Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive … so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Right now I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. A concentration camp survivor and a psychologist, Frankl created what is now school the “Third Vienesse School of Psychotherapy,” in which Frankl posits a will to meaning in contrast with Adler’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure. (The Germans and Austrians have a strange fascination with “will” that I find difficult to empathize with.)

Logotherapy is often called existentialist because of its preoccupation with preventing nihilism, and its conviction that humans make their own meaning. Frankl thought that humans could find meaning in any circumstances, even in the dehumanizing torture of a concentration camp. This meaning is what gives us resolve, courage, and hope. Thus, in his therapy sessions, Frankl encouraged his patients to find a meaning in their situation, whatever it was.

This reminded me of the above quotation by Joseph Campbell. As soon as I heard it (Campbell said this in the course of an interview with Bill Moyers), I was struck by how similar his view was to mine. Life, in itself, is meaningless; meaning only exists in experience.

I know from experience that people are apt to get upset when I say this. “What do you mean that life is meaningless?” they say, aghast. Even Bill Moyers, normally in accord with Campbell’s views, fought him on this point. So I think it’s worth specifying what is being argued.

In the past I used to torture myself about the meaning of life. “What is the point of it all?” I would ask myself. “Sooner or later everything will come to an end. The sun will swallow the earth, and entropy will increase until the universe decays into a pool of heat. And in any case, whatever I do or accomplish in my life won’t change the fact that I’m going to die, and thus lose everything.”

Viewed from this perspective—human life as viewed from the cosmos, that is, from nowhere in particular—everything thing I did and could do seemed totally pointless, absurd, just the twitching of organic matter on a watery rock. Viewed this way, as a small-scale physical phenomenon, life is just as meaningless as an asteroid, a star, or the vacuum of space. Joseph Campbell put it nicely when he said: “I don’t believe life has a purpose. Life is a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.”

Life is not unique in this respect. Simply nothing has meaning in itself. Meaning is not a property of objects, and thus has no objective existence. (By objective I mean existing without any observer.) Life exists in itself, and has certain discoverable properties, such as that it chemically reproduces itself. But that’s just a physical process; it’s just as “meaningful” as the nuclear fusion that goes on inside the sun.

This is a consequence of the nature of meaning. In order for meaning to exist, there must exist some perspective; meaning is necessarily subjective—it exists in the mind of an observer. Thus people are committing a category mistake when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Life, in itself, cannot have a meaning, in just the same way that sugar, without anybody to taste it, doesn’t have a taste. Like life, sugar has a certain objective reality as a chemical; and like life’s meaning, the sweet flavor of sugar only exists in experience.

Experience, then, is where the meaning of life is to be found. But every second of experience is unique and different. Every moment is transitory and cannot be reproduced. Thus life has no permanent, fixed, unchanging meaning, but rather each moment of experience has a different meaning. Meaningfulness has thus no relationship with duration; something that lasts longer is not more meaningful than something that lasts a mere instant.

Once I began to think of meaning this way, as an interpretation that my mind imposes upon objective reality, then I ceased to be troubled by my bleak thoughts about the end of life and the universe. What does it matter if everything will end one day? My future end has no effect on my ability to enjoy my life now. And what does it matter if, viewed from nowhere, life is meaningless? I don’t view the life from nowhere, but from my own perspective. And because a meaning is an interpretation, and all interpretation is arbitrary, that means it is within my ability to choose how to see and understand the world.

There are some barriers to this, however. The main barrier, in my experience, is habit. We can become so used to doing the same thing, day after day, automatically and unthinkingly, that we forget that each moment is unique. Through routine, we become deadened to the distinctness of each passing second. But sometimes we can awake from this malaise, and re-experience the “rapture of being alive.” This rapture is simply the full awareness of the preciousness and uniqueness of each passing moment, achieved by being so fully and completely engaged in the moment that time seems to slow down.

For me and many others, great art, music, literature, and philosophy can do this. So can falling in love, or having a great conversation with a friend. Even moments of great pain can connect us to the rapture of being alive, if we experience them the right way.

