How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
By Sarah Bakewell
Other Press 2011 | 400 pages | Paperback: £7.49 | $14.44
By ROBERT McHENRY.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS an essay, I think. The subject of the essay is — the essay. It is occasioned by a reading of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
Montaigne is conventionally credited with having invented the essay form. This does not mean that no one before him ever wrote a shorter-than-book-length composition. It does mean that he wrote down, then revised, then reconsidered his reflections on matters both large and small and then, despite having arrived at no certain conclusions, published a book of them. That was certainly original. Bakewell’s subtitle captures this novel style of sharing his thoughts perfectly.
By actual guesswork I estimate that half of all reviews of volumes of essays take the time to discuss the etymology of the word “essay,” back through Middle French “essai” to the Latin exagium, landing always on the senses of “trial,” “test,” or “attempt.” They are not always clear about what it is that is being tried, tested, or attempted in any given essay. Even less clear is what they mean when they refer to any particular literary composition by that label.
Among the myriad works that have claimed to be essays are Alexander Pope’s stately, philosophical “Essay on Man” (“One truth is clear, whatever is, is right”) and Josh Billings’s orthographically antic “Essa on the Muel” (“The muel is haf hoss and haf Jackass, and then kums tu a full stop, natur diskovering her mistake,…”). A definition that comfortably encompasses both is hard to imagine.
Then there is the question of those compositions that argue for a particular proposition or point of view, those we commonly call by such names as tracts, treatises, dissertations, and so on. In these the only thing being attempted is the persuasion of the reader. Ought that to suffice to qualify as an essay? If so, then what writing, apart from fiction and most verse, is not an essay?
Montaigne’s younger contemporary Francis Bacon offers an answer. Exclude, he suggests, all writing characterized by any of the three “distempers” of learning, the vanities of “imaginations,” “altercations,” and “affectations.” Put another way, discount those writings that depend upon mere invention, mere hair-splitting, or mere verbal style. Take seriously only those that engage with the real world in a search for truth and understanding.
The “real world,” of course, can be as stubborn a beast as the muel. Hence error; hence the need for continued engagement and rethinking; hence the “genial scepticism” that one nineteenth-century commenter identified as Montaigne’s outstanding character. It was he who, for example, wrote of social customs:
To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine; from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably for the most part, God knows.
AS BACON ARGUED for a science of eyes-open and open-ended empiricism in place of the parroting of authorities (chiefly Aristotle, of course) so Montaigne threw over the notion that a piece of writing had to reach for a “truth” of some sort — and one in agreement with tradition, at that — in order to be worth reading. Indeed, he seemed to feel, a worthy essay is one that looks into some familiar aspect of life from many points of view, explores various ways of describing and understanding it, and then retires with a more or less explicitly provisional summary. The way is left open, even inviting, for later reassessments based on new and enriching experience.
(As Bakewell explains, it may not be coincidental that Bacon published a book of “essays” just a few years after his brother had visited Montaigne in France.)
BAKEWELL’S APPROACH TO describing and understanding Montaigne’s method is the startling one of actually using it. As biography her book is unusual, in that it goes back and forth over periods of the subject’s life many times, each with a different question in mind and each bringing out details and considerations that might not otherwise have emerged. As literary criticism it is equally unusual, certainly for these times, in that it seeks to find the sources of the writings in the life, rather than declaring that they can have meaning only in the mind of some arbitrary reader.
It is useful to notice that while the book’s title is given as How to Live on the cover and the title page, in the table of contents and in the text it becomes How to Live?, the one question of the subtitle. A good sense of how Bakewell has read her subject emerges from the tentative answers she infers from the Essays, including
Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
Use little tricks
Wake from the sleep of habit
Reflect on everything; regret nothing
Be ordinary and imperfect
and, perhaps most telling,
Philosophize only by accident.
We only labour to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void. Like birds who fly abroad to forage for grain, and bring it home in the beak, without tasting it themselves, to feed their young; so our pedants go picking knowledge here and there, out of books, and hold it at the tongue’s end, only to spit it out and distribute it abroad. And here I cannot but smile to think how I have paid myself in showing the foppery of this kind of learning, who myself am so manifest an example; for, do I not the same thing throughout almost this whole composition? I go here and there, culling out of several books the sentences that best please me, not to keep them (for I have no memory to retain them in), but to transplant them into this; where, to say the truth, they are no more mine than in their first places.
Bakewell homes in on the unique character of Montaigne’s thought in this way:
[O]f all that was mysterious, nothing amazed him more than himself, the most unfathomable phenomenon of all. Countless times, he noticed himself changing an opinion from one extreme to the other, or shifting from emotion to emotion within seconds….
Even his simplest perceptions cannot be relied upon. If he has a fever or has taken medicine, everything tastes different or appears with different colors. A mild cold befuddles the mind; dementia would knock it out entirely. Socrates himself could be rendered a vacant idiot by a stroke or brain damage, and if a rabid dog bit him, he would talk nonsense. The dog’s saliva could make “all philosophy, if it were incarnate, raving mad.” And this is just the point: for Montaigne, philosophy is incarnate. It lives in individual, fallible humans; therefore, it is riddled with uncertainty. “The philosophers, it seems to me, have hardly touched this chord.”
Nor is uncertainty limited to pathological circumstances:
We have formed a truth by the consultation and concurrence of our five senses; but perhaps we needed the agreement of eight or ten senses, and their contributions, to perceive [the world] certainly and in its essence.
This seemingly casual remark proposes a shocking idea: that we may be cut off by our very nature from seeing things as they are. A human being’s perspective may not merely be prone to occasional error, but limited by definition….Only someone with an exceptional ability to escape his immediate point of view could entertain such an idea, and this was precisely Montaigne’s talent: being able to slip out from behind his eyes to as to gaze back upon himself with Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment. Even the original Skeptics never went so far. They doubted everything around them, but they did not usually consider how implicated their innermost souls were in the general uncertainty. Montaigne did, all the time.
But skepticism in Montaigne, however stern and thoroughgoing it may seem at one moment, retains always that geniality that has charmed so many readers over the centuries:
A French gentleman was always wont to blow his nose with his fingers (a thing very much against our fashion), and he justifying himself for so doing, and he was a man famous for pleasant repartees, he asked me, what privilege this filthy excrement had, that we must carry about us a fine handkerchief to receive it, and, which was more, afterwards to lap it carefully up, and carry it all day about in our pockets, which, he said, could not but be much more nauseous and offensive, than to see it thrown away, as we did all other evacuations. I found that what he said was not altogether without reason, and by being frequently in his company, that slovenly action of his was at last grown familiar to me; which nevertheless we make a face at, when we hear it reported of another country. Miracles appear to be so, according to our ignorance of nature, and not according to the essence of nature: the continually being accustomed to anything, blinds the eye of our judgment.
Whether Bakewell’s very fine book will succeed in attracting a new audience to the thoughts and rethoughts of an old Frenchman is devoutly to be hoped but remains to be seen. There, I hope, is the empiricism that qualifies this little composition as an essay.
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American.