In her new biography, How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer, Sarah Bakewell tiptoes around a pair of potentially devastating land mines. The first was the temptation, implied by the book’s subtitle, to produce a glorified self-help manual. The second would have been to repeat the contention, voiced by Bakewell herself in the Paris Review, that bloggers today “are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago” by Montaigne.
Happily, Bakewell avoided both missteps in producing a biography that brings to life not only its subject but the times he lived in, a luridly colorful century of famine, plague, exploration, civil war, religious upheaval and artistic ferment. It’s a ripping story, splashed with bloody horrors and punctuated by moments of serene beauty. Along the way, Bakewell makes a convincing case that Montaigne and his contemporary Shakespeare were the first truly modern artists because of their joint discovery of “self-divided consciousness.” Both captured “that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.”
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533, the son of a prosperous landowner and winemaker who served as mayor of nearby Bordeaux. A late bloomer, Montaigne published the first volume of his Essays in 1580 and spent the rest of his life adding to it. His breakthrough, radical for the late Renaissance, was not only to make himself the subject of his writings, but to dissect the dual nature of the self. “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves,” as he put it. “This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves at the proper angle.”
Bakewell, who works part-time cataloging rare books at the National Trust in London, agrees with the ancient Greeks and Romans – and Montaigne – that philosophy should be a practical art for living well. Yet it would be reductive and simplistic to say the book is merely a list of tidy answers to the question posed in the book’s title – don’t worry about death; read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; question everything; wake from the sleep of habit; see the world; regret nothing, and so forth. Montaigne’s greatest gift, as Bakewell sees it, was “being able to slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself.” For Leonard Woolf, what made Montaigne modern was his “intense awareness of and passionate interest in the individuality of himself and of all other human beings.”
In a recent conversation with The Millions, the esteemed essayist and teacher Carl H. Klaus noted that what sets Montaigne apart is his “consciousness of consciousness” and his “overriding concern with echoing the flow of his thought.” In that conversation Klaus also dismissed Bakewell’s notion that bloggers have something profound in common with Montaigne. But no writer can be faulted for trying to create buzz around her book. The truth is, How To Live doesn’t need such specious hype. Its research is so thorough, its arrangement is so clever and its writing is so brisk that it’s sure to bring fresh readers to one of the most durable and beloved achievements in world literature.