Maybe the most important book I read last year was “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts” by Sarah Bakewell. She took inspiration from famous Montaigne’s essays, in which he tries to answer the ages-old questions of how to live a good life. But he is not a preacher; He is more like a life-long companion, who tries to answer some of the practical questions one encounters through his lifetime. Montaigne does not judge, but simply analyses and tells this thoughts. Maybe the strongest moral point is that there are no rules in life, and each situation will demand a different reaction. But maybe the most important lesson from the book is the warmth it brings to the reader. You truly feel connected to the stories Michel tells, as they are happening to you, and would just like to clap him on his shoulders and tell him: “I feel the same, bro“.
Maybe the thing I was thinking a lot about is the fact that he lived in one the darkest periods of human history: 16th century in Europe. It was the time of inquisition, civil wars, and in Montaigne’s case, prosecution of Huguenots in France. It was a period of terror and death, and it is quite amazing where did he find the force to write his beautiful essays. He was no ignorant, and was (often against his will) travelling to Italy and Paris. He was fully aware of pogroms. But I really admire how he could put it on the side and focus on what he really cared about – a truly good life. He focused on the beauty in the darkest of times, which is a true virtue. The times you are born into determine you, willingly or not. Montaigne surpassed the negative vibe of the 16th century, which is something I would like to do one day, too. Not necessary the negativity, but the limitations of the time and age. Some things are beyond the limits of day-to-day life.
He started writing his essays soon after a tragic personal experience when he almost died at the age of 20 from a fall from a horse. And he was severely devastad by the death of his school friend and poet Étienne de la Boétie (famous for his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude; people voluntarily give their power to the tyrants to rule over them). It is even possible that he started to write his essays from a strong need to communicate with him. There is 107 of them, varying in length. Their titles are: Of Fear, Of death, Of sleep, Of moderation, and so on. The beautiful thing about them is the clarity and modernity of the language. His text don’t feel archaic at all. Nowadays they are even available free on the internet.
During his explorations he often contradicts himself, and he is truly aware of that. To resolve it, he often concludes his essays with “je ne sais pas“, I don’t really know. It is not important. There are no many universal truths in life, and scepticism is good to cope with it. Just keep wondering and questioning. And if you ever feel lost in life, read him. He will be there on your side.