Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer
by Sarah Bakewell
Chatto & Windus, 2010, 387 pp., $26.88
Can a retired 16th-century French provincial magistrate teach us how to live today? Sarah Bakewell’s engaging and idiosyncratic biography of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne suggests that the answer, in some quite subtle and interesting ways, is that he can. To judge by the enthusiastic reviews and healthy sales for Bakewell’s book since it was published in Britain early last year and this past October in the United States, many critics and readers would seem to agree.
The success of Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is perhaps less surprising than it initially appears. It’s not hard to see how a writer whose main subject was himself might appeal to an age as marked by individual self-absorption as our own. Modern Western readers, apparently torn (or lurching endlessly back and forth) between crippling self-doubt and exaggerated self-belief, display an insatiable appetite for anything promoting what has come to be thought of as self-help. That explains, I suppose, why my own paper, the London Times, ushered in 2011 with a two-part special features section offering readers “quick boosts” for minds and bodies supposedly worn out by another year of just being alive. “New Year, New You”, it optimistically proclaimed.
I’m not sure Montaigne would entirely have grasped this sort of thing. The refreshed mind part, perhaps; the body boost I suspect not, especially not in some of its more elaborate contemporary forms. Bakewell, a British-Australian Jill of many trades turned serious writer, instructs us further that even some of Montaigne’s contemporaries and subsequent admirers were unsettled by his frank interest in his own bodily frailties and appetites. He wrote about things that many other writers preferred not to mention, so much so that Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one, while acknowledging his enthusiasm for Montaigne, nevertheless felt obliged to concede somewhat apologetically that “his French freedom runs into grossness.” I suspect, however, that Emerson’s gross 16th-century Frenchman would have found some of the early January delights on offer in the 21st-century Times (“threading and tweezing” for “perfectly groomed eyebrows . . . with minimum pain and fuss”) no less exotic than he famously found human cannibalism, if rather harder to understand.
Bakewell, cleverly, has nonetheless managed to tap into the booming modern market for such “quick boosts” of wisdom (not all of them by any means as harmless as tips on eyebrow shaping), while actually writing a serious biography of a serious thinker from an age less like our own that we might solipsistically think. She’s not the first to take on such a task, of course. Superior literary lessons for life have become an established sub-genre of the self-help boom: How to Win Friends and Influence Readers of the Paris Review. Thus books such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life or John Armstrong’s Love, Life, Goethe have explored this territory in their different ways. Bakewell’s life of Montaigne combines some of the merits of de Botton’s knowing, entertaining intellectual squib and Armstrong’s thorough and absorbing biographical study. If her work enjoys a popular resonance greater than theirs—and I think it may—it’s most likely a tribute to its subject, Montaigne.
Bakewell had it easy compared to de Botton and Armstrong. It took considerable wit and ingenuity (which de Botton has) to draw lessons in self-help from the work of Proust. Proust, after all, spent most of the last 14 years of his life in bed, and his forbidding, irreducible masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is of a length that might be expected to restrict its readership, in the unsympathetic words of Proust’s rather more robust brother Robert, to people who are either “very ill or have broken a leg.” Goethe, for all Armstrong’s assiduous and engrossing efforts, is a no less dauntingly improbable exemplar than Proust, albeit for almost opposite reasons: Far from being a reclusive or delicate figure, he engaged with the literary, political, philosophical, artistic, theatrical, legal and scientific worlds of his day with a polymathic energy and practical directness that few of his readers, then or now, could hope to match. He even built roads, managed forests and inspected mines. To his contemporaries, he was in his later years an impressively heroic figure, a kind of living national monument.
Not so Montaigne. Or not quite. He was a bestselling author in his lifetime, something like a celebrity, and he has been widely read and greatly admired pretty much ever since. But his enduring appeal rests on his remarkable ordinariness. Or so Montaigne himself might have us believe. Central to Montaigne’s life and writing was his insistence, as Bakewell reminds us, that “every man embodies the whole pattern of the human condition.” So in choosing to “set forth” his own “humble and inglorious life” he was not driven by vanity. Rather, he knew that “you can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.”
That more or less sums up his approach. In the three volumes of Essais which he wrote and rewrote between about 1572, when he was not quite forty, and his death twenty years later, he tackled subjects as diverse as death, friendship, cruelty, names, smells, coaches, thumbs and, of course, cannibalism. The matter of these essays—he intended the term in the sense of attempts or exercises, and may be said more or less to have invented the genre as he wrote some several decades before Francis Bacon—is often remote from the titles he gave them. In almost all of them he ranges far and wide from his starting point, digressing at will, often ending up in the most surprising places. The essay “Of Vanity”, for example, takes on household management and domestic building works, astrology, the pleasures and hazards of travel and the disadvantages of umbrellas. An essay “Upon Some Verses of Virgil” starts with musings on old age and considers the place of women in the world, but turns out to be mostly about sex. “I ramble indiscreetly and tumultuously”, Montaigne wrote, “my stile and my wit wander at the same rate.” Throughout he manages, not entirely without art, to give the impression of being ready to commit to paper his every thought as it occurs to him, however trivial, undignified or confused it may be, as if he wants to capture the very process of thinking itself.
