By Sarah Bakewell, Other Press, New York, N.Y. 400 pages, $25
Ours is an age when revealing facts about one’s personal life has become commonplace. There is no shortage of blogs on the Web or reality TV shows where the authors or stars are happy to share the most intimate details with whomever clicks on the blog or turns on the television. It is fascinating to consider that the origin of these tell-all narratives may be a 16th-century French philosopher.
Michel de Montaigne is the subject of an unorthodox biography by Sarah Bakewell. The title of the book, “How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” demonstrates that Bakewell’s purpose is not only to record the facts of Montaigne’s life but also to begin to introduce the reader to Montaigne’s approach to life as revealed in his essays.
Bakewell was educated at Essex University in England. She started her career as a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London in the 1990s. Her first book was about an 18th-century forgery trial that she had come across in her work. She began writing full-time in 2002. Her interest in Montaigne was based on her reading an English translation of his essays as a student on a train from Budapest to London.
Montaigne was born in the Dordogne region of France in 1533. His father was a merchant dealing in international trade of fish and wine, and had unique ideas about education. Montaigne learned Latin before he learned French. Until the age of 6, his father hired a tutor to speak to Montaigne only in Latin and instructed family members to do the same.
Montaigne studied law and served as a magistrate in the Bordeaux Parliament for 13 years. It is his legal work as an assessor of complex cases that Bakewell suggests led to his ability to view matters from a “multiplicity of perspectives.” He decided to retire to his family estate at the age of 38 following the death of his dear friend La Boetie and to begin to record his thoughts. He used the French term “essais” for his project, which means “attempts” or “trials.”
Bakewell explores the philosophical underpinnings of Montaigne’s writings. He was well read in the Greek and Roman philosophers and often quotes them in his essays. The complete essays were written over a period of 20 years and are sometimes divided into three periods: the stoical period (1572-1574), skeptical crisis (1576) and epicurean period (1578-1592).
The purpose of Montaigne’s essays was not just to strictly instruct the reader on a distinct course but rather to reveal how to approach everyday living in a healthy way. In titles such as “Of Experience,” “On the Inconsistencies of Our Actions” and “To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne uses examples that we all face in our everyday lives to show us how to live.
Bakewell’s style is lucid and almost anti-academic. Her goal is to open Montaigne to the non-scholar by weaving the facts of his life with the philosophy in his essays. Bakewell is able to create a very human portrait of the man.
Montaigne lived during a period in history full of diversity; plague, religious persecution and war defined the 16th century. In addition, he suffered personal tragedy when four of his five children as well as his close friend La Boetie died at a young age. Despite these hardships Montaigne’s down-to-earth essays seem to transcend the hardships and always demonstrated a true enjoyment of life.
Bakewell notes Montaigne’s ability to digress from the main topic of an essay. His free-form thinking clearly influenced writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Shakespeare, a contemporary of Montaigne, was an early reader of the essays in translation and signs of the essays can be found in both “Hamlet” and “King Lear.”
Late in Montaigne’s life he met a young acolyte, Marie de Gournay. Bakewell discusses the nature of de Gournay’s relationship with Montaigne ultimately as father-daughter, or teacher-pupil, as well as the efforts that de Gournay made to see that the complete essays were published. It was de Gournay’s version of the essays that were published in 1594, two years after his death, which were the most read for three centuries.
While bloggers and reality TV stars may unknowingly owe a debt to Montaigne, they often lack the humility that characterized the tone of his essays. Despite the often personal nature of Montaigne’s essays, they are never egocentric.
Bakewell’s “How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” leads to an understanding of a unique philosopher whose writings have endured for more than 400 years. Once you put the biography down you are eager to begin the essays themselves.
Alan Fell is a partner at Rick Steiner Fell & Benowitz and co-chair of the Law and Literature Committee at the New York County Lawyers’ Association.