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How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Hardcover – October 19, 2010
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Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you loveâsuch questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?
This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over four hundred years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainmentâand in search of themselves.
This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Ãtienne de La BoÃ©tie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readersâwho for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “how to live?”
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SB’s biography answers the question, ‘how to live?’ in twenty chapters, each of them keyed to a theme in Montaigne’s work. Hence, chapter 9: “Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others.” The themes, however, do not trump the biography. This is not an endless examination of thematic content with an occasional look at the events in Montaigne’s life. It is a systematic biography held together by thin thematic divisions.
It is also a very learned biography, expanding at length, e.g., on the civil wars of the period, the driving ideologies, weaponry and specific details, both personal and political. It studies, e.g., the manner in which the texts of the Essays have come down to us, (what we would call) the copy texts, the emendations, the condensations, and so on. There is comparatively little on the content of the Essays themselves, ‘comparatively’ being the operative word. We learn a great deal about Montaigne’s classical influences, the nature of his pyrhonnism, the dimensions of his political associations, his personal relationships, his estate, its winemaking, and so on, but the only essay that is discussed at some length is (as one would expect) the longest of the essays, the Apology for Raymond Sebond.
It is sometimes said that the first requirement for a great biography is the author’s love for her subject (balanced, always, by a willingness to speak the truth, wherever its elements might fall). SB clearly admires Montaigne and wishes that today’s thinkers, writers and politicians (Montaigne served in all three capacities) would read him, be inspired by him and take lessons from him.
The writing is crisp and clear, direct and candid. While it is undergirded by a great deal of scholarship that scholarship does not drag the book down and bore the reader with tedious details. It contains a bibliography, index and series of endnotes, sufficient to guide the reader to other texts and explore/verify issues that have come under question.
The book is very much like its subject—a pleasant, human and humane read that takes on difficult subjects with a light touch and details experiences that will find echoes in the reader’s own heart.
Readers should be advised that Montaigne's efforts are not of the same sort as the Facebook and Tweet pronouncements of our selfie-centered times. Mountain's careful reconnoiter of his own life and times that Bakewell has selected here depicts a person determined to know himself in the world, not to show himself off to the world.
Perhaps most refreshing of all Montaigne's enviable traits that Bakewell takes particular effort to point out is his abiding caution to readers of his essays that his opinions are his alone and as such contain the caveat that he could be wrong. What a thing to read in our current age of heralding the know-it-all who most often knows the least of all.
Philosophical skepticism is not simply the denial of an orthodox or majority view, this is the common, everyday use of the idea, simply the expression of disagreement. The philosophical skepticism of Montaigne is about doubt, not mere disagreement. Philosophical skepticism is a general view, not disagreement with specifics or over particulars.
Sarah Bakewell shows how Montaigne chose philosophical skepticism, doubt, as the best way to remain un-dogmatic which is the path to tranquility. Skepticism means freedom of thought for Montaigne where nothing in the world is more this than that in the tradition Pyrrho. This leads first to indifference, then to the suspension of judgment, hence to tolerance and finally to peace of mind as Sarah Bakewell shows was most often the case with Montaigne. We must recall that in the original Greek, skepticism meant investigation which could lead to modesty about the knowledge and relativism about values. Socrates provided the ancient model for modesty about knowledge when he said, “what I do not know, I do not think I know”. The original model for relativism was in the ancient Greeks finding that what looked like universal values and principles were just local conventions, customs and practices specific to time and place.
In Montaigne’s time, skeptical arguments were used to rationalize religions belief, not cast doubt upon it. The target of the doubt was the emerging and yet untested secular, rational and scientific knowledge. Doubt was cast on the human ability to truly understand the nature of existence independent of revelation and belief in God and was thus endorsed by religious authorities of the time. That is, skepticism undermines faith in the powers of human reason. It was also a powerful weapon in the hands of the Catholic Church against the Protestant and Lutheran upstarts of the sixteenth-century. Sarah Bakewell traces how Montaigne falls out of favor in the succeeding century when secular, rational and scientific knowledge becomes much more secure and Montaigne type skepticism boomeranged upon revelation and religious belief. The skepticism once was used to rationalize religious belief rather now becomes the powerful tool for casting doubt about religious belief. This is what I mean by the skeptical boomerang. The seventeenth-century was an era in which certainty was sought as shown in the philosophical inquires of Descartes and Pascal who despised Montaigne as did the Catholic Church of the seventeenth-century. Descartes is famous for his skeptical doubt but for Descartes skepticism is not the way to tranquility and peace of mind, it is something to be overcome. Skepticism is not a value, it is only instrumental. Descartes used skepticism, not without controversy, to build a rational foundation for religious faith, not call it into doubt. In a sense, Descartes was an anti-skeptic. Faith and skepticism are thus forever intertwined.
Montaigne's understanding of skepticism is that for every proposition there is a counter proposition. He lived through very brutal religious wars in France where he saw people killing each other over the things that they believed, which were the result of dogmatism. As Montaigne put it, dogmatism does not allow us not to know what we do not know. That is, dogmatism forces people to take sides and is very polarizing. Skepticism was the tool Montaigne used to defuse this noxious mix of belief, polarization and dogmatism.
Consider this move made by Augustine. I feel that it is cold, the skeptic can rejoin me and tell me that I only feel that it is cold but how do I know that it really is cold? This being the case, I can still know that I feel it is cold. I can know my own feeling. That is, skepticism cannot dissolve my first person subjective experience of existence without dissolving existence itself. Montaigne understood that to be skeptical one must presuppose existence, not skeptically dismiss it.