How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne


I’ve heard his name once in Eric Hoffer book. Didn’t think much back then, and honestly I had forgotten about him for long time.

One day I saw this book on sale, and picked it up without much thinking. Title seemed interesting enough.

Next several weeks (yes, I am a slow reader…) was amazing. Perfect introduction to Montaigne. But this book also talk about Montaigne’s teachers, mostly Greek philosophers, and readers and how they interpreted Montaigne’s works.

Now I want to read “Essays” by Montaigne, but also want to read some works by Greek philosophers whom Montaigne admired so much. Some books can inspire us to read other books, but this one did especially good job…

(I found paperback edition of “Essay” in Bangkok bookstore, but wow, that was one fat book…)


Here are some memorable parts:

(quotes in italics are by Montaigne himself)


If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.


The great Stoic Seneca repeatedly urged his fellow Romans to retire in order to “find themselves,” as we might put it. In the Renaissance, as in ancient Rome, it was part of the well-managed life. You had your period of civic business, then you withdrew to discover what life was really about and to begin the long process of preparing for death.


Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch’s own personality that comes across in his work: “I think I know him even into his soul.” This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the felling of meeting a real person across the centuries. Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them—much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us. It does not matter, he wrote, whether a person one loves has been dead for fifteen hundred years or, like his own father at the time, eighteen years. Both are equally remote; both are equally close.


The Epicurean writer Lucretius suggested picturing yourself at the point of death, and considering two possibilities. Either you have lived well, in which case you can go your way satisfied, like a well-fed guest leaving a party. Or you have not, but then it makes no difference that you are losing your life, since you obviously did not know what to do with it anyway.


We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and  laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.


They accuse me of inactivity in a time when almost everyone was convicted of doing too much.



How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Sarah Bakewell
Other Press (2010-10-19)
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