How to Live: Montaigne and the Role of Exemplars

How to live, Montaigne and the Role of Exemplars

Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live or A Life of Montaigne may have a Frankenstein title, but the title perfectly represents what the book is trying to do. It is very much a biography of Montaigne. But it’s a biography organized around a series of life lessons drawn from his Essays and his life. Combining biography and practical philosophy makes sense. It makes sense in general, and it’s particularly logical when the subject of the biographer is a great practical philosopher.

Each chapter is part of an answer to the novel’s title and the question that is first and foremost for any practical philosopher — how should we live? It’s the most basic and important question there is. And while academic philosophers aren’t always directly concerned with that question or its answer, it’s really the one question each of us must answer — even if the answer is only explicit in what we do. Bakewell’s answers (and her Chapters) run the gamut from Socratic philosophy (Answer: Question everything) to the mundane (Answer: See the world) to the Zenlike (Answer: Let life be its own answer).

Within those chapters, Bakewell mixes traditional biography, Montaigne’s writing, and a dollop of her own reflections on the kind of answer we might take from the combination of the two. And though the book is markedly unusual, I think this is what biography is meant to be.

After all, we can read biography as history, but that makes it necessarily a “great man” kind of history — a form which has largely (and to some extent deservedly) fallen out of favor. A better use of biography is the exploration of an interesting life. And that exploration is necessarily an exercise in practical philosophy. Its question may look like “how did X live” but to the reader the real question is “What does how X lived tell me about how I should live?” Bakewell, like Montaigne, makes the connection explicit.

Why Biography Matters

Any answer to the question “How should I live?” must reduce — eventually — to what should I do now? And that question turns out to be neither simple nor (purely) economic. The choices we make determine (or influence) the experiences we have. Those experiences, in turn, will change or influence who we are and what we value. All experience is transformational in this way, but some experiences are necessarily transformational. If you enlist in the military or pick a career or choose to have a child, you are making a choice about what to do, but you are also making a choice about who to become. These big transformational choices are important; the most important choices we make. And because they can change what we value, they cannot be made the way we make most optimization decisions. We can’t just pick the version of us that will optimize our preferences, because all those versions of us will have different values.

So, how do we make these “who to be” and “how to live” decisions? All the data we have for making them comes from other people. Almost everything we know about how to live, what kind of life is possible, and what kind of person we could be, we learn by looking at other people’s lives. I don’t mean books — though we do learn from books of course. But long before we’ve ever picked up a novel, we’ve learned a huge amount about love, caring, affection, humor, discipline, punishment, play, and thinking from our parents. Parents are the first exemplars in everyone’s life. Then we learn from our siblings and our friends and our enemies and our tormentors and our bosses and our co-workers and our children. No matter how long we live, the lives of the people around us are the single most profound library we have for learning how to live. Not only do these lives help us understand what’s possible (very few of us will ever invent a new way to live), they clarify what’s admirable and good to us. We learn what we value by learning what we like and admire.

Yet for most of us, there is something parochial about the lives that surround us. The lives we experience directly, even if they are exceptional lives, are only a tiny sample from which to understand the potential of a life. And that’s where novels, stories, movies, plays, and…yes…biographies begin to matter. We learn about love, daring, courage, ambition, and honor mostly from books. Great writers help us understand what kind of lives are possible and no great author has ever avoided their own commentary on which of those lives are admirable. The core of novelistic greatness isn’t verbal facility, it’s the ability to draw in words who people are and bring us to a better understanding of their worth. What’s more, the novel (at least) is always concerned not just with who people are but how they change.

Transformational experience is THE business of the novel. And transformation is effected not simply by a decision to change, but by the reaction and influence of the people around that character. Every great novel is a novel of transformational choice, a story about a way (or ways) to live, and a description of how choices play out in the world of the novel.

Yet because the novelist controls every aspect of that world, when we read a novel, we are always suspicious of the transformation and the consequences. Would it really be like that? Much of what we judge a novel by is the degree to which we assent to the author’s reality. Yet the more skilled the author, the greater the chance that we are being fooled.

Biography can never represent the world of choice and transformation with the clarity of a novel. Life is messy and complicated. Life never produces a perfect model. No biographer can reveal the interiority of the subject. Yet biography has one great advantage. It removes our existential doubt. This person did exist. This is how society reacted to their choices. This is what they became, this is the life they led, this is the work they produced. And because biographies are necessarily the domain of big, interesting lives, they have plentiful lessons to teach about what kind of life can be led and what sort of person it is possible to be.

The Problem with Exemplars

People reared in the tradition of epistemological suspicion will always doubt whether a biography could possibly represent a person as they were. That suspicion is surely fair if largely pointless. Nothing will ever give us certainty about anyone — even people with whom we have lived our entire life much less a person long dead. Yet biography as an input to transformative choice does have two fundamental limitations. For someone to be a useful exemplar for us, we must believe that the kind of life they led is possible for us today. And, more subtly, we must believe that it’s possible for someone like us to learn from the life of the subject.

