How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer - by Sarah Bakewell

Q. How to live? A. Don't worry about death

Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.

Philosophers find it hard to leave the world because they try to maintain control. So much for ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die.' Philosophy looked more like a way of teaching people to unlearn the natural skill that every peasant had by birthright. From his essay of death, he took a decidedly unphilosophical philosophy lesson, which he summed up in the following casual way: 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. ‘Don't worry about death' became his most fundamental, most liberating answer to the question of how to live. It made it possible to do just that: live.

Q. How to live? A. Pay attention

Seneca would have approved. If you become depressed or bored in your retirement, he advised, just look around you and interest yourself in the variety and sublimity of things. Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.

Montaigne wanted to drift away, yet he also wanted to attach himself to reality and extract every grain of experience from it. Writing made it possible to do both. Even as he lost himself in his reveries, he secretly planted his hooks in everything that happened, so that he could draw it back at will. Learning how to die was learning to let go; learning to live was learning to hang on.

In truth, however hard you try, you can never retrieve an experience in full. As a famous line by the ancient philosopher Heraclitus has it, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Other sixteenth-century writers shared Montaigne's fascination with the unstable. What was unusual in him was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed. The two kinds of movement interact like variables in a complex mathematical equation, with the result that one can find no secure point from which to measure anything. To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them.

Montaigne was the first to write in such a way, but not the first to attempt to live with full attention to the present moment. That was another of the rules recommended by the classical philosophers. Life is what happens while you're making other plans, they said; so philosophy must guide your attention repeatedly back to the place where it belongs – here. It plays a role like that of the mynah birds in Aldous Huxley's novel Island, which are trained to fly around all day calling ‘Attention! Attention!' and ‘Here and now!' The trick is to maintain a kind of naïve amazement at each instant of experience – but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvellous such ordinary things are. To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.

Q. How to live? A. Be born

'If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off – though I don't know.'

That final coda – ‘though I don't know' – is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.

Most people today would think it crazy to separate parent and child for the sake of a dead language. But in the Renaissance, the prize was considered worth the sacrifice. Command of beautiful and grammatically perfect Latin was the highest goal of a humanistic education: it unlocked the door to the ancient world – considered the locus of all human wisdom – as well as to much of modern culture, since most scholars still wrote Latin. It offered entry to a good career: Latin was essential for legal and civil service. The language bestowed an almost magical blessing on anyone who spoke it. If you spoke well, you must be able to think well. Pierre wanted to give his son the best advantage imaginable: a link both to the lost paradise of antiquity and to a successful personal future.

Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted

Presenting himself as a layabout, flicking through a few pages before tossing the book aside with a yawn, suited Montaigne. It accorded with the dilettantish atmosphere he wanted to evoke in his own writing. As the copy of Lucretius shows, the truth must have been more complicated. But no doubt he did abandon whatever bored him: that was how he had been brought up, after all. Pierre taught him that everything should be approached in ‘gentleness and freedom, without rigour and constraint'. Of this, Montaigne made a whole principle of living.

People with good memories have cluttered minds, but his brain was so blissfully empty that nothing could get in the way of common sense. Finally, he easily forgot any slight inflicted on him by others, and therefore bore few resentments. In short, he presented himself as floating through the world on a blanket of benevolent vacancy.

‘Forget much of what you learn' and ‘Be slow-witted' became two of Montaigne's best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led – which was all he really wanted to do.

Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss

The differences were significant, but Montaigne and La Boétie locked into each other like pieces in a puzzle. They shared important things: subtle thinking, a passion for literature and philosophy, and a determination to live a good life like the classical writers and military heroes they had grown up admiring. All this brought them together, and set them apart from their less adventurously educated colleagues.

Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks

About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend's death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life. These were the philosophies he turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing with more minor everyday irritations.

