rest of Montaigne’s life, including his Essays, would be devoted to the question of how to live.
Montaigne started working on the Essays in 1572 and stopped in 1592, because he died. It is unclear if any lesser force — boredom, procrastination, the munchies — ever significantly deterred him. He wrote freely, about everything, sometimes all at once, his panoptic exuberance suggested by a sampling of chapter titles:
Of Quick or Slow Speech
Of the Force of Imagination
Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes
And that’s to say nothing of how tangential and referential matters can get within each chapter. In this, as in so many things, Montaigne was ahead of his time. Long before there was hypertext, his text was hyper; the form the Essays most resemble is the blog. He is happy to think about anything at all, and most of his thoughts have friends, acquaintances, offspring — entire family trees. As he put it, “There is no subject so frivolous that does not merit a place in this rhapsody.”
And yet, in the end, there is just one underlying subject of the Essays, and that is Montaigne himself. “I turn my gaze inward,” he wrote. “I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself … I roll about in myself.” In the middle of the sixteenth century, mere decades after Copernicus had declared that the earth revolved around the sun, Montaigne was writing the song of himself. In doing so, he not only gave us a genre, but a type: the writer who examines his navel. And why not? It was by looking inward, toward our center and origins, that one observed the most interesting stuff. “I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world,” Montaigne wrote, “than myself.”
This obsession should not be mistaken for vanity. On the contrary: Montaigne, per Montaigne, was lazy, mediocre, and “full of inanity and foppery”; he had a lousy memory and a small penis. Above all, he was hopelessly contradictory. He contained multitudes, and they all disagreed. “Whoever supposes,” he wrote, “to see me look sometimes coldly, sometimes lovingly, on my wife, that either look is feigned, is a fool.”
This condition of contradiction was, Montaigne insisted, endemic to the species: “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves.” It is this attention to inconsistency and complexity — the happy home he makes for himself in the gray areas of both self and world — that most profoundly marks Montaigne’s work. When he modifies a claim by adding “though I don’t know,” Bakewell writes, “[t]hat final coda … is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he wrote.”
This quality of ambivalence drives some readers crazy, because it can make Montaigne seem merely noncommittal. As Bakewell writes, he had “perfected the art of sitting on all parts of the fence at once.” But Montaigne’s ubiquitous interrogative mood — his introspection, combined with that insistent “I don’t know” — represents a coherent position, not a refusal to take one. It is, in many ways, the first glimpse of a uniquely modern humanism: here was a man who refused to sacrifice the specific on the altar of the general. Sweeping philosophical, political, and religious abstractions had no appeal for him, precisely because they ignored and endangered the one thing he loved above all: the infinite complexity of each particular person.
This resistance to abstraction was not, itself, abstract. Montaigne would not countenance torture (he couldn’t even stomach hunting) and, unusually for his era, he spoke out against it. It was, he felt, both strategically and morally flawed. Most torture victims, he reasoned, would say anything to put an end to pain; moreover, torturing someone on suspicion of wrongdoing was “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures.” As the terrorism of France’s religious wars intensified in the region of his family home, Montaigne refused to guard the doors of his estate. To do so would have been to capitulate to violence and, in a sense, to escalate it. He chose, instead, to live out the counsel of the Mishnah: “Where there is no human being, be one.”
It is this quality that has made Montaigne a hero to so many opponents of fanaticism. And it constitutes one of his greatest answers to the question of how to live. As Bakewell distills it: “Be convivial.” In that blithe-sounding word, she helps us hear solemn undertones. Be convivial: live with one another, be on the side of life, forbear. Even as the long party rages on, she reminds us, a long war rages just outside the door. Montaigne’s joy in humanity was not a way of ignoring it, but a way of resisting it.
All of this makes Montaigne seem like a welcome philosopher for our era. But then, as Bakewell demonstrates, he is a philosopher for every era: Montaigne’s particular magic trick is to appear in all the mirrors at once. This enables Bakewell to use him as a kind of fulcrum. She looks backward from Montaigne’s own work to the ancient philosophers who inspired him (Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics) and forward to those who read the Essays and responded (libertines, Leonard Woolf, philosophes, poststructuralists). She writes: “Anyone looking over 430 years of Montaigne-reading can see these trends building up and dissolving like clouds in a sky, or crowds on a railway platform between commuter trains.”
But actually, anyone can’t, any more than just anyone could have written that sentence. As her simile suggests, Bakewell pulls off a kind of literary time-lapse photography, compressing a vast amount of history into a swift and enlightening narrative. This adroit intellectual work is nicely balanced by a pleasing frankness. Bakewell is not merely a biographer but also a kind of high-minded, eagle-eyed gossip. She can pull you aside and explain why Pascal gets so huffy when Montaigne walks in the room, or nudge you and point when Descartes starts acting reactionary and childish, with his patently absurd declarations (“Everything I perceive clearly and distinctly cannot fail to be true”) and his longing for certainty. Her book is a sophisticated mini-history of philosophy, but it reads like a late-night talk with a friend — the one who sticks around to debrief about the party, after all the other guests have gone home.
But, of course, the Montaigne party has still not ended, and it is the measure of Bakewell’s book that she makes it seem like the hottest ticket in town. As she reminds us, the best reason to read Montaigne is the one he would most approve: because it helps us contemplate ourselves. Surely we, too, need to think about Liars and Idleness and Prognostications; about Solitude and Moderation; about Friendship and Age and Sleep. Surely we need to read about the Education of Children, and the Uncertainty of our Judgments, and the Inequality Among Us. Surely we, too, need to learn how to live. It is not that Montaigne’s essays contain an answer to that question. It is that they are an answer. How to live? Try.