Thoughts on How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne

Ah Montaigne! I’m glad I got to know you. You are now officially added to my list of peculiar historical men that fascinate me to no end – alongside Ben Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt. Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne, brings you an intimate look into the life of this eccentric man.
He wrote 107 essays with simple titles like Of Friendship, Of Cannibals, Of Names and Of Cripples. He was an observer of the world but most of all he observed and wrote about himself.

Unconventional upbringing
His parents sent him out to be nursed by peasants as an infant in a weird attempt to create a bond with “the commoners” that he one day would need to help.
The unconventional educational experiment continued; Montaigne was brought up as a native Latin speaker! A tough plan to put in practice since there were almost no native Latin speakers around. The rest of the household spoke minimal or no Latin.

Video review of How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

“A man… should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bound of reason” Montaigne echoed Aristotle sentiment. Saying, basically, the conventional notion in those days that being a passionate husband would turn the wife into a nymphomaniac.

Pay attention!
As Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for paying attention is to write about everything. Just to describe simple things in the world opens your eyes to how marvelous they are.

Wrote in French
“Still French was his language of choice”. His essays give a weird reason for this: French could not be expected to last in the same way as the classical languages (I.e. Latin). This was freeing. If his writing was flawed, there was less pressure on him since they were doomed anyway.

Inspired by the Greeks
He was a big fan of Hellenistic philosophy; Stoicism and Skepticism in particular. Stoicism encourages wise detachment and skeptics held themselves back on principle. His motto was “What do I know?”

On Cripples
In On Cripples Montaigne writes about a rumor that lame women are more enjoyable in bed, and as Aristotle before him, he speculates that it must be that “their vaginas are more muscular because they receive the nourishment of which the legs are deprived.”

It’s a fascinating biography, even for the uninitiated! Now I just need to read his actual essays!


Find more great reads on my book reviews page and the Great Books List

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