Stoic and Epicurean thinkers spent much time devising techniques and thought experiments. For example: imagine that today is the last day of your life. Are you ready to face death? Imagine, even, that this very moment – now! – is the last moment of your existence. What are you feeling? Do you have regrets? Are there things you wish you had done differently? Are you really alive at this instant, or are you consumed with panic, denial and remorse? This experiment opens your eyes to what is important to you, and reminds you of how time runs constantly through your fingers. Shifts of attitude are the purpose of many of the thought experiments.

Such tricks of the imagination can be used in mundane situations as well as extreme ones; they are effective even against mild feelings of boredom or depression. If you feel tired of everything you possess, suggests Plutarch, pretend that you have lost all these things and are missing them desperately. Whether the object is a favourite plate, a friend, a mistress, or the good fortune of living in a time of peace and in good health, this exercise magically makes it seem worth having after all. The principle is the same as when brooding on death: faced with the idea of losing something now, you realise its value. The key is to cultivate mindfulness: prosoche, another key Greek term. Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world – and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life. A person who does not sleepwalk through the world, moreover, is freed to respond to situations in the right way, without hesitation – as if they were questions asked all of a sudden, as Epictetus puts it. A violent attack, a quarrel, the loss of a friend: all these are demands barked at you by life, as by a schoolteacher trying to catch you not paying attention in class. Even a moment of boredom is such a question. Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a precisely suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live ‘appropriately' (à propos) is the ‘great and glorious masterpiece' of human life.

Q. How to live? A. Question everything

The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously. Pyrrhonism does not even take itself seriously. Ordinary dogmatic Scepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge: it is summed up in Socrates's remark: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.' Pyrrhonian Scepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, ‘and I'm not even sure about that.' Having stated its one philosophical principle, it turns in a circle and gobbles itself up, leaving only a puff of absurdity. Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this manoeuvre: in Greek, epokhe. It means ‘I suspend judgement'. Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: ‘I hold back.' This phrase conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes. The Pyrrhonians did this, not to unsettle themselves profoundly and throw themselves into a paranoid vortex of doubt, but to attain a condition of relaxation about everything. It was their path to ataraxia – a goal they shared with the Stoics and Epicureans – and thus to joy and human flourishing.

As T. S. Eliot remarked: Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

Montaigne places everything in doubt, but then he deliberately reaffirms everything that is familiar, uncertain and ordinary – for that is all we have. His Scepticism makes him celebrate imperfection: the very thing Pascal, as much as Descartes, wanted to escape but never could. To Montaigne, it would be obvious why such escape is impossible. No one can rise above humanity: however high we ascend, we take that humanity with us. At the end of his final volume, in its final version, he wrote:

'It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside. Yet there is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.'

As with Montaigne himself, much of what the libertins and aphorists said revolved around the question of how to live well. Libertins prized qualities such as bel esprit, which might be translated as ‘good spirits', but was better defined by one writer of the time as being ‘gay, lively, full of fire like that displayed in the Essays of Montaigne'. They also aspired to honnêteté, ‘honesty', which meant a life of good morals, but also of ‘good conversation' and ‘good company', according to the French Académie's dictionary of 1694. Someone like Pascal did not even want to live like this: it would entail being distracted by the affairs of this world rather than keeping his eyes fixed on ultimate things. One imagines Pascal staring upwards into the open spaces of the universe, in mystical terror and bliss, just as Descartes stared with equal intensity into the blazing stove. In both cases, there is silence, and there is a fixed gaze: eyes rounded with awe, deep cogitation, alarm, or horror. Libertins, and all those of the company of thebel esprit, did not stare. My dears! They would not dream of fixing anything, high or low in the universe, with gawping owl-eyes. Instead, they watched human beings slyly, from under half-closed lids, seeing them as they were – beginning with themselves. Those sleepy eyes perceived more about life than Descartes with his ‘clear and distinct ideas', or Pascal with his spiritual ecstasies. As Friedrich Nietzsche would remark centuries later, most of the genuinely valuable observations about human behaviour and psychology – and thus also about philosophy – ‘were first detected and stated in those social circles which would make every sort of sacrifice not for scientific knowledge, but for a witty coquetry'. Nietzsche relished the irony of this because he abhorred professional philosophers as a class. For him, abstract systems were of no use; what counted was critical self-awareness: the ability to pry into one's own motivations and yet to accept oneself as one was. This is why he loved the aphorists La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, as well as their forefather Montaigne. He called Montaigne ‘this freest and mightiest of souls', and added: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.' Montaigne apparently managed the trick of living as Nietzsche longed to do: without petty resentments or regrets, embracing everything that happened without the desire to change it. The essayist's casual remark, ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived', embodied everything Nietzsche spent his life trying to attain. Not only did Montaigne achieve it, but he even wrote about it in a throwaway tone, as if it were nothing special.

Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop

In an essay on solitude, he wrote: We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.

Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others

‘There are private, retiring, and inward natures,' writes Montaigne. His is not one of them. He loves to mingle. Conversation is something he enjoys more than any other pleasure.

As well as banishing formal etiquette, Montaigne discouraged tedious small talk. Self-conscious solo performances bored him too. Some of his friends could keep a group rapt for hours with anecdotes, but Montaigne preferred a natural give and take.

For Montaigne, ‘relaxation and affability' were not merely useful talents; they were essential to living well. He tried to cultivate what he called a ‘gay and sociable wisdom' – a phrase that calls to mind a famous definition of philosophy, by Nietzsche, as the ‘gay' or ‘joyful' science. Nietzsche, like the libertins, agreed with Montaigne that a humane, sociable understanding was what mattered, although Nietzsche himself found it difficult.

Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit

Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep-inducing. Jumping to a different perspective is a way of waking oneself up again. Montaigne loved this trick, and used it constantly in his writing.

Montaigne's overall purpose [in writing about savages] is different from Rousseau's. He does not want to show that modern civilisation is corrupt, but that all human perspectives on the world are corrupt and partial by nature.

Q. How to live? A. Live temperately

As Nietzsche could have warned Montaigne: Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.

‘Transcendental humours frighten me,' he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another's point of view, and ‘goodwill' – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration. Montaigne even went so far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found ‘in mediocrity' – a shocking remark and even, paradoxically, an extreme one. Most moderns have been so trained to regard mediocrity as a poor, limited condition that it is hard to know what to think when he says this. Is he playing games with the reader again, as some suspect he does when he writes of having a bad memory and a slow intellect? Perhaps he is, to some extent, yet he seems to mean it too. Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions: for him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman. Like Tasso, they seek to transcend the limits, and instead lose their ordinary human faculties. Being truly human means behaving in a way that is not merely ordinary, but ordinate, a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘ordered, regulated; orderly, regular, moderate'. It means living appropriately, or à propos, so that one estimates things at their right value and behaves in the way correctly suited to each occasion. This is why, as Montaigne puts it, living appropriately is ‘our great and glorious masterpiece' – grandiose language, but used to describe a quality that is anything but grandiose. Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one's own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition. This could not be further removed from Rousseau and his feeling that he is set apart from all humanity.

Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity

Montaigne reminded his contemporaries of the old Stoic lesson: to avoid feeling swamped by a difficult situation, try imagining your world from different angles or at different scales of significance. This is what the ancients did when they looked down on their troubles from above, as upon a commotion in an ant colony. Astrologers now warn of ‘great and imminent alterations and mutations', writes Montaigne, but they forget the simple fact that, however bad things are, most of life goes on undisturbed. ‘I do not despair about it,' he added lightly.

