Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a Renaissance nobleman, public official, and winegrower, wondered about such things as how to get along with people and how to adjust to the loss of someone you love--essentially, how to live. He explored these questions in a new form of writing for the time that he called essays, meaning attempts at understanding. He gave these digressive and personal essays titles like Of Friendship, How We Laugh and Cry for the Same Thing, Of Thumbs, How Our Mind Hinders Itself, Of Experience.
Sarah Bakewell discovered Montaigne serendipitously, as the only book available in English to while away the time on a train ride in Budapest. Her biography conveys her great affection and admiration for Montaigne, telling the story of his colorful life through the questions he posed and the answers he and his readers over the past four centuries have found in his companionable, witty, and wise writing.
Bakewell says in her Acknowledgements that discovering Montaigne's essays taught her "the Montaignean truth that the best things in life happen when you don't get what you think you want." If this is true, then what does this mean for those often guilt-inducing New Year's resolutions and the bigger question, always hovering over all we do, of how to live? In an article Bakewell wrote for The Independent that was published January 1, 2010, she suggests that Montaigne would tell us not to make resolutions. "He did think, though, that valuable lessons could be learned from looking over a life and taking a longer perspective. Instead of clean breaks and new intentions, what Montaigne sought in his past experience was greater self-understanding. There would always be puzzling areas, but he tried to become familiar with his weaknesses so as to work around them. . . . . This is very different from making resolutions. It does not mean rejecting past actions, but accepting and even embracing them in order to become what Montaigne calls 'wise at our own expense.'"
We hope you will join the discussion as we take Montaigne as our guide: Tuesday, January 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, January 19, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.