Reflections by the creator of the essay form display the humane, skeptical, humorous, and honest views of Montaigne, revealing his thoughts on sexuality, religion, cannibals, intellectuals, and other unexpected themes. Included are such celebrated works as "On Solitude," "To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die," and "On Experience."
[How to Live, A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer] by Sarah Bakewell.
Reading the Complete essays I had to wait a long time before I came across that “How did he know that about me” moment which Sarah Bakewell claims in her book is a feature many readers experience, this was mine:
“As soon as I arrived I spelled out my character faithfully and truly, just as I know myself to be – no memory, no concentration, no experience, no drive; no hatred either, no ambition, no covetousness, no ferocity – so that they should be told, and therefore know, what to expect from my service”
(Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 1137). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)
This quote is in the essay/chapter “ on restraining your will and covers Montaigne’s two periods as Mayor of Bordeaux. It comes from book three page 1,137 out of a total page count of 1,269 pages and so as a reader you have to be pretty keen to read through the whole lot. I was helped by M. A. Screech’s excellent translation that somehow brings the 16th century text alive and readable for 21st century readers. He aids the reader by an excellent main introduction; a heading to each new chapter and over 250 pages of notes.
The essays vary wildly in length for example the first chapter of book 1 “We reach the same end by discrepant means” is four pages long whereas “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” clocks in at nearly 200 pages almost a book in itself. Montaigne was a Renaissance man and so his store of knowledge, his ideas on philosophy were mostly generated by his love for antiquity. The majority of his anecdotes come from classical literature, with many quotes in Latin and Screech translates these for us immediately following the quotation so the flow of the essays is not interrupted. Montaigne spent 20 years ruminating and adding to his work and each edition during his lifetime had amendments (usually additions to the original text) Screech incorporates these into the main body of the text with a symbol (A, A1, B, or C) to denote their origin. This all seems to work pretty smoothly.
There is no substitute to reading the essays themselves, they are a unique experience. Montaigne writes exclusively about himself, but without a hint of pride, boastfulness or grandeur, he is aiming at self knowledge with the belief that if he can get some of it down on paper then he will also be writing about most other people as well, because he believed that the similarities vastly outweighed the differences. From Montaigne we understand that the way people see and feel about issues and about themselves change with age, with new experiences, or even depending on how they felt that particular day, but there is a basic thread running throughout our lives that Montaigne wishes to expose. Perhaps that is why so many readers through the centuries have seen themselves in Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne writes about day to day events, about travel, about education about death, about work, about being in the moment, about sex, about melancholy, about anger and about a natural theology. All the time he sets down how he feels about the subject that is concerning him and links it back to the wisdom (or otherwise) of antiquity. He can be humorous, serious, thoughtful, but never didactic; his search for truth makes his honesty almost painful at times. He exposes himself so that others can see themselves and I think you need a certain amount of courage to do that.
Montaigne’s world seems equally divided between 16th century France and classical Rome and some readers might find too much classicism in the essays, but this grounds the author as a typical renaissance man. A man of his times that can communicate forward to current times. Not to be missed especially with M A Screech’s excellent translation and introductions. 5 stars.
Sarah Bakewell’s [How to Live, A life of Montaigne] is written for contemporary readers almost like an overnight sensation - wham bam thank you mame - This is Montaigne she shouts, don’t miss out - you too will find yourself in my/this book. In her first chapter she nails her colours too the mast:
“Since it is a twenty-first-century book it is inevitably pervaded by a twenty-first-century Montaigne . As one of his favourite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk on our own legs and sit only on our own bum.”
So Bakewell sets about picking out the bits of Montaigne that she thinks will appeal to her 21st century audience, which unsurprisingly misses some of what Montaigne was about.
Having read the essays myself I asked myself the following questions before picking up Sarah Bakewell’s book:
1) Does the book add anything to the reading of the essays.
2) Does it supply any additional information.
3) Is it a substitute for reading Montaigne
4) How accurate is it with reference to the text?
Well lets start with the positives: Bakewell’s book is subtitled A Life of Montaigne and she does fill in some background information. She has good chapters on the religious wars that for most of his life threatened to engulf Montaigne, she tells us about Montaigne's family and private life and how he worked, she tells us about the printing history of the book; its reception at the time and then through the subsequent centuries and so in this respect it answers questions 1) and 2). I found Bakewell’s writing lively and interesting; of course she cannot help but add her own thoughts on Montaigne’s situation but I found nothing too jarring here. She even attempts to provide her readers with a bit of grounding in Hellenistic philosophy and although I found this chapter a little glib it was better than nothing.