I am reminded of something Louis C.K. said during an interview. He was driving in his car when, suddenly, he began to feel very sad. His impulse was to reach for his phone and text some friends—that is, to retreat into his habitual patterns—but, instead, he pulled over by the side of the road and let the emotions hit him. And although the moment was tremendously sad, it was also sublimely beautiful, because it broke through the apathy of routine and connected him with the reality of his experience.

David D. Burns, the psychologist, reported a similar experience when, as a medical student, he had to tell a family that their loved one was dying. He told them the news, and then broke down and cried; and although he recognized the tragedy of the situation, he also recognized that there was something precious and poetic about his sadness.

The more moments like these we have, the more alive we are. This is where meaning is to be found.

On the Meaning of Life

On the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?

Most thinking people, I suspect, ask themselves this at least once in their life. Some get rather obsessed by it, becoming existentialists or religious enthusiasts. But most of us deal with this question in a more foolproof way: by ignoring it. Indeed, when you’re enjoying yourself, this question—“What is the meaning of life?”—seems rather silly. It is usually when we feel depressed, anxious, frightened, nervous, or vulnerable that it arises to our minds, often with tremendous force.

I do not wish to delve too deeply into dubious psychoanalyzing as regards the motivation for asking this question. But it is worthwhile noting down why we so persistently ask it—or at least, the reasons why I have asked it. Most obviously, it is a response to the awareness of our own mortality. We are all going to die someday; our whole existence will come to an end; and this is terrifying. We can attempt to comfort ourselves with the thought that we will be remembered or that our children (if we have any) will perpetuate our line. Yet this is an empty form of immortality, not only because we aren’t around to appreciate it, but also because, however long our memory or our descendents last, they too will come to an end. All of humanity will end one day; that’s certain.

The famous “Death of God” (the decline of religion) in western history caused a similar crisis. If there was no God directing the universe and ordaining what is right and what is wrong; if there was no afterlife but only a black emptiness waiting for us—what was the point? Nihilism seemed to many to be inescapable. Existentialism grew up in this environment, which inherited many of the assumptions of Christianity while (for the most part) rejecting God Himself, which led to not a few tortured, tangled systems of thought that attempted to reconcile atheism with some of our more traditional assumptions about right and wrong and what it means to live a meaningful life.

I had fallen into this same trap by asking myself the question: “If everything will end someday and humans are only a small part of the universe, what is the point?” This question is very revealing, for it exposes some of the assumptions that, upon further reflection, don’t hold water. First, why is something more worthwhile if it lasts longer? Why do we need to imagine an eternal God and an eternal afterlife to feel secure in our meaningfulness? Do people who live to eighty have more of a meaningful life than those who make it to thirty? Put this way, it seems to be a rather dubious assumption. For my part, I can’t figure out what permanence has to do with meaning. And by the way, I also don’t think that the opposite idea—that life is meaningful because it is temporary—is more useful, even though it is a poetic sentiment.

I think all this talk about permanence and impermanence does not get to the essence of the word “meaning.” What is more, it is my opinion that, once we properly analyze this word “meaning,” we will see that this fateful question—“What is the meaning of life?”—will vanish before our eyes. And this is not because life has no meaning, but because the question is based on a false premise.

To begin, let us figure out what the word “meaningful” actually means. To do this, take something that we can all agree has meaning: language. Language is in fact the paragon of meaningfulness; it is a symbolic system by which we communicate. If words and sentences had no meaning, you would have no idea what I’m saying right now. But where does the meaning of a sentence lie? This is the question.

To answer this question, let me ask another: If every human perished in a cataclysmic event, would any of the writing that we left behind have meaning? Would the libraries and book stores, the shop signs and magazines, the instruction manuals and wine labels—would they have meaning? I think they would not.