And Montaigne was right. Life did go on. The St Bartholomew's massacres, terrible as they were, gave way to years of inconclusive individual suffering rather than heralding the end of the world. The Antichrist did not come. Generation followed generation until a time came when, as Montaigne predicted, many people had only the vaguest idea that his century's wars ever took place. This happened partly because of the work he and his fellow politiques did to restore sanity. Montaigne, affecting ease and comfort, contributed more to saving his country than his zealous contemporaries. Some of his work was directly political, but his greatest contribution was simply to stay out of it and write the Essays. This, in the eyes of many, makes him a hero. Those who have adopted Montaigne in this role usually cast him as a hero of an unusual sort: the kind that resists all claim to heroism. Few revere him for doing great public deeds, though he did accomplish some noteworthy things in his later life. More often, he is admired for his stubborn insistence on maintaining normality in extraordinary circumstances, and his refusal to compromise his independence.

Stefan Zweig knew that Montaigne disliked preaching, yet he managed to extract a series of general rules from the Essays. He did not list them as such, but paraphrased them in such a way as to resolve them into eight separate commandments – which could also be called the eight freedoms:

  • Be free from vanity and pride.

  • Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions and parties.

  • Be free from habit.

  • Be free from ambition and greed.

  • Be free from family and surroundings.

  • Be free from fanaticism.

  • Be free from fate: be master of your own life.

  • Be free from death: life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.

Zweig was selecting a very Stoic Montaigne, thus returning to a sixteenth-century way of reading him. And, in the end, the freedom Zweig took most to heart was the last one on the list, which comes straight from Seneca.

Q. How to live? A. See the world

Montaigne had always wanted to travel, so as to discover the ‘perpetual variety of the forms of our nature'. Even as a boy, he had felt a great ‘honest curiosity' about the world – about ‘a building, a fountain, a man, the field of an ancient battle, the place where Caesar or Charlemagne passed' – everything. Now he imagined walking in the footsteps of his classical heroes, while at the same time exploring the variety of the present world, where he could ‘rub and polish' his brains by contact with strangers.

What he loved above all about his travels was the feeling of going with the flow. He avoided all fixed plans. ‘If it looks ugly on the right, I take the left; if I find myself unfit to ride my horse, I stop.' He travelled as he read and wrote: by following the promptings of pleasure. He did not like to plan, but he did not like to miss things either. His secretary, accompanying him and (for a while) keeping his journal for him, remarked that people in the party complained about Montaigne's habit of straying from the path whenever he heard of extra things he wanted to see. But Montaigne would say it was impossible to stray from the path: there was no path. The only plan he had ever committed himself to was that of travelling in unknown places. So long as he did not repeat a route, he was following this plan to the letter. Odd events and human narratives of all kinds appealed to him.

Modern Rome had been formed by a similar process to the one Montaigne used to write his Essays. Ceaselessly adding quotations and allusions, he recycled his classical reading as the Romans recycled their stone. The similarity seems to have occurred to him, and he once called his book a building assembled from the spoils of Seneca and Plutarch. In the city, as with his book, he thought creative bricolage and imperfection preferable to a sterile orderliness, and took pleasure in contemplating the result. It also required a certain mental effort, which brought further satisfaction. The experience of Rome that resulted was mainly the product of one's own imagination. One might almost as well have stayed at home – almost, for there was still something unique about being there.

Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job

'I mortally hate to seem a flatterer, and so I naturally drop into a dry, plain, blunt way of speaking … I honour most those to whom I show least honour … I offer myself meagrely and proudly to those to whom I belong. And I tender myself least to those to whom I have given myself most; it seems to me that they should read my feelings in my heart, and see that what my words express does an injustice to my thought.'

One could sum up Montaigne's policy by saying that one should do a good job, but not too good a job. By following this rule, he kept himself out of trouble and remained fully human. He did only what was his duty; and so, unlike almost everyone else, he did do his duty.

Q. How to live? A. Philosophise only by accident

Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do. The Shakespearean scholar J. M. Robertson believed that all literature since these two authors could be interpreted as an elaboration of their joint theme: the discovery of self-divided consciousness.

Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing

Montaigne worked by revisiting, elaborating and accreting. Although he returned to his work constantly, he hardly ever seemed to get the urge to cross things out – only to keep adding more. The spirit of repentance was alien to him in writing, just as it was in life, where he remained firmly wedded to amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens.

