Back in June I was in that wonderful position of being able to choose exactly what I felt like to read next, with no book making particular demands on me and any number of volumes ready and willing to be picked up. In fact, I shared an image of the ones I felt most drawn to on Twitter, and the ambience was predominantly French! In the end, I plumped for “How to Live” by Sarah Bakewell; subtitled “A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, it had come highly recommended and as I had a selection of his essays also standing by, it seemed the perfect choice – which indeed it was!

A French-themed pile…

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (usually just referred to by the last part of his name) is himself a figure I’ve been skirting round for quite a while; a 16th century French nobleman contemporary with Shakespeare, he’s best known for popularising the essay as a literary form and espousing some wonderful views on humanity and the best way to live. His works are incredibly influential, affecting writers as wide-ranging as Shakespeare himself (possibly), Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Woolf, Zweig and even Asimov. According to Wikipedia, he wrote some of the most influential essays ever – which is some legacy!

Bakewell sets out to tell his life story, but in an intriguing way; she asks the question which Montaigne himself was posing – How to live? – and examines his story broadly chronologically in 21 chapters which look at his life in relation to the answers his essays provide. It’s a very clever concept, because it allows her to not only relate his life events but also explore his philosophies, the wider world in which he lived and what it really means to be a human being.

Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl. One seventeenth-century Montaignist defined it as firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight, or trying out a horse to see if it handles well. On the whole, Montaigne discovered that the pistol shot all over the place and the horse galloped out of control, but this did not bother him. He was delighted to see his work come out so unpredictably.

Montaigne lived slap-bang in the middle of the Renaissance, a period when Europe was going through a cultural, artistic, political and economic revival following the grimness of the Middle Ages. Humanity was starting to explore the world physically and intellectually, the arts and sciences were developing, and the question of how humans should live was considered really important. Montaigne’s essays were ground-breaking in their free-ranging quality; no tightly-controlled arguments, clear-cut answers for this man; instead, he allowed his throughts to roam freely, jumping from one idea to another almost at random, pulling in all kinds of concepts and analogies as he went. This format was revolutionary at the time, and popular; Montaigne’s essays were instant best-sellers, and still are.

What takes Bakewell’s book into a different realm, however, is the breadth of it. Yes, there is a roughly chronological look at Montaigne’s life, and that in itself is fascinating. But as well as this, she discusses at length the philosophies – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic – which informed his thinking; she reveals in depth the world in which Montaigne lived, its beliefs, its wars and its problems (plague!!); and she draws out of Montaigne’s writings lessons which can still be relevant and helpful to how we try to live today. All of these elements make for a compelling and fascinating read, and the book really opened my eyes to what that period of time was really like.

One thing which was a bit of a revelation was the state of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant religions; I don’t know if I’d quite appreciated quite how rabid, bloody and bitter the dissent between the two strands of Christianity actually was, but the behaviour of both sides as related by Bakewell was shocking. Whyever can’t human beings learn to accept that other people have different beliefs and let them get on with it; we don’t seem to have learned from the past (correction – we *definitely* haven’t). And it does seem that France has been in a constant state of conflict and revolt through most of its history, which I hadn’t quite taken on board before.

I was also taken by Montaigne’s general tolerance and humanity; and in particular his views on animals and the natural world and his hatred of cruelty in general. Bakewell quotes this from one essay, and it’s a timely and still relevant view:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We own justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

As well as his essays, Bakewell relates how Montaigne kept a journal whilst on an extended journey, some written by his secretary and some by himself. It obviously gives a different view of the great man, and sounds entertaining in its own right – she says of it at one point:

It makes for a better read than any number of overblown Romantic travelogues, precisely because it remains so tied to detail. It has little beds under big beds, messy Swiss sauces, room-sized birdcages, circumcisions, sex changes and ostriches: what’s not to like?

I may have to track it down, because his travels themselves are entertaining too (he used them as a way to dodge political duties…); and the section of Rome oddly took me back to Bowen’s thoughts on the history of the city and its constantly changing architecture.

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might have realised, I loved this book; as well as being a fascinating biography, it takes in so much history and philosophy that there’s a danger of going off exploring down any number of wormholes. Bakewell’s coverage of the legacy of Montaigne is also revealing; so many later philosophers and writers worked themselves up into a right lather over his wonderfully laisser-faire attitude and refusal to stick to any kind of fixed opinion. He was a real rambler – so obviously a kindred soul…

“How to Live” turned out to be a real winner; thoroughly enjoyable, very stimulating, beautifully written and extremely erudite, it was also often very funny. Bakewell’s wonderful book has made me very keen to pick up my little selection of Montaigne’s essays soon; and fortunately I also have her “At the Existentialist Cafe” lurking, which promises equally marvellous delights… ;D