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Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 2010. It is a fine book, one that will engage the attention of all readers interested in the subject. That subject, of course, is very wide-ranging. Inspired by the philosophers of antiquity, Montaigne is one of the principal French writers of the Renaissance. To a degree he created the ‘essay’ form and his work has been pivotal for later thinkers. John Florio’s English translation was taught—in my day—as a work of literature itself and it helped to popularize a writer ‘adopted’ by the English as one of their own, at least in interests, spirit and unique personality. Montaigne was claimed by the romantics; he influenced Nietzsche, heartened the postmodernists and remains a writer of global importance and influence.

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.

Highly recommended.
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For Montaigne, skepticism is the first step toward truth. Skepticism of ancient Greek origins was rediscovered in the middle ages and has been important ever since to scientific, religious, political and ethical thought since that time.

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.
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on June 20, 2016
This remarkable book is the perfect primer on the most noble everyman soul-searcher Michael de Montaigne. Ms. Bakewell honors her own love of the16th-century founder of the personal essay by giving readers a carefully rendered, diligently sourced guided tour of Montaigne's timeless accounting of his own heart and soul. How To Live is mostly about just how to be in life and in the world. It loses nothing in translation nor across the passing of 500 years since Montaigne wrote his famous collection of essays. . With war and plague literally at his gate, Montaigne recused himself from the outside turmoil and set out to study his own hopes and misgivings. Bakewell shows his legacy is nothing short of a road atlas for the human condition through the ages. Bakewell's digest, in words and pictures, is an inspiration for those who would honestly take the same path today.
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.
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on January 5, 2014
Michel de Montaigne (pronounced MON TANE in English and MON TAN YAH in French) was a French essayist who lived from 1533 -1592. He was a member of the provincial nobility, for a while the mayor of Bordeaux and at times a friend of the powerful Admiral Coligny, who sent him on missions to the King. Mainly, however, he is known for the essays he wrote at his country estate.

One factor that shaped his life was that his body produced kidney stones, which at the time were not only grotesquely painful but also potentially fatal (if you have never seen a kidney stone, there is a photograph in the book of what these agents of torture look like, little spheres with sharp spikes which are emitted, if you are lucky, through the penis). Knowing that he might die at any moment in agony, as ultimately he did, shaped his philosophy.

His philosophy was to be moderate, to be ordinary and to appreciate the smaller things of life. He was not consistent, not methodical, not heroic, not pretentious, not prudish and not serious about life. Nor were his essays any of these things. He is supposed to have been influenced by certain Greek and Roman philosophers, but he reminds me a bit of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses. During a period when Catholics and Protestants were murdering each other like Sunnis and Shias today, he tried to persuade people not to take religion so seriously, and to grant other people their humanity. His greatest gift was the gift of empathy.

This book is about his life, his works and the period in which he lived. There is a description of what it was like to travel from Bordeaux to Rome. At the gates of Rome Montaigne's baggage was searched for subversive materials. The author compares this to what it was like to travel to Moscow before the end of communism. There is a description of the horrible religious wars that took place during Montaigne's lifetime. There is also a description of the death of Henry III. Henry was stabbed to death by a vengeful Catholic priest while he (Henry) sat on the toilet. The question arises, how did the priest get in the bathroom? Apparently, it was the custom for royalty to receive visitors while sitting on the toilet. The ways of the exalted are mysterious to ordinary people like you and me.

The book also traces how Montaigne's essays were well received during his lifetime, and how future generations shaped him in accordance with their own spirits. The Catholic Church proscribed his works, then relented. He was made into a precursor of the Enlightenment by people of the Enlightenment and the precursor of Romanticism by romantics, and so on.

This book, like the essays of Montaigne themselves, is anything but linear. Like the essays, it takes playful twists and turns, doubling back, folding in on itself, telling parts of the same story sometimes in three different places. Sometimes it tells a story for no other reason than that it is a good story. For instance, the author says that since Montaigne is not alone at the pinnacle of French literature as Shakespeare is with English literature, Montaigne has never attracted people who deny that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. But then, immediately contradicting herself, just like Montaigne would have done, the author proceeds to tell the story of one 19th century crank who believed that not only did Francis Bacon write the plays of Shakespeare but also the essays of Montaigne, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and all of Christopher Marlowe's plays. Such asides have very little to do with the theme of the book, but that is typically how Montaigne himself would have written.

