"How to Live" – how would Montaigne have approached 2011?

Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell speculates on the great French essayist's approach to the new year.

"In some ways we are all Montaignes today," says biographer Sarah Bakewell.

He may have lived and written in the 16th century, but it seems that there's always a new generation happy to rediscover the words and thoughts of Michel de Montaigne, the French author commonly credited with inventing the essay. In 2010 Montaigne took the stage again, this time the star of How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a charming biography of the French thinker in the form of 20 questions by British academic Sarah Bakewell.

I recently had a chance to ask Bakewell about Montaigne and how, at the very end of 2010, he might have advised his present-day readers to best approach 2011.

– What would Montaigne think of the custom of making new year resolutions? Would he believe in the idea that we will live better next year than we did this year?

Montaigne was aware that he was always changing – he hardly recognized or understood the things he had done last year, or even five minutes ago, let alone the things he was likely to do in the future. So he was inclined to a sort of puzzled self-acceptance. Even if some past actions no longer made sense, he was prepared to believe that they had seemed right when he did them. He would have accepted any future variations or failings in the same way. So no, I can’t imagine him making resolutions. And if he did, I suspect he woudn’t keep them.

– If Montaigne were to make any resolutions of his own, what might they be?

Despite his dislike of forcing himself into pre-decided patterns, he was always struggling to improve his “judgment”, that is, to respond to pragmatic situations in subtler, better-informed ways. So I think he would want to continue to do that – perhaps to keep learning from experience.

– Montaigne lived and wrote in the 1500s but his voice is so surprisingly modern. Do you think he would have fit into contemporary society? What would he have liked best today? What would he have liked least?

He would have been fascinated by the extent to which we can communicate and connect with each other, even across widely separated continents. That would have appealed to him, and he might wonder whether such an exchange of perspectives would make it easier to avoid conflict, bigotry, and misunderstanding. I think he’d have been very disappointed to see that, on the whole, it doesn’t seem to.

– Why are contemporary readers still drawn to Montaigne? His habit of sharing his thoughts with the reader was unusual in his time but highly common in our own. Yet we still find him compelling. Why?

In some ways we are all Montaignes today. We talk and write about ourselves a lot, and expect everyone to be interested in the details of our lives. We can be self-indulgent, and so can he. But I think he also appeals because he is not just inward-looking, and he doesn’t just navel-gaze. He had an intense interest in the world outside himself, and in what he read; he was stepped in classical history and literature, and inherited all the cultural energy of the Renaissance. He also loved to travel, and encounter new people and new ways of doing things. This makes him more than just a reflective philosopher, or someone who rambles on about whatever goes through his head. It also makes him an endlessly interesting guide to the whole humanist culture to which he was heir, and which
he transmitted to generations of readers after him.

– You’ve spent a lot of time with Montaigne. What do you like best about him? Does he have any traits that you try to emulate?

His main trait was trying to be himself, and I guess I can best emulate this by trying to be myself too, rather than trying to be him! I do admire his taste for moderation and common sense in all things, a taste which was as unfashionable then as it is now. I try to bring some of that into my own life where I can – but of course I don’t always succeed.

– What could we all do to live more like Montaigne in 2011?

I don’t think we should do anything else other than be ourselves and live in our own way. But perhaps, if pressed, I’d say we could use our heads a little more. We could try to accept human nature and work around it instead of wishing it away. And we could certainly reflect on the experience of others in a more generous, more open-minded way.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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