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Sarah Bakewell


A Life of Montaigne, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Few writers have had such a long literary life as Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). His Essays have never ceased to be read and they speak to the modern reader as much they did to people in his own time. Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell believes, was an exemplar of the values advocated by the Hellenistic philosophers—Sceptics, Epicureans, and Cynics. These schools are often contrasted with one another but Bakewell regards them as having a lot in common.

Montaigne was well educated, which is to say, in the context of his time, that he was a classicist. In fact, his upbringing took this to an extreme, for he was brought up speaking only Latin. In view of this it is perhaps surprising that he became such an approachable writer. Whereas most of his contemporaries struck literary postures and tried to impress their readers, Montaigne wrote in a colloquial informal style. Reading him, we are admitted to his innermost thoughts and emotions. He made no attempt to follow a train of argument or put forward a philosophy, and the titles of his essays often have little connection with their content.

The Hellenistic philosophers attached prime importance to what they called eudaimonia, meaning equanimity in the face of adversity and an openness to thoughts of death. Bakewll discusses these ideas in detail, and I was often reminded of Buddhism or Taoism. Death figures a lot here. As a young man, Montaigne lost his greatest friend, La Boétie, and in 1569 or 1570 he had a near-fatal riding accident. Outwardly he appeared to be in agony after this event yet he was inwardly completely at peace. One hopes the same thing happened in his final illness. Perhaps it did: although he suffered a good deal from kidney stones in his later years he experienced a sense of spiritual liberation after the attacks passed, and even when the pain was severe he preserved a sense of inner freedom.

Montaigne's life was passed amidst almost continuous civil war between Catholics and Protestants, often marked by horrific massacres. Montaigne refused to fortify his lands or to try to keep bands of marauding bands of soldiers out; he adopted a similarly pacific attitude when he was captured by bandits. Once again I am reminded of Buddhism.

Bakewell writes lightly and humorously, in keeping with her subject's own style. Her book has left me with the wish to go back to Montaigne and read more of him.

27 April 2010

%T How To Live
%S A Life of Montaigne, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer
%A Sarah Bakewell
%I Chatto \& Windus
%C London
%D 2010
%G ISBN 9780701178925
%P ix+387pp
%K biography
%O illustrated

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