Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

When the publishing industry is in decline and our expectation of instant gratification makes TV and the internet our primary sources for news, one would have to ask oneself: is this the best time to publish a new book on the philosophy of a discursive French essayist who died over 400 years ago? Of course, the answer would have to be “it depends.” Sarah Bakewell has managed to make Michel de Montaigne seem relevant, perhaps even revolutionary, but certainly eminently likeable. Montaigne would have been an exceedingly popular blogger, for he took incidents of daily life and held them up for examination, and used them as stepping stones to rambling narrative. He inspired loyal devotees, as well as provoked and enjoyed passionate rebuttal. “No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers with my own.” One could argue endlessly, happily, and doubtlessly profitably with such a man.

For twenty years, from ages 38 to 59, he stayed mainly at his estate in the Bordeaux region along the Dordogne River, and wrote essays. He came close to death in a riding accident, weathered various occurrences of plague (though the love of a lifetime, La Boétie, was taken), and was victim of various ailments that could have been alleviated today but which eventually killed him. Importantly, he lived through the period of time known as The Saint Bartholomew Wars, which was recently cited in a book on modern counter-insurgency as an example of one of the longest and most consequential non-state religion-based internecine conflicts characterized by extreme violence, bloodshed and carnage: Catholics on Protestants. It led Montaigne to write, “There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.” And yet Montaigne managed to maintain a sense of proportion and breadth of perspective that seems positively Zen in this day and age. He was liked and admired, was elected mayor of his village without seeking office, his writings were collected by the king and twittered over in the boudoirs of all France.

Montaigne had a fascination with pragmatic schools of philosophy like Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. All these schools had the same aim: to achieve a way of living known as "happiness," "joy," or "human flourishing" (from the Greek eudaimonia). The schools agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which can be translated as "imperturbability" or "freedom from anxiety." (Does this not sound like Buddhism to you?) It appears a key to living well, fully, and without regret is cultivating mindfulness:
A person who does not sleepwalk through the world…is freed to respond to situations in the right way, without hesitation—as if they were questions asked all of a sudden, as Epictetus puts it. A violent attack, a quarrel, the loss of a friend: all these are demands barked at you by life, as by a schoolteacher trying to catch you not paying attention in class. Even a moment of boredom is such a question. Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life. (pp. 111-112)

But I haven’t yet said what it is about this book that makes me convinced there is no better time to introduce Montaigne into the mainstream. It is Sarah Bakewell’s handling of the material, in which she proves herself a fascinating conversationalist and careful historian. In lesser hands, the material could have seemed distant at best. But Bakewell allows Montaigne himself to shine: his work seems as amusing and fresh as a friend declaiming over a glass of wine—red wine, white wine—you never know with Michel. I haven’t yet read Montaigne’s Essays, but I certainly intend to now. It seems a pity to leave Montaigne to experts. More than that, who couldn’t use a clever best friend? I relished the background and erudition Bakewell brought to the picnic. Every page was a delight.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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