Michel de Montaigne ~ an Inspiration on ‘How to Live’

Lucy shared excerpts with me from Sarah Bakewell’s book, ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne‘. This 16th Century diarist is one originator of the modern penchant for describing everything we experience and think about, as it happens to us in minute detail. In particular he was obsessed by dying until a near death experience relieved him of the worry. A hazardous fall from his horse at the then mid-life age of 36, altered his outlook.

“In dying, he now realised, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of your soul’. Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.”

“He particularly liked the story of Marcellinus, who avoided a painful death from disease by a gentle method of euthanasia. After fasting for several days, Marcellinus laid himself down in a very hot bath. No doubt he was already weakened by his illness; the bath simply steamed the last breaths of life out of him. He passed out slowly, and then he passed away. As he went he murmured languorously to his friends about the pleasure he was experiencing.”

The strange thing about Montaigne’s experience was that in the aftermath of his fall he had been convulsing violently, in what appeared to be a disturbed manner, yet simultaneously he felt very light and floaty; he was enjoying a sort of ecstasy!

He wrote, ‘If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.”

He said it is best to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’

“Through this discovery of gliding and drifting, he lost much of his fear, and at the same time acquired a new sense that life, as it passed through his body was a very interesting subject for investigation.”

He was very taken with contemplation and wrote, ‘let us cut loose from all the ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease.’

He regarded Seneca’s advice for achieving peace of mind; ‘focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.’

And Pliny, ‘each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.’

Of his own essay writing Montaigne wrote, ‘It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilise the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.’

Bakewell writes, “He was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition – sleep – that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him”!

I found Bakewell’s analysis quite soothing, and her snippets of Montaigne intoxicating. Thank you Lucy for pleasurable advice on how to live.