Book Review: How to Live - by Sarah Bakewell


Sarah Bakewell wrote a very good biography of Jean-Paul Sartre, but I think this is an even better book. It’s in part a biography of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th Century French Renaissance Philosopher, but it’s also a superb piece of writing that extracts many of the key points from his writing and makes them relevant to modern in life in an interesting and entertaining way. Highly recommended. I’ll certainly look out for more of her books.

My notes

Montaigne was a very interesting man, who essentially created the genre of the essay. He thought about how to live a good life, not in the sense of ethics or religion, but in the sense of a satisfying, honourable one.

Although he read widely and was intensely curious about people and history, he wrote about what he did, and what it felt like when he was doing it.

To philosophize is to learn how to die.

Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, not worth wasting any anxiety over.

Retiring = leaving the mainstream of life in order to begin a new, reflective existence, of freedom, tranquillity, and leisure. To live for himself rather than for duty. Seneca repeatedly urged his fellow Romans to retire in order to “find themselves.”

Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.

To see the world exactly as you did half an hour ago is impossible.

Most of Montaigne’s thought consists of a series of realizations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.

Traveling is useful; so is socializing

A perfect gentleman: independent of mind yet able to mold himself to society when necessary.

Opt out of public life rather than engaging with it.

Shifts of attitude are the purpose of many of the thought experiments. A different angle produces a different emotion.

If you feel tired of everything you possess, pretend that you have lost all these things and are missing them desperately. Faced with the idea of losing something now, you realize its value.

Uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view.

Considered himself an Epicurean rather than a Stoic.

Pyrrhonian Skepticism: “All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”

Pyrrhonian principle: lend your ears to everyone and your mind to no one.

It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. They were inclined to “a silly and decrepit pride, a tedious prattle, prickly and unsociable humors, superstition, and a ridiculous concern for riches.”