We are fortunate to live in a time when a nearly infinite range of lives can be lived. Still, no culture can offer every kind of life and, in fact, our culture forecloses a surprising number of lives. You can be a monk if you want to be, but you cannot be a monk in a society that values monks. The difference is profound. If you hope to learn anything from the life of St. Benedict (and there are certainly things to be learned), you’ll need to remember that being a monk in his world was nothing like being a monk in ours. Nor need we look for anything as seemingly esoteric (to modern eyes) as being a monk. It is quite hard in our society to lead the kind of agrarian community life that was the most common way of human living until quite recently. Nor, to the example of Montaigne, can you live the life of at titled gentleman.

This doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from a life lived in a time or place very different than ours. But it does limit the kind of learning that can be had. We can’t live THEIR life in the way that we might live the life of Musk or Obama or Swift. We can’t be just like them. And we must constantly be interrogating their reality to see if what we admire might still exist. Is Montaigne’s casual confidence in his position in the world, his sometimes dilettantism, his ability to go on vacation for 18 months at a time, possible in our world? Maybe. Are they desirable? Perhaps. But these questions are more difficult to answer than they would have been for many of Montaigne’s original readers.

We may decide that some part of who Montaigne is and how he lived can and should be transmuted into our world. He lived, for example, at a time of extraordinary religious faction. Yet though he played a role in public policy, he managed to avoid partisanship. Is our time so different? Ideology may have replaced religion, but the battles are just as (or perhaps rather more) ridiculous.

Here’s how Bakewell puts it:

“As to the political difficulties of being caught between sides, Montaigne typically belittled these. It is not really difficult to get on when caught between two hostile parties, he wrote; all you have to do is to behave with a temperate affection towards both, so that neither thinks he owns you. Don’t expect too much of them, and don’t offer too much either.”

Montaigne’s simple formula might still hold true today and no one who has ever dealt with the idiots of faction should underestimate how much mental effort this attitude will require. If it really was easy for Montaigne, this suggests most of us will have a very long road to becoming like him.

Which presents the second problem we must always consider when thinking about who we admire and how they live. There are many admirable people. Montaigne lived around the same time as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Henry VIII and Hernan Cortes. All “great” men who led interesting lives; some rather more admirable than others. But if we are trying to learn what kind of life might be possible for us and what kind of person we should try to become, it is not enough to admire Da Vinci or Michelangelo or Montaigne. You must have a sense that some important part of what you admire in them is possible for you. I may admire Michelangelo but think that there is little for someone like me — lacking even a small dollop of artistic ability or passion — to learn from him.

Montaigne is hardly exempt from this but with Montaigne there is the advantage that appreciation of his work is very much self-qualifying. If you are an admirer of his Essays, then you probably share enough in common with him to learn from them. But if the meandering, skeptical, intellectual and slightly sardonic coolness of the Essays isn’t your cup of tea — you probably won’t be interested in Montaigne as an exemplar anyway.

That’s not true for most “great” lives. We can admire Lincoln, Einstein, Michelangelo, or Ghandi without thinking that we have much of anything in common with them. Can most of us learn anything from the life of Mozart? I doubt it. Perhaps other child prodigies might find something in his life to think about. For the rest of us, his experience of life with an extraordinary gift isn’t very useful. Whatever Mozart did might be fine for Mozart, but we’re not Mozart.

In that regard, I found Bakewell’s chapters rather like the Essays themselves — a mixed bag. Nothing, for example, in Montaigne’s travels (A: See the world) impressed me with any belief that they mattered to him or would to me. Yes, Montaigne brought his open, fresh, and questing mind to all the places he visited with typically entertaining and illuminating results. But none of that cast of mind came from travel. He’d already written the first version of the Essays before he ever left his estate. And if there’s something admirable in Montaigne’s middle-aged freshness of mind, it isn’t due to travel but something he brought to travel.

The book is at its best distilling down Montaigne’s pragmatic approach to living a good life. Answers like “Keep a private room behind the shop” or “Philosophize only by accident” capture Montaigne’s insistence on the habits of life, thought and job that worked best for him. These probably aren’t the things that will work best for you or me. We aren’t landed gentry, and we aren’t Montaigne. But Montaigne is a fine exemplar of pushing oneself to think practically and intelligently about how to live.

We make choices about who to be all the time. We do so with far less clarity and consciousness than Montaigne brought to the task.

Bakewell’s biography/philosophy book may not (and probably should not) convince you to live like Montaigne did. But it really should convince you to think, as did Montaigne, a little more about how to live. That’s a considerable achievement.

If history teaches us what kind of society may be possible and how cultures change, biography provides the same rich material about persons and lives. Neither history nor biography can do what the novel does. The world is too messy, chaotic, and complicated to ever really “have a point.” And while biography may delve deeply into an actual life, it cannot transmute that life into our culture and our time. That remains the work of the artist. Still, if the messiness and chaos of the world limit and obscure the clarity of biographical learnings, they also provide something a novel cannot — the assurance that a culture or a life is truly possible.

We rarely think very explicitly about who to be, how to be, or, to Bakewell’s title, how to live. Yet the people we experience, the novels we read, the lives we come upon, and the histories we encounter all matter. They are the background against which we glean what is possible, what is admirable, and what we may become.

If Bakewell’s biography is uniquely transparent about this, that’s a good thing. All biography is about how to live, and where better than with the life of Montaigne, to make the connection explicit.

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