We don’t even have to engage in a hypothetical here. Consider the Indus Script, a form of writing developed in ancient India that has yet to be deciphered. Researchers are now in the process of figuring out how to read the stone tablets. How should they go about doing so? They can weigh each of the tablets to figure out their mass; they can measure the average height and thickness of the lines; they can perform a chemical analysis. Would that help? Of course not. And this is for the obvious reason that the meaning of a tablet is not a physical property of an object. Rather, the meaning of the script lies wholly in our ability to respond appropriately to it. The meaning of the words exists in our experience of the tablets and our behavior related to the tablets, and is not a property of the tablets themselves.

I must pause here to address a philosophical pickle. It is an interesting debate whether the meaning of language exists in the minds of language-users (e.g. meaning is psychological) or in the behavior of language-users (e.g. meaning is social). This dichotomy might also be expressed by asking whether meaning is private or public. For my part, I think that there is a continuum of meaningfulness from private thoughts to public behavior, and in any case the question is immaterial to the argument of this essay. What matters is that meaning is a property of human experience. Meaning is not a property of objects, but is a property of how humans experience, think about, and behave toward objects. That’s the important point.

The reason the Indus Script is meaningless to us is therefore because it doesn’t elicit from us any consistent pattern of thoughts or actions. (Okay, well that’s not entirely true, since we do consistently think about and treat the tablets as if they were ancient artifacts bearing a mysterious script, but you get my point.)

By contrast, many things besides language do elicit from us a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions. Most people, for example, tend to respond to and think about chairs in a characteristic way. This is why we say that we know what chairs are for. The social purpose of chairs is what defines them—not their height, weight, design, material, or any other property of the chairs themselves—and this social purpose exists in us, in our behaviors and thoughts. If everyone on earth were brainwashed and told to think about these same objects as weapons instead of for sitting then chairs would have a different meaning for us.

Ultimately, I think that meaning is just an interpretation of our senses. A camera pointed at a chair will record the same light waves that are being emitted from the chair as I will; but only I will interpret this data to mean chair. You might even say that meaning is what a camera or any other recording device fails to record, since the devices can only record physical properties. Thus meaning, in the sense that I’m using the word, depends on an interpreting mind. Meaning exists for us.

I hope I’m not belaboring this point, but it seems to be worth a little belaboring since it is precisely this point people forget when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that most people mean “human life” when they ask this question, then we are led to the conclusion that this question is unanswerable. Human life itself—as a biological fact—has no meaning, since no fact in itself has meaning. In itself, “human life” has no point in the same way that the moon or saw dust has no point. But our experience of human life certainly does. In fact, by definition the human experience comprises every conceivable meaning. All experience is one endless tapestry of significance.

I see this keyboard below my fingers and understand what it is for; I see a chair to my right and I understand its purpose. I see a candle flickering in front of me and I find it pretty and I like its smell. Every single one of these little experiences is brimming with meaning. In fact, I would go further. I think it is simply impossible for an intelligent creature to have a single experience that doesn’t have meaning. Every time you look at something and you understand what it is, the experience is shot through with meaning. Every time you find something interesting, pretty, repulsive, curious, frightening, attractive, these judgments are the very stuff of meaning. Every time you hear a sentence or a musical phrase, every time you enjoy a sunset or find something tasty—the whole fabric of your life, every second you experience, is inevitably meaningful.

This brings me to an important moral point. Humans are the locus of meaning. Our conscious experience is where meaning resides. Consciousness is not simply a reflection of the world, but an interpretation of the world; and interpretations are not the sorts of things that can be right or wrong. Interpretations can only be popular and unpopular.

For example, if you “misunderstand” a sentence, this only means that most people would tend to disagree with you about it. In the case of language, which is a necessarily strict system, we tend to say that you are “wrong” if your interpretation is unpopular, because unless people respond to words and sentences very consistently language can’t perform its proper function. “Proper” meaning is therefore enforced by language users; but the meaning is not inherent in the words and sentences themselves. But in the example of a very abstract painting, then we tend not to care so much whether people interpret the painting in the same way, since the painting is meant to illicit aesthetic sensations and not transmit specific information. (In practice, this is all we mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective”—namely, that the former is used for things most people agree on while the latter is used for things that many people disagree on. Phrased another way, objective meanings are those to which people respond consistently, while subjective meanings are those to which people respond inconsistently.)

