Bakewell’s Montaigne

by Chris Bertram on April 5, 2011

I’ve got no time for a proper review, so this post is just a mention of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer [UK Link]. The academic in me was initially put-off by the self-helpy presentation of the book. Because of this, I imagined that it would be (a) irritating and (b) unscholarly. It is only unscholarly in the good sense that it does not come across as a work of dry academic research. And Bakewell isn’t irritating at all: her writing is fluid, witty and unpretentious. The book provides a compelling psychological portrait of Montaigne, contains plenty of interesting background on the wars of religion, and nudges the reader towards the Montaignian attitude of sceptical curiosity about self, others and the world. I enjoyed it tremendously (got through the 300+ pages in a few days) and am now rooting through the real thing, the Essays. Highly recommended.



Daniel S. Goldberg 04.05.11 at 3:38 pm

For a variety of reasons, the interdisciplinary graduate program I trained in has a undercurrent of emphasis on Montaigne’s life and work. That training had a marked effect on me as a person and as an academic, and I consider Montaigne something of a patron saint in both regards, to put it crudely.

I think, and have argued, that the constant and sometimes tiring efforts to essay — pun intended — the value of the humanities would benefit from a more concerted effort to historicize the humanities themselves. Such an historical analysis would have to put considerable attention to the medieval and Renaissance humanists who both mediated the wisdom of antiquity in significant ways, and who crafted the educational program from which the contemporary humanities are derived.

I fervently believe that among these humanists, there is no better exemplum for the ways in which skepticism and embrace of uncertainty can be wedded to a deep practical engagement with the world than the life and work of Montaigne. Ann Hartle’s magnificent book on Montaigne argues, persuasively to my mind, that Montaigne even crafted an original form of skepticism, which combined the suspension of judgment characteristic of the Pyrrhonians with a rejection of the stasis that such skepticism logically implied to the fullest (as evident in Sextus).

I’m babbling, of course, but I just love Montaigne, think he is one of the most original and significant thinkers of the last millennium, and also believe that his work is essential to understanding the significance of the humanities and the need for humanities teachers and scholars to eschew the cloisters and engaged with the world. As he did.

(Aside from Hartle’s book, I’d also heartily recommend the Cambridge Companion, which has some really excellent essays touching on some of themes I babble about above, and also John O’Neill’s excellent book on Montaigne’s rhetoric).


Chris Brooke 04.05.11 at 3:54 pm

Also new in the world of fun books about Montaigne is Richard Scholar’s Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking (Peter Lang, 2010).


Anderson 04.05.11 at 4:40 pm

Thanks Chris, just the comment I needed to hear about the book — the title is offputting to us, but I can well imagine the publisher’s thinking such a presentation was a financial necessity.

I’ve been reading Montaigne on and off for 20 years now, and he never gets old.


ChrisJ 04.05.11 at 6:08 pm

Montaigne is a great bedside table book. That’s where I have it. His essays are short, fascinating, and a pleasing way to finish off the day.


trane 04.06.11 at 8:54 am

Thanks for the recommendation.

There is an interview with Bakewell at Philosophy Bites (which by the way, for non-philosophers like me is a fantastic thing)


Brussel Sprout 04.06.11 at 10:38 am

I read this book last summer, and have since re-read it, and returned to Montaigne himself…his complete essays are available as a Kindle download, and are now readily available on laptop and ipod.

His words never lose their freshness, vivacity and engagement. Bakewell’s book is an encouragement to reread, as well as a concise and witty introduction. I have used it with my 16-18 students who have encountered Montaigne as rather dry extracts in the original French with very little context from my Francophone colleagues.

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