A Life of Montaigne in One Question: HOW TO LIVE
Below is a note from Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, on why she chose to write Montaigne’s new biography:
Why did I write about Montaigne? Mostly because I wanted to keep on reading him.
Ever since my early 20s, when I picked up his Essays by chance, wanting a good book for a long train journey, he never really left me. My first response to his work on that train was one of astonishment. How could someone who wrote in the 1500s sound so familiar, so conversational, so like me? It was like having a friend or a traveling companion sitting opposite me as we whizzed through the landscape. For years after that, Montaigne was never far from my side. And I discovered that practically everything else I read had the power of leading me back to him in some way—for Montaigne is the first truly modern author, the great hidden presence behind 400 years of literature, and indeed behind much of philosophy, politics, and social theory over those centuries.
This is mainly for one simple reason: No one before Montaigne had written so honestly and minutely about the inner world of a human being. He followed every twist and turn of his psyche, believing that every individual is worth writing about at such length, for “each man bears the entire form of the human condition.” But he also paid plenty of attention to the world outside. He was interested in everything; he traveled widely, held offices as magistrate and mayor, ran diplomatic missions for kings and princes, and tried his best to end the religious civil wars that tore apart the France of his day. These experiences led him to a deep fascination with human variety and difference. We share our essential humanity, he knew, but each of us has a radically different cultural, historical, and personal perspective, and that is just as fundamental.
Human variety is the great paradox in his work; it’s also the great paradox facing us today. How can a plural, democratic society accommodate difference, and even extremism, without sacrificing its deepest principles? How can we resist violence without becoming violent? How can we defend ourselves yet remain open? Montaigne gave us no simple answers, but he certainly taught us to ask the questions.
I set out to write about Montaigne’s life, but I ended up wanting to write about much more—and especially about the experience of reading itself, that is, the experience of encountering a mind distant in time that opens itself to us, perhaps not entirely, but in part. What does it mean to pick up a book published in 1588 and recognize ourselves and our world in it? How can we engage critically with such a book and understand it on its own terms while also making it our own? What can be learned from someone who died more than 400 years ago? Why is the past so strange and so familiar at the same time? To ask these questions is to investigate the very essence of what culture is—and it is why reading a book is such an exciting thing to do.
Many people will ask these questions for the first time in their college years, and I envy your students this; it will happen while they are with you. Others experience it earlier, and some, later. Whenever it happens, it changes you. Afterward, the habit of questioning gets into your soul—and then the whole world opens up.