The author says that many people love Montaigne because he reminds them of themselves. So too with this book. It is a book which I would have wanted to have written myself, if I had had the skill. It also made me go out and buy French and English texts of Montaigne, and a CD of someone reading some of his essays.
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on May 1, 2016
Montaigne was a French essayist and philosopher who lived in the middle to late 1500's. He, for all intents and purposes pioneered the essay as a literary form. He wrote about life and how to live it. His point of view is his own experience, but he was widely read in classical philosophy and inserts quotes in his writing to illustrate the points he is trying to make.

Bakewell's book is both a biography and an introduction to Montaigne's ideas. She provides considerable background information on the man and the world he lived in. I am reading Donald Frame's translation of Montaigne along with Bakewell's book and I highly recommend this approach. The man can ad does speak for himself, but Bakewell puts it all in context for you. She clearly has a tremendous command of her subject an presents it in a very readable way.
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on May 15, 2011
Book Review: How to Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

Author Sarah Bakewell has masterfully organized the facts of Michel de Montaigne's life into highly readable stories. She has done this using Montaigne's own best-selling essays (Essais) on life. One has to admire his powers of observation and reflection, as well as her gleanings from them.

Subtitled A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, the book's twenty chapter categories include:
Q. How to live? A. Question everything
Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
Q. How to live? A. Be convivial; live with others
Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
Within these categories, Bakewell relates incidents in which Montaigne's Essais and behavior reflected these ideas.

Yes, Bakewell tells a lot about Montaigne's well-chronicled life. But also, through engaging stories, she helps readers glimpse Protestant-Reformation splits in countries, cities, and families; motives for France's wars with Britain and Italy; municipal politics; medicine in the 1500s; family tensions and generational influences; reasons why learning the Latin language was considered critical to a good education; experiments in educational techniques; and many more eclectic tidbits.

Having just finished reading The Betrothed, which showed Italian life in the early 1600s from the peasants' point of view, I was particularly fascinated to see French life in the late 1500s from a nobleman's point of view. Although life for landed gentry was much more comfortable, plague and highway robbers were scourges affecting all classes. Montaigne's dear friend died of the plague, leaving a permanent void in his life. Montaigne had the money to travel in the relative safety of many servants; yet he fell victim to violence of roadside bandits, sometimes even more so than peasants did because bandits knew they could rob more from him.

Though a scholarly work, How to Live is lighter than similarly titled How Should We Then Live? [Francis A. Schaeffer, 1976] and How Now Shall We Live? [Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, 1999]. Schaeffer's book is a moral history of civilization. The Colson/Pearcey book recounts history with the point that how we think influences how we live. Montaigne's Essais and Bakewell's reshaping them into his how-to-live advice are much different in tone and purpose. Though not exactly whimsical, Montaigne's reflections are not didactic or deeply philosophical either. Though generally wise, they are his personal opinions. One side note is that Bakewell's commentary how Montaigne chose to live (and not live) does illuminate a number of popular philosophies such as the Romantics, the Stoics, the Hedonists.

And my personal note is that while I agree with some adjectives, like bright, absorbing, and lively, in the book's back-cover testimonials, I think the book presents more than an average reader like myself wants to know about Montaigne. I found it fascinating--just a bit much. I'll finish with one of the book's delights:

Montaigne wrote: If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know.

Bakewell writes of this: That final coda--"though I don't know"--is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
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on December 26, 2016
I liked what he has to say about living life. Sarah Bakewell helps the reader to understand the Essays and the individual who wrote them. This world would be a much better place if each of us would embrace and practice many of his beliefs.
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on March 9, 2016
An engaging portrait of Montaigne and his times, Bakewell helps us understand his impact on our views of life, society and how we relate with each other. Knowing the man leads us to read his "Essais" with a fresh appreciation of his wisdom, self-awareness, humor and joie de vivre. The author weaves appealing stories of Montaigne's skillful navigating through a stormy world of familial, social, political and religious strife. This a great companion to Montaigne's own thoughts and sets the stage for us to follow his practical and thoughtful model of introspection and living an examined and fulfilled life.
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on May 5, 2014
Great book, very well written. Montaingne was such an intersting character. Bought the book after reading an article about how Montaigne approached death after his fall. I have just lost my mom and I am still struggling with the loss and the death issue. The book, the way the author approached Montaigne's life and his essays is perfect. I come back to it and I will for a long time since it heals me.
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on April 7, 2012
This is a book that that I am devouring slowly like a fine meal. I haven't read much philosophy since collage years (some time ago) and never experienced feeling like I understood the philosopher as a living, breathing person at that time like this book seems to capture Montaigne as being. I love the historical context of both the time period and of how Montaigne's philosophies fit into the various ways thinkers have viewed the world. I did find the description of his early adult years pretty dry, but it was worth wading through to understand the impact a significant loss had on the rest of his life, and therefor (though I am not finished) how he saw the world.
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