How to Live- A Life of Montaigne

How To Live – A Life of Montaigne
By Sarah Bakewell
Chatto & Windus – £16.99

What supposedly obsessed writers of the Renaissance, were dense and rather troubling issues, tempestuously centrifugal to this thing we call life. Questions such as: How to balance the need to feel safe against the need to feel free? How to grieve? How to deal with violence? How to deal with fanatics? How to avoid pointless arguments?

In truth, how to live?

Indeed, such questions come into play throughout all our lives at some time or another; and how we deal (or not deal) with them, is relative to the fact that none of us are fundamentally trained to do so. After all, we aren’t taught how to grieve at school are we? No, but a great deal of emphasis is invariably placed on Pythagoras’ theorem, which to this day, I have had absolutely no use for (with the emphasis on absolutely no use for). As for dealing with fanatics and avoiding pointless arguments, lest it be said here and now: writers of the Renaissance never really had to negotiate commuting on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern Line. Wherein a plethora of deranged fanatics, partake in pointless arguments by way of light entertainment – with a view to killing time (and sometimes, one another).

Forgive them Montesquieu, for they stand not clear of the closing doors…

This thoroughly well researched book by Sarah Bakewell is a mighty idiosyncratic and inspiring read – for all the right reasons. It’s humane. It’s in-depth. It’s challenging. And what’s more, it’s everything it purports to be on the cover: ‘’A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.’’

In fact, How to Live truly tells it, as it ought to be (truly) told. To this end, we find scattered throughout this really readable book, a menagerie of majestic and incisive wit, regaled in such a way as only Montaigne was able. For instance, in the chapter ‘Be Convivial: Live with Others,’ Bakewell quotes: ‘’I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.’’

The world according to Morrissey leaps forth methinks.

Furthermore, John Lennon would be pleased, as in the earlier chapter ‘Pay Attention,’ the former Beatle is (inadvertently) quoted: ‘’Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,’’ although admittedly, this is concluded with the words: ‘’so philosophy must guide your attention repeatedly back to the place where it belongs – here.’’

Surely a template for humane behaviour, one could do a lot worse than try and come to terms with the writings herein. As a writer, Bakewell has captured an equal balance betwixt delicate dogma and a harsh light-of-day, common sense. As even though many of these morsels of morality were written during the latter half of the sixteenth century, the trajectory of their findings are just as relevant and pronounced today, as when Michel Eyquem de Montaigne originally pondered upon and wrote them.

David Marx


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