How To Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell.

In Short

How To Live by Sarah Bakewell is partly a biography of Montaigne, and partly a philosophical exploration on how to live based on Montaigne’s writings and his life. The question of ‘How to live?’ is answered in twenty different ways, all of which relate to themes that Montaigne explored in famous essays.

The answers range from ‘don’t worry about death’, ‘read a lot, and forget most of what you read’, ‘question everything’, to ‘give up control’, and ‘let life be its own answer’. Overall a really enjoyable book if you like practical philosophy or Montaigne’s style of self-exploration and writing.

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Book Summary & Notes

“Montaigne did not die. He recovered – and from then on, lived a bit differently. 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.”

“[Seneca] wrote that idleness and isolation could bring to the fore all the consequences of having lived life in the wrong way, consequences that people usually avoided by keeping busy – that is, by continuing to live life in the wrong way. The symptoms could include dissatisfaction, self-loathing, fear, indecisiveness, lethargy and melancholy.”

“For him [Montaigne], slowness opened the way to wisdom, and to a spirit of moderation which offset the excess and zealotry dominating the France of his time.”

“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.”

“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.”

“All the schools [Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism] had the same aim: to achieve a way of living known in the original Greek as eudaimonia, often translated as ‘happiness’, ‘joy’, or ‘human flourishing’. This meant living well in every sense: thriving, relishing life, being a good person. They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which might be rendered as ‘imperturbability’ or ‘freedom from anxiety’. Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry. To attain is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs.”

“Scepticism guided him [Montaigne] at work, in his home life, and in his writing. The Essays are suffused with it: he filled his pages with words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘to some extent’, ‘I think’, ‘It seems to me’, and so on – words which, as Montaigne said himself, ‘soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions’, and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of ‘unassumingness’. They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne’s thought, at its purest. He never tired of such thinking, or of boggling his own mind by contemplating the millions of lives that had been lived through history and the impossibility of knowing the truth about them. ‘Even if all that has come down to us by report from the past should be true and known by someone, it would be less that nothing compared with what is unknown.’ How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison. To quote Hugo Friedrich again, Montaigne had a ‘deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorised, what is mysterious’.”

“For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. ‘It is one and the same nature that rolls its course.’ Even if animals were less similar to us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive.

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice ot men, and mercy and kindness to other creates that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.”

“Habits make 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.”

“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.”

“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 as well.”

“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 that 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.”

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