Saturday, 4 June 2011

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage 2011)

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533. His early education was entirely in Latin leaving him with little way to communicate with his family except through the shaky Latin of his father and conversational Latin of his servants. He lived in a tower overlooking his estate,  was a magistrate and sometime mayor of Bordeaux. It is hard to see how lessons on life from this mediaeval French philosopher can be relevant to a modern audience and yet throughout the centuries many people have read the Essays and seem themselves in their pages for the simple reason that he is so brutally honest and open about his life that one begins to look on Montaigne as a friend. We learn about his bowel  movements, his sexual exploits, what food he likes and about his relationship with his cat.

Montaigne was a true man of the Renaissance. Carved into the roof of his library were maxims of his Greek and Roman heroes, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil  and Socrates et al. His philosophy melded the Hellenic schools of Scepticism, Epicurianism and Stoicism holding key the two key principles that unite them all, eudaimonia, the pursuit of a good life and that of ataraxia, having a tranquillity of the mind. This means not being overcome by extreme emotions, and preparing oneself mentally for all the pitfalls life can offer, meeting them with a level head.

Bakewell's unconventional approach to biography pays off as one can see how fond she is of her subject, a trait which is quite contagious. Whilst Montaigne's philosophy can appear to be cold and unemotional, you can see that he is trying to save us from emotional pain, perhaps of the kind he underwent himself when he lost the closest friend of his life, his soul mate Etienne de la Boetie to the plague. But the highest compliment that can be paid to this book is that it makes you want turn to its source, the Essays themselves and for that reason alone I feel I can highly recommend this book.