Montaigne's Timeless Wisdom

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The great French philosopher and essayist Montaigne – philosopher of life as it is actually lived – lived a long time ago, in a chateau outside Bordeaux.

He rode on horseback everyday, and wrote in a tower in the 16th century.

My guest today, Sarah Bakewell, says he would have made a great blogger — and he would have been a great master of Facebook.

Montaigne wrote what he saw, wrote of his life. And he put the question again and again – how to live?  How to live amid passions and turmoil, with our own foibles and the foibles of others?  How to live amid the madness and beauty of life?

We reflect on life, with Montaigne.
-Tom Ashbrook

Sarah Bakewell, author of "How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer."  Read her seven-part series on Montaigne in The Guardian.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

From the table of contents for Sarah Bakewell's “How to Live” (courtesy of Other Press):

Q. How to live?
Michel de Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer

1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
Hanging by the tips of his lips

2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention
Starting to write
Stream of consciousness

3. Q. How to live? A. Be Born
The experiment

4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
Montaigne the slow and forgetful
The young Montaigne in troubled times

5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
La Boétie: love and tyranny
La Boétie: death and mourning

6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
Little tricks and the art of living
Montaigne in slavery

7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything
All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
Animals and demons
A prodigious seduction machine

8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
Going to it with only one buttock
Practical responsibilities

9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
A gay and sociable wisdom
Openness, mercy, and cruelty

10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
It all depends on your point of view
Noble savages

11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
Raising and lowering the temperature

12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity

13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
Baroque best seller

14. Q. How to live? A. See the world

15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
Moral objectives
Missions and assassinations

16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
Fifteen Englishmen and an Irishman

17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing
Je ne regretted rien

18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control
Daughter and disciple
The editing wars
Montaigne remixed and embabooned

19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
Be ordinary
Be imperfect

20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer
Not the end

From the introduction to Sarah Bakewell's “How to Live” (courtesy of Other Press):

[The idea of] writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, and winegrower who lived in the Périgord area of southwestern France from 1533 to 1592.

Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements. Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events, although he could have done; he lived through a religious civil war which almost destroyed his country over the decades he spent incubating and writing his book. A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjusted to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life. He weathered the disorder, oversaw his estate, assessed court cases as a magistrate, and administered Bordeaux as the most easygoing mayor in its history. All the time, he wrote exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles:

Of Friendship
Of Cannibals
Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes
How we cry and laugh for the same thing
Of Names
Of Smells
Of Cruelty
Of Thumbs
How our mind hinders itself
Of Diversion
Of Coaches
Of Experience

Altogether, he wrote a hundred and seven such essays. Some occupy a page or two; others are much longer, so that most recent editions of the complete collection run to over a thousand pages. They rarely offer to explain or teach anything. Montaigne presents himself as someone who jotted down whatever was going through his head when he picked up his pen, capturing encounters and states of mind as they happened. He used these experiences as the basis for asking himself questions, above all the big question that fascinated him as it did many of his contemporaries. Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?”

Extra: Read 2010 MacArthur Genius and writer Yiyun Li's meditation on Montaigne.

This program aired on November 22, 2010.


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