In all this his purpose was not to reach definitive conclusions about the subjects under discussion, nor to solve or even rigorously to consider the moral or philosophical problems that might seem to be at issue in each case. He was skeptical about the possibility of doing any such thing, fascinated as he was by the limits of human knowledge and reasoning. “Que sais-je?” was his favourite question—“What do I know?” As he examined all aspects of the world around him, his real focus was elsewhere:
I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself; I take stock of myself, I taste myself. . . . I roll about in myself.
Which brings us back, or at least sends us toward, our own day, does it not? Proust once observed how in a great work of literature we may be “delighted to find . . . those reflections of ours that we despised, joys and sorrows which we had repressed, a whole world of feeling we had scorned and whose value the book in which we discover them suddenly teaches us.” It’s a response that Montaigne, more than most, has prompted in his readers down the years. In the 17th century, for instance, Blaise Pascal, who disagreed with Montaigne and rather disapproved of him but who grappled obsessively with his work, wrote of the Essais, “It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find everything I see there”—rather proving Montaigne’s method if not his point, whether deliberately or not it’s still hard to say. Two centuries later, Emerson concurred: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.”
Bakewell writes vividly of the ways in which each age has created its own Montaigne for, as she implies, every age seems to need one. The writer’s contemporaries tended to view his digressions and his personal frankness as mildly baffling lapses of concentration or taste and responded instead primarily to his wisdom, his exploration and distillation of Hellenistic philosophy, the way he used the lessons of the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics to illuminate the events and problems of his own day. Progressive 18th-century thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire welcomed his liberal views on education, his ethnographical interest in other cultures, his tolerance of other points of view. The 19th-century Romantics created a personality cult around him, making pilgrimages to the tower on his Bordeaux estate where he retired to write, seizing above all on his profound devotion to his best friend, the jurist and poet Étienne de La Boétie, and his passionate, grieving response to La Boétie’s early death. Nearer our own time, Virginia Woolf took heart (and novelistic inspiration) from the honesty of Montaigne’s personal self-scrutiny, his openness to new experience, his unceasing determination to write everything down.
And today? Bakewell presents a thoroughly contemporary Montaigne, undogmatically liberal in his moral and social views, radically modern (even postmodern) in his freewheeling approach to the writer’s art. But I think she knows that Montaigne was in some crucial ways rather less like us than all this might suggest.
The superficial similarities are certainly striking. His avowed interest in every aspect of his own life and character and their frank revelation in prose of sometimes improvisatory immediacy have (to Bakewell and others) suggested affinities with the world of blogs and social media today. It would be wrong, however, to push this too far. Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.
He enjoyed his own company, it is true. As a civil and civilized man, he hoped his readers might enjoy it too. But he wouldn’t depend on that or on them. After the early loss of a dear friend, and the deaths of most of his children in infancy, dependency of any kind held little appeal. If only by way of self-preservation, he thought, every man should create for himself une arrière-boutique, a little room all his own behind the shop. That’s what he did.
Seen from this perspective, his decision in his late thirties, after a near-death experience in a riding accident, to give up his administrative judicial duties in Bordeaux and withdraw to his country estate, to devote his remaining years to reading, writing, thinking and “rolling about in” himself, looks almost inevitable. The image of the gentleman scholar in his study was almost a Renaissance archetype, an ideal sometimes owing as much to notions of social distinction as to a passion for intellectual pursuits. In Montaigne’s case, however, it became—and remains—an exemplary, inspirational individual response to life in a troubled world.
Was Montaigne Happy?
And troubled his world most certainly was. Montaigne lived through a period when religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant divided France, and he lived in a region where that murderous conflict was always particularly likely to become acute. Montaigne was not untouched by the turbulence of the times. Nor, even in his elective retirement, did he refuse entirely to become involved in the public realm. Himself a practicing Catholic who saw no great need to apply his generally questioning turn of mind to matters of personal faith, he served two terms as mayor of Bordeaux, a task calling at that time for considerable talents as a religious and intercommunal peacemaker. His diplomatic skills were further evident in his role in the delicate behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that helped eventually to bring about the reign of Henri IV. Yet he makes relatively little reference in his essays to the momentous events of the day, let alone to his own part in them.
To an extent, it was probably his carefully cultivated detachment, as well as his rare openness of mind, that kept him safe even as France’s religious wars raged more or less literally outside his door. As Bakewell understands, but perhaps does not emphasize enough, that same detachment is central to any effort to claim him as a man of our time no less than of his own.
Armstrong’s book on Goethe, in its British edition, was subtitled “How to be happy in an imperfect world.” Bakewell might easily have used a similar phrase to sum up what she thinks we can learn from the life and work of Montaigne. That search for happiness puts her 16th-century essayist right back at the core of an odd and intriguing 21st-century debate—a debate by no means confined to the private sphere that all those newspaper features sections and self-help books address.
