A Review of “How To Live: A Life of Montaigne” by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

I really admire Montaigne’s writing and philosophy, so Sarah Bakewell’s part-biography, part-self-help book easily caught my attention. I read Montaigne because – as millions of other people do, making this statement quite meaningless – I see elements of my mind in his. Anyone who decides to retreat into their study and focus on writing gets praise from me.

I certainly enjoyed the first part of this book by Sarah Bakewell; in particular, her passages on solitude, death, and living convivially. These were the sections that did what it says on the tin (well, the front cover): they show you how to live by Montaigne’s philosophy. After this, I’m afraid, I got slightly bored. I’m not too interested in the politics of the time, nor trivial details about everyone he was related to. I’m sure this is largely a personal preference. I merely wished to read about Montaigne’s teachings, and how they were influenced by his way of living.

I thought I’d quote the inscription that Montaigne wrote on the wall of a side-chamber to his library, upon deciding to “retire”. If I could speak Latin, I’d definitely replace this with my own translation, but unfortunately I cannot. Here, therefore, is the rather odd translation that Bakewell supplies:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Perhaps re-reading his essays alone, with merely a pen for annotations and copious underlinings, would have been sufficient for me. That method usually works well, and I’ll probably return to it in future. However, I do think that Bakewell has created here a very insightful biography. Check it out if you’re interested in Monsieur Montaigne, and would like to know more about his life.


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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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