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20 attempts at one question – how to live?

Session 3 - Sarah Bakewell 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

“How to live?” This is the most fundamental question of life, said Sarah Bakewell. And the most fundamental answer, she continued, was: “Be born.” We’ve all managed that – but most of us think that’s not quite enough. We want to unpack the question to consider how to live a good life, or a meaningful life, or a fulfilled life, or a useful life, or a life that is in some sense fully realised. We want to know how to deal with bereavement, with our fear of our own death, with the question of how to avoid getting into arguments with our loved ones, to know how to deal with bullies, to know when to intervene or not in others’ squabbles. Or, even, “what to say to our dog when she wants to go out and play and you want to stay at your desk and keep writing your book”.

We can learn something of these questions, she said, from one writer who lived in France in the 16th century and “who addressed himself to all these questions, big and small”. That writer was Michel de Montaigne – and the Essays he left to us run to more than 1000 pages… “which indicates that he resolved the dog problem, at least”.

He had an unusual childhood. Born in 1533 into a wealthy family, he grew up in a country estate with a vineyard in the southwest of France. The family had only known wealth for two generations and his father was not a learned man, but a man who revered learning. Indeed, he was convinced that the mark of true sophistication was a command of Latin – so what would be better than to speak Latin as a native? Undeterred by the fact that nobody had spoken Latin as a first language in centuries, he determined that young Michel, his first-born son, would be brought up speaking only Latin. A German tutor who spoke no French was hired for the boy, and his mother and the servants were all required to speak only Latin to him. 

“It’s no surprise,” Sarah said wanly, “that he chose to write in French rather than Latin.” Before that, though, came a career in public life – as a young man Michel became a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux. But he resigned at the ripe old age of 37, announcing “at my advanced stage in life I want to use the few years left to me in contemplation”. Even in the 16th century, Sarah says, 37 wasn’t old: our man was, as she reads it, simply fed up of the day job.

But deprived of work, he discovered, his mind went all over the place – he likened it variously to “wild horses” and to the wildly shaking reflections of light in a turbulent bowl of water. It was to calm his mind, to “dream to some purpose” that Michel started his famous examinations of himself and the world in his essays. He was the first person to use the term “essay” as we now use it. It’s from the French essayer, to try: these essays are attempts, the testing of ideas, “trials of himself”.

Part of their charm is that tentativeness. Sarah compared him to Arnold Bennett, who (she said enviously) had been able to get away with titling his essay collections Things That Have Interested Me. So you’ll get a short esssay “Of Thumbs”, where Montaigne wonders about thumbs. Or “Of Coaches”, where he writes about Kings, sneezing and the Aztecs before, rather belatedly, getting around to mentioning coaches. He kept revising, changing his mind, saying “but no, but maybe, or let’s look at it another way”. The animal-loving Montaigne, you imagine, would have enjoyed the way that Sarah’s flow was from time to time interrupted by the hee-hawing of a nearby donkey or the catlike yowl of Osea Island’s peacock.

Montaigne was making psychological observations before we had psychology, Sarah said. He asked “How We Cry and Laugh About the Same Things” and “How We Want One Thing and Do Another”. He was interested in the variety and contradictoriness of human experience.  

Death was very present for Montaigne. He lost all but one of his six children. The dearest friend of his youth, Etienne de la Boetie, died in his arms, and the grief shaped him. His companionable relationship with his readers, she speculates, comes out of the need to answer that loss: we are in the role of his friend. 

HIs own death preoccupied him too, for a while. At first he argued that the way to conquer fear was, like a stoic, to imagine one’s own end constantly. But then he was knocked out after falling from a horse and found himself in a pleasant delirium of semi-consciousness; yet on recovery, his friends told him he’d been in apparent agony. So he changed his mind. Why waste time worrying about death when you might not even know what’s happening to you? Spend that time on life. “Nature,” he decided, “will tell you what to do.” He declared: “Let death find me planting my cabbages.” (Sarah remarked drily that there’s nothing in the historical record to indicate that this loveable but supremely impractical fellow ever planted a cabbage in his life.)

Montaigne was a modern in other respects, too. He was fascinated by cultural diversity – questioning a group of visiting Brazilian indians on what they made of France. They told him that they were astounded that a boy could be king, that they were horrified that the rich could feast while the poor starved – and a third thing which, bless him, Montaigne forgot.

Indeed, the real mark of his modernity is that willingness to imagine that someone else may see the world differently. He loathed the cruelty of the witch-burnings and punishments for heretics that he had to preside over as a magistrate, saying tartly that “It is putting a high price on one’s conjectures to burn a man alive for them.” Essay: an attempt; not by definition the work of someone who imagines he has the last word. 

Indeed, he even, unusually for his era, liked to consider that animals might have thought-worlds and lives of their own. He wondered if his dog was dreaming when he moved in his sleep and, famously, whether his cat was a plaything for him or whether he was a plaything for his cat. Montaigne was a man of shifting perspectives, one who knew “not to take himself too seriously”. 

He saw himself, in other words, as a man leading an ordinary life. As Sarah put it: “It’s like a case study of being a human being.” He judged that perfection was self-acceptance: to know how to enjoy our being rightfully.” For “on the loftiest throne in the world, we’re still only sitting on our own bum.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Don’t try to make your kid speak Latin, poor little bastard

  1. Take proper notes when interviewing indigenous peoples for the historical record

  1. “[Montaigne] doesn’t offer any answers you can put in a takeaway” — Sarah Bakewell