For a variety of reasons, some obvious, some less so, the study of happiness seems in the past few years to have become a staple of political debate, in both its practical and its philosophical aspects. Thomas Jefferson may have made its pursuit one of the inalienable fundamentals of American independence, but governments in the United States and elsewhere have not, on the whole, taken too much interest in the precise forms their citizens’ happiness might take. Until recently, that is.
A couple of years ago in these pages (July/August 2008) Kenneth Minogue pondered this phenomenon, reviewing a raft of books from the burgeoning field of “happiness studies.” The problem with them all, he concluded, was that their attempts to pin down how happy people might be, and to suggest ways in which such research might come to inform or influence the decisions of policymakers in the public sphere, were always likely to founder because “happiness is so elusive an idea. Even conceptually it is hard to bring into a focus.”
Of course Minogue was right, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped politicians and political thinkers wanting to try. Former Harvard president Derek Bok last year produced a study of The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. Observing that increased prosperity has not necessarily brought increased happiness, he suggests that public officials might usefully revise some of their priorities. So far so good, though as soon as Bok moves on to specific proposals he runs into the difficulty highlighted by Minogue. Bok’s suggestions for promoting greater equality, better healthcare and so on would bring a warm feeling to any mildly paternalistic liberal, but I suspect that some of them might make at least a few readers of The American Interest very unhappy indeed.
Some public officials have nonetheless refused to be deterred. The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan famously makes policy on the basis of Gross National Happiness, a notion the kingdom’s former ruler formulated as long ago as 1972. (Some 27 years later, he lifted the national ban on watching television, which perhaps suggests that he was ultimately prepared to let his people become as dulled and troubled as everyone else.) Closer to my home, Tony Blair in the early years of his premiership liked to talk about the “quality of life” and to remind British voters that “money isn’t everything.” His young Conservative successor David Cameron, an enthusiast for such ideas when in Opposition, has gone further since taking office last year. In November he announced a plan to monitor British happiness. Quoting Robert Kennedy’s suggestion that conventional indicators of economic performance “measure everything . . . except that which makes life worthwhile”, he asked the nation’s Office of National Statistics to gather information on how people felt about all kinds of things, from their personal relationships to the state of the environment.
Closer to home for Montaigne, even as unsentimental a politician as President Nicolas Sarkozy has been thinking along similar lines. In 2009, he appointed a commission of twenty economists, among them Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to come up with a broader index of Gallic well-being than GDP. This, however, did not stop the French daily Le Parisien from beginning 2011 with a survey of international optimism that placed France firmly at the bottom of the global contentment league as the world’s gloomiest nation. (How the French could possibly have bested the Hungarians is hard to understand.)
It’s not difficult to see why politicians might want to shift the focus away from economic growth at a time when achieving high scores in that conventional measure of national happiness seems so elusive. There may well be some interesting long-term ramifications in such areas as education, healthcare, environmental policy, perhaps even in approaches to taxation. But the central problem of classical utilitarianism—happiness for whom, exactly?—will probably continue to bedevil any attempt to legislate on the basis of broader notions of well-being.
Where does Montaigne come into this? Well, as Minogue pointed out, the interesting thing about Jefferson’s formulation was that it was not quite as simple as it sounds. It involves “a logical trick”, in that
pursuing happiness is not like pursuing women, or works of art, or causes to embrace. It is, instead, a formal word referring to a non-pursuable characteristic of the satisfactions we find in achieving success in any of the very many projects by which we try to fulfil ourselves. The trick lies in the fact that we achieve it only by turning our gaze away from happiness itself, and concentrating on some concrete particular.
It’s a trick that Montaigne pulled off, again and again. The happiness he pursued was not the personal pleasure of utilitarian thought, let alone the “quick boosts” and easy (if esoteric) gratifications of modern self-help. His goal, as Bakewell reminds us, was the eudaimonia of Greek philosophy, an altogether fuller conception of human flourishing and joy. And he attained it by not seeking it. He focused, to borrow Minogue’s phrase, not on happiness itself but on concrete particulars, bringing to their contemplation what Bakewell describes as another “little trick” taken from the Greeks: ataraxia, which might be rendered equanimity or imperturbability. The result could be described in Montaigne’s case as a productively detached kind of engagement with life.
Are there really any lessons for us here? Montaigne would have said not. “Je n’enseigne point”, he wrote. “Je raconte.” He himself succeeded in carrying his thinking, his pursuit of happiness, over into the public sphere in ways that might be difficult to translate into 21st-century Western society.
There may be a lesson, nonetheless. At the very least, Montaigne’s example offers a valuable counterpoint to a media-driven, mediated modern culture that blurs the distinctions between public and private spaces, and public and private selves, and in which constant communication seems sometimes to mean no more than unceasing noise. Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.