So far so good, but then doubts started to creep in, surely she was going to say something more about Montaigne’s classical references, especially after she had told us that Montaigne was made to converse in Latin from his first attempts at speech until he was sent away to school. Surely she was going to “home in” on the near 200 page essay where Montaigne expounds his ideas on a natural theology. It was important enough for him to write such a long chapter, so there should be some commentary from Bakewell. Montaigne had a deep respect for nature in which he saw Gods handiwork, this is an underlying theme throughout the essays and is nailed down in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond. Bakewell rightly highlights Montaigne’s preoccupation with death and his own approach to death, but picks out the chapter where he describes his own near death experience after a hunting accident and makes this a sort of watershed for all subsequent thoughts. Then there is her claim that Montaigne had never been a soldier ………………..
So does Bakewell see her book as a sort of substitute for reading Montaigne’s essays, she never says it is, but I can imagine that many readers will read this book and think that they have read Montaigne. They would be wrong, because reading Bakewells comments on Montaigne would be like reading a commentary on Moby-Dick which claimed the main theme of that book was a mans obsession with killing a white whale. So I cannot recommend this book as a critique of Montaigne and it falls short in being A Life, however it is an entertaining read and if it leads people to dip into the real thing then it cannot be all bad 3.5 stars.
Montaigne actually struck me as both humane and strikingly modern in quite a few respects--in his concern for native Americans being colonized by the Europeans, his opposition to torture, his concern for animals, among other instances. I found Montaigne lively, often funny, readable, quotable. More so than his imitator Francis Bacon and far, far more so than Emerson. All three, interestingly, have essays on friendship. Montaigne's is the wisest and most moving of the three.
In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and he wrote in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings of his "solarium" convey his general frame of mind and include sayings like these: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine. Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head. Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool. Man, a vase of clay. I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me."
The essays that he wrote defined the form of his thought while providing a window into both his mind and his life. Through his essays he has influenced writers and thinkers in every place and century since. One of my favorite examples of those he influenced is the self-taught working-man's philosopher Eric Hoffer who commented on the influence of Montaigne in his life. When on a gold-digging trip to the Sierras he took along a copy of Montaigne's essays. "We were snowed in and I read it straight through three times. I quoted it all the time. I'll bet there are still a dozen hobos in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne." Montaigne's collected essays are worth returning to again and again to spur one's own thoughts about living and dying. I have read and enjoyed these essays over most of my adult life. With them I would also recommend those of Francis Bacon, Emerson, and Orwell, among others.
This is one man's study of himself and his inquiry into his own nature. Through a careful study of himself Montaigne seeks to understand more fully the place of the human soul in the universe.
As an autobiography this can feel scattered. Just a glance at the table of contents tells one how diverse the subjects of these essays are: "To philosophize is to learn how to die" or "On the length of life" or "On war horses" or "On a monster child". Montaigne uses these subjects as a starting point (and does not always stick to his announced subject) and always comes back from the subject to his inquiry of himself. Because the books are centered around subjects rather than the chronological story of a life it took me a couple hundred pages before the theme of the book was cemented in my head. By the end of the book I had grown to love Montaigne's wit and charm. He is a person I would love to have some watered down wine with. This book was worth the time and is recommended to anyone who will settle down with it.
"It is a rare life that remains orderly even in private. Everyone can play his part in the farce, and act an honest role on the stage. But to be disciplined within, in one's own breast, where all is permissable and all is concealed - that is the point!"
My favourite chapter was 'On Vehicles', in which he discussed his travel sickness (with which I can truly sympathise, being extremely prone to it myself), moving on to a discussion of why it is not a good idea for princes to be too liberal with their subjects' money, the extravagances of the Roman circuses and the barbaric behaviour of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas, before returning to the subject of vehicles.
Now I cannot stand for long - and found it even more difficult to stand in my youth - either a coach, a litter, or a boat, and I detest every means of travel except a horse, either in the town or country.
I suspect that most of the reason this book is recommended is to give the reader breadth and help them to recognise that standards and customs differ greatly from one culture to another. In short it seems meant to break the reader of provincialism and prejudice.
Though it seems open to criticism itself.
I think that Montaigne is a bit credulous and ready to believe that foreign countries are stranger than they actually are. Some of his accounts are rather difficult to believe. I think he goes in for hyperbolie.
For an alternative view of the similarities and differences of cultures see C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man and consider his appendix.
Though I might point out that I think he goes a bit too far in the opposite direction. I don't think that his claims about the connection between religion and morality in India, for instance are quite as accurate as he seems to think.
Also, if you are interested in expanding your mind and taking care of your predjudices you could do worse than to read Robert Heinlein's novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, which I thought from the beginning had a flavor very much like some of the essays of Montaigne. The one about people's resistence to cold seems to relate well to the endurance of the character Valentine Michael Smith in the novel.
My sweetie suggests that since it is a first year book the fact that the Essays are open to critique may be part of the point. She could be right.
Anyway, we are going to see some similarities between our own culture and the ancient Greeks that will surprise us more than some of the differences.