In ancient times, philosophy and self-help would likely have been synonymous terms. In the modern era, however, I find that mostly self-help gurus, not philosophers, are the ones willing to tell us ‘how to live’. I’m not sure exactly when this transition occurred, but if Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) were still alive, I believe he would be shocked to learn that academic philosophy has largely drifted away from focusing on the art of living well. According to Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, the modern distinction between self-help and academic philosophy simply would have baffled him. After-all, of what use is philosophy if it doesn’t help us to live well?
Montaigne claims to have been an accidental philosopher and Ms. Bakewell admittedly stumbled across the work of Michel de Montaigne accidentally too. About to embark on a long train ride from Budapest to London over 20 years ago and looking to dull the boredom, Ms. Bakewell dashed into a secondhand bookshop before the train left and picked up a selection of Montaigne’s essays simply because it was the only book in English. This fortuitous event arguably altered her life in ways she could never have imagined. Furthermore, this dose of good fortune spawned the writing of this beautiful book.
If you’re unfamiliar with Montaigne’s work, he wrote free-floating pieces, with titles like “On Friendship”, that would famously become known as essays (the word essay stems from the French word essais, which means “to try”). He didn’t write to boast of his own achievements and he rarely tried to pedantically explain or teach anything. In fact, his writing is littered with contradictions (a serious ‘no-no’ for a modern academic philosopher), but he seemed strangely to be unabashed by it. Ms. Bakewell suggests that he would have taken Walt Whitman’s following line to heart: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”.
Ultimately, How to Live is an examination of Michel de Montaigne’s multitudinous attempts to answer one of life’s simplest, yet most difficult questions, i.e., how should you live? And the answers are as simple as they are difficult to put into practice. I think Jean-Paul Sartre too tried to capture this difficulty when he wrote, “Everything has been figured out except how to live”.
One Montaignean suggestion is “don’t worry about death”. Death has always been a favorite topic of philosophers for obvious reasons. In fact, the ancient philosopher Cicero captured this point concisely when he wrote: “To philosophize is to learn how to die”. Premature death was rather common in the 16th century and Montaigne’s personal life was awash with tragedy. As such, many of his family members (including his children) and friends lost their lives at far too young an age. Ms. Bakewell informs us that Montaigne worried about his own death too, until he had a perspective-changing close encounter with death after falling off his horse. After seeing the light at the end of tunnel, he realized that death is not worth worrying about: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it”.
Another Montaignean suggestion is to “read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted”. Montaigne’s favorite writer of all was the Greek biographer Plutarch (AD 46-120). According to Ms. Bakewell, Montaigne treated books “as if they were people”, but he remained from fetishizing them like his father did. He also realized that having an imperfect memory was simply part of the human condition and there was no need to fret about it because it potentially helped judgement abilities. As Ms. Bakewell puts it, “Slowness and forgetfulness were good responses to the question of how to live, so far as they went. They made good camouflage, and they allowed room for thoughtful judgements to emerge”.
The true beauty of How to Live is that it’s not a conventional biography; however, it’s certainly biographical. How To Live is more of a companion to The Essays than it is simply a story about the original essayist. Michel de Montaigne may have been an accidental philosopher, but I’m thankful that Ms. Bakewell became an accidental Montaigne-ist.