Montaigne On Modern Living and Fulfillment

American Interest Online offers a book review with commentary on How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.  The review offers first insight into the peculiarities of Montaigne’s approach to his writings, and then on happiness itself, providing humanities scholars a cohesive argument on how their indulgence with the arts can lead to a fulfilling and happy life even in politically tumultuous times:

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.

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.

Read the full post here. Is this the ultimate lesson Montaigne teaches us, that by his example happiness is found best when not sought? Feel free to leave your thoughts below or on the EnCore Facebook page.

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