This was at odds with the doctrines of Christianity, which insisted that you must constantly repent of your past misdeeds, in order to keep wiping clean the slate and giving yourself fresh beginnings. Montaigne knew that some of the things he had done in the past no longer made sense to him, but he was content to presume that he must have been a different person at the time, and leave it at that. His past selves were as diverse as a group of people at a party. Just as he would not think of passing judgement on a roomful of acquaintances, all of whom had their own reasons and points of view to explain what they had done, so he would not think of judging previous versions of Montaigne. ‘We are all patchwork,' he wrote, ‘and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.' No overall point of view existed from which he could look back and construct the one consistent Montaigne that he would have liked to be. Since he did not try to airbrush his previous selves out of life, there was no reason for him to do it in his book either. The Essays had grown alongside him for twenty years; they were what they were, and he was happy to let them be.

Q. How to live? A. Give up control

The Essays always seemed to Gournay the perfect intelligence test. Having asked people what they thought of the book, she deduced what she should think of them. Diderot would make almost the same observation of Montaigne in a later century: ‘His book is the touchstone of a sound mind. If a man dislikes it, you may be sure that he has some defect of the heart or understanding.'

The real patient on the analyst's couch – the one whose dreams cry out for interpretation – is not the Essays text, nor the person of Montaigne, but the critic. By treating Montaigne's text as a treasure-house of clues to something unknown, and at the same time separating these clues from their original context, such literary detectives are subjecting themselves to a well-established trick for opening up the subconscious. It is precisely the technique that a fortune teller uses when laying out tea-leaves from a cup, or a psychologist when applying a Rorschach test. One sets out a random field of clues, separated from their conventional context, then watches to see what emerges from the observer's mind.

There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition. Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life. He even enjoyed it. People form strange ideas of you; they adapt you to their own purposes. By going with the flow and relinquishing control of the process, you gain all the benefits of the old Hellenistic trick of amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens. In Montaigne's case, amor fati was one of the answers to the general question of how to live, and as it happened it also opened the way to his literary immortality. What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ambiguous, inadequate, and vulnerable to distortion. ‘Oh Lord,' one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, ‘by all means let me be misunderstood.'

Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect

Modern readers who approach Montaigne asking what he can do for them are asking the same question he himself asked of Seneca, Sextus and Lucretius – and the same question they asked of their predecessors. This is what Virginia Woolf's chain of minds really means: not a scholarly tradition, but a series of self-interested individuals puzzling over their own lives, yet doing it co-operatively. All share a quality that can simply be thought of as ‘humanity': the experience of being a thinking, feeling being who must get on with an ordinary human life – though Montaigne willingly extended the union of minds to embrace other species too. This is why, for Montaigne, even the most ordinary existence tells us all we need to know: I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.

He drew a similar lesson from the fact of ageing in general. It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. They were inclined to ‘a silly and decrepit pride, a tedious prattle, prickly and unsociable humours, superstition, and a ridiculous concern for riches'. But this was the twist, for it was in the adjustment to such flaws that the value of ageing lay. Old age provides an opportunity to recognise one's fallibility in a way youth usually finds difficult. Seeing one's decline written on body and mind, one accepts that one is limited and human. By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kind of wisdom after all. Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it.

Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer

Virginia Woolf was especially fond of quoting this thought from his last essay: it was as close as Montaigne ever came to a final or best answer to the question of how to live.

'Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.'

Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer. It has the same quality as the answer given by the Zen master who, when asked ‘What is enlightenment?', whacked the questioner on the head with a stick. Enlightenment is something learned on your own body: it takes the form of things happening to you. This is why the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics taught tricks rather than precepts. All philosophers can offer is that blow on the head: a useful technique, a thought experiment, or an experience – in Montaigne's case, the experience of reading the Essays. The subject he teaches is simply himself, an ordinary example of a living being.