How to live. Well, there’s a question which always feels fresh. There are whole sections of book shops dedicated to this question and an enormous diversity of ways of addressing it. You’ll find some advice in the Popular Psychology section, some in the Philosophy section, some in the Mind, Body, Spirit section, the Religion section, and on and on.
What’s the secret?
Probably there is no secret, and anyone who claims to have everything all worked out….well, what do you think?
Still, it’s a question which won’t go away so when Sarah Bakewell published “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” back in 2010, I couldn’t resist. I’d had a browse through some of Montaigne’s essays a few years previously but despite enjoying some of them, I can’t say he really hooked me. Sarah Bakewell’s book changed that.
Montaigne lived from 1533 to 1592 in the area around Bordeaux in the South West of France. I won’t tell the whole story here, but he was part of a wealthy family, and retired from Public duties as Mayor of Bordeaux at 39 years old. As the inscription hanging on the wall of his study says, he decided that after years of duties and responsibilities he was going to dedicate the rest of his life to freedom, tranquillity and leisure.
What he did for the next twenty years was enjoy life, have conversations, read and study, travel, and write. He decided to write to explore what it was like to be Michel Montaigne. He described his writings as attempts – that’s why they are called “essays” (from the French, essais, meaning to try). With great honesty and humility he set about reflecting on his past and present experiences. Sarah Bakewell, who spent years studying his writings highlighted the fact that this exploration was about trying to discover how to live, and in her book comes up with twenty “answers” to explore aspects of his thought and his life.
He didn’t write a self-help book. He didn’t write a manifesto. He didn’t write “the key to the secret of Life”. But what he did write has turned out to have much more staying power than it might have done had he done so. Over the next almost 500 years, reader after reader comes across Montaigne’s essays and recognises themselves. We think, goodness, how did he know that’s what I feel? Or how I deal with that? Or what I think? Because in exploring himself and sharing that, he helps us to understand what it is to be human.
I can’t think of a better introduction to this amazing man and his writings than “How to Live” [ISBN 978-0099485155]. I’ll share a few of the attempted answers in future blog posts, but let me just quote you a nice little summary of some of Montaigne’s personal principles which I found in Antoine Compagnon’s “Un été Avec Montaigne” which I picked up in bookshop near Montaigne’s chateau this summer.
Prenons le temps de vivre; suivons la nature; jouissons du moment présent; ne nous précipitons pas pour rien
My rough translation of this is to take your time to live; follow nature; enjoy the present moment and don’t rush into anything. (If you are a fluent French speaker, feel free to improve my translation!)
In other words, he predated the current “Slow movement” by almost 500 years, encouraged us to live in the now (which Eckhart Tolle has popularised), to live mindfully (and isn’t mindfulness everywhere just how? 12,200,000 hits on google today!), and to learn from Nature so that we can live according to natural principles instead of trying to fight against them (a lesson we are a long way from learning with our contemporary technology, economics, health care and relationship to the global environment)
Let us permit nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.
Montaigne was classically educated and drew on the teachings of scepticism, stoicism and epicureanism. In fact he was the kind of sceptic I thoroughly identify with (not the modern, arrogant, sure of themselves and their own opinions variety!). He felt that knowledge was never complete so we could always learn more, and that no one person could have access to all knowledge so everyone’s opinions, experiences and views were interesting to discover. This approach made him humble and this comes through everything he wrote and did.
He didn’t tell people how to live.
Instead he reflected on his own life and shared it.