This is why meaning is inescapably personal, since experience is personal. Nobody can interpret your experience but yourself. It’s simply impossible. Thus conscious individuals cannot be given a purpose from the “outside” in the same way that, for example, a chair can. The purpose of chairs is simply how we behave toward and think about chairs; it is a meaning imposed by us onto a certain class of objects. But this process does not work if we try to impose a meaning onto a conscious being, since that being experiences their own meaning. If, for example, everybody in the world treated a man as if his purpose were to be a comedian, and he thought his purpose was to be a painter, he wouldn’t be wrong. His interpretation of his own life might be unpopular, but it can never be incorrect.

Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value. You cannot measure the worth of a life in money, friends, fame, goodness, or anything else. Valuations are only valid in a community of individuals who treat them as such. Money, for example, is only effective currency because that’s how we behave towards it. Money has value, not in itself, but for us. But a person does not only have value in the eyes of their community, but in their own eyes, and this value cannot be overridden or delegitimized. And since your experience is, by definition, the only thing you experience, if you experience yourself as valuable nobody else’s opinion can contradict that. A person despised by all the world is not worthless if she still respects herself.

In principle (though not in practice) meaning is not democratic. If everybody in the world but one thought that the point of life was to be good, and a single person thought that the point of life was to be happy, there would be no way to prove that this person was wrong. It is true, in practice people whose interpretations of the world differ from those of their community are usually put into line by an exercise of power. An Inquisition might, for example, prosecute and torture everybody that disagrees with them. Either this, or a particular interpretation imposes itself because, if an individual chooses to think differently, then they are unable to function in the community. Thus if I behaved towards money as if it was tissue paper, my resultant poverty would make me question this interpretation pretty quickly. But it’s important to remember that a king’s opinion of coleslaw isn’t worth any more than a cook’s, and even though everyone thinks dollar bills are valuable it doesn’t change the fact that they’re made of cotton. Power and practicality do not equal truth.

Thus we find that human life doesn’t have meaning, but human experience does; and this meaning changes from individual to individual, from moment to moment. This meaning has nothing to do with whether life is permanent or impermanent. It exists now. It has nothing to do with whether humans are the center of the universe or only a small part of it. The meaning exists for us. We don’t need to be the center of a divine plan to have meaningful lives. Nor is nihilism justified, since the fact that we are small and temporary creatures does not undermine our experience. Consider: every chair will eventually be destroyed. Yet we don’t agonize about the point of making chairs, since it isn’t important whether the chairs are part of a divine plan or will remain forever; the chairs are part of our plan and are useful now. Replace “chairs” with “our lives” and you’ve hit the truth.

You might say now that I’m missing the point entirely. I am interpreting the word “meaning” too generally, in the sense that I am including any kind of conscious interpretation or significance, explicit or implicit, public or private. When most people ask about the meaning of life, they mean something “higher,” something more profound, more noble, more deep. Fair enough.

Of course I can’t hope to solve this problem for you. But I will say that, since meaning resides in experience, and since all experience is personal, you cannot hope to solve the meaning of all human life. The best you can hope for is to find meaning—“higher” meaning—in your own experience. In fact, it is simply presumptuous and absurd to say “This is the meaning of human life,” since you can’t very well crawl into another person’s head and interpret their experiences for them, much less crawl into the heads of all of humanity. And in fact you should be happy for this, I think, because it means that your value can never be adequately measured by another person and that any exterior criterion that someone attempts to apply to you cannot delegitimize your own experience. But also remember that the same also applies to your attempts to measure others.

I will also add, just as my personal advice, that when you realize that meaning only exists in the present moment, since meaning only exists in your experience, much of the existential angst will disappear. Find the significance and beauty of what’s in front of your eyes. Life is only a succession of moments, and the more moments you appreciate the more you’ll get out of life. Don’t worry about how you measure up against any external standard, whether it be wealth, fame, respectability, love, or anything else; the meaning of your own life resides in you. And the meaning of your life not one thing, but the ever-changing flux of experience that comprises your reality.