Before I read How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Montaigne was a cipher to me. I vaguely knew he was a Renaissance writer and philosopher, but I had no idea why he was significant.
Well, it turns out Montaigne has a lot to offer . . . even 450 years later.
Author Sarah Bakewell brings him to life. In 20 chapters, each tied to a theme in Montaigne’s Essays, she sheds light on both the man and his message. Like many of his contemporaries, Montaigne was fascinated with the question “How to Live?” and he used his 107 Essays to answer it.
While Montaigne was concerned with how to live a full life as a down-to-earth human being, he was bored with moral dilemmas themselves. He was extremely curious about human emotions and motives; he just didn’t attach any judgments to them. A lot of his writing is profound and illuminating. But a lot is tongue-in-cheek and just plain fun.
I find it fascinating that Montaigne is considered the first person to write about himself in this particular way. Bakewell calls it “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity.”
During Montaigne’s lifetime in the 16th century, he was more admired for his statesmanship and wine-growing than for his writing. And what they were missing!
I have no doubt Montaigne would be extremely gratified to discover his work still resonates in the 21st century.
If you have even the smallest philosophical bone in your body, I’d recommend you pick up this unusual biography. See what questions it answers for you.