book report-how to live

By on March 7, 2016

Ok, as mentioned in an earlier post, Annette and I read “How to Live” by Sarah Bakewell.  In one question, 20 attempts at an answer-based on “The Essays” of Montaigne.

I really liked this book.  It was very thought provoking.  One of the reasons is that the Essays of Montaigne were written between 1580 and 1587.  It is amazing how the things people were thinking about in 1580 are the EXACT same things people think about today.  Montaigne did not claim himself to be a philosopher at all.  So it was quite lovely to read about a guy who was just guessing at how to be comfortable in life-and was never claiming to know it for sure.  There is something notable in reading “suggestions” on how to live, as opposed to “must dos”.  I am well aware of my propensity to hate being bossed-and I’m sure this has something to do with my reaction to this book.  I know I like to figure things out for myself, but I don’t mind listening to some sage advice to help me figure things out.  This is what I think this book contains.  Sage advice to help you figure shit out for yourself.

How to live:  Don’t worry about death.  This is the first chapter of the book and it was soothing.  When reading this chapter, Dad was very sick.  And we were all afraid.  However, Montaigne talks about his near death experience and how it changed his entire outlook on death.  He had a sort of out of body experience that led him to see death clearly.  “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”  Basically, don’t worry about death.  In his experience, even if death appears to be painful and horrible from the outside, what the person actually experiences is peaceful.  It’s handled.  And its really nothing to worry about.  This chapter in the book helped me to be more accepting of what may come with regards to Dad and his illness.  It also made me more accepting of what may come for me and anyone else.  He said don’t worry about death, worry about living.  Because, death is handled for you.  That’s pretty liberating.

How to live:  Pay attention.  This chapter talks about how Montaigne decided at age 38 to take a break from work.  Pardon.  That got my attention.  This guy, back in 1571 decided to retire as he wasn’t really “feeling it” in his current job of magistrate in Bordeaux.  So he quit to focus on things that he was interested in.  And he wasn’t even all that sure about what he was interested in either.  Seems all very familiar to a girl of 42 in Victoria in 2016.

How to live:  Question everything.  This chapter is humble.  He goes into how no one ever really knows anything.  And so much of your perception can change, easily.  And it’s good to keep that in mind at all times.  Never be so sure.  “The simplest perceptions cannot be relied upon”.  If you’re hungry, you think differently than a person that has just had a meal.  If it’s sunny, you think differently than if its grey.  If you have a fever, you think differently than if you’re well.  “We and our judgement, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly.  Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion”

How to live:  Be convival: live with others.  This chapter is kind.  He talks about how important it is to visit and debate.  It’s key to have friends who you can disagree with respectfully so you can open your mind to other perspectives.  He also talks about being open and kind to all beings, humans and animals.  He even talks about the commonly used “we are all one” sentiment that is popular today.  “We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it.  There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.” 

How to live:  See the world.  OK.  Now the world in 1580 was a lot harder to get around and Montaigne really only stuck around Europe.  But he thought it was important to “run and polish his brains by contact with strangers”.  He thought it was important to live as a local and eat local food and observe local customs.  I guess I will give that a go.

How to live:  Be ordinary and imperfect.  Well if that doesn’t give you permission to chill the fuck out, I don’t know what will.  “I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter.  You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff”  I think this means to be careful what you’re aiming for-because a simple life is the same as a rich life.

There was also a chapter called “Give up control”.  But I’m not quite ready for that one.


1 Comment
  1. Reply


    March 8, 2016

    I think it is so incredible that the thoughts reflected in a book written in 1500 still apply today! I definitely have to put this one on my reading list. Thanks for summarizing the thoughts. It all makes sense.


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