How to live

‘Montaigne liked to present himself as an ordinary man, distinguished from others only by his habit of writing things down’.

I am halfway through Montaigne’s essays  and recommend them as great reflections to keep on your bedside table. If you are interested in the seismic shifts we have experienced in our hyperconnected age – the rise of the web, mobile devices and what ubiquitous social media has done to facilitate the sharing of inner lives – his writings are foundational.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592), I suspect, would have liked blogging, appreciated Twitter and managed his privacy settings on Facebook well.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell (quoted at the beginning of this post) explores the life and writings of Montaigne with a keen eye on his importance to what it is to be human today. Why write about Montaigne? asks Bakewell? I like her answers:

…he is one of the most appealing, likeable writers ever to have lived. Another is that he helped make us the way we are.  Had he not existed, or had his own life gone slightly differently, we too would be a little bit different.

Montaigne, born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth I, with his ability to explore a multiplicity of perspectives in his essays, we should note, preceded Shakespeare’s writings and explored human foibles, often his own, with amazing insight and sophistication. His rumination on death, and growing acceptance of its inevitability, make for particularly fascinating reading.

I believe that a taste of Montaigne’s essays and discussion about the revolutionary nature of his writings would be of use in understanding what is effectively, in some ways, the beginnings of sensibilities that are peculiar to our own era. Publication, as early as 1580, had been made possible by the rise and rise of the printing press in the previous century. It is obviously possible to publish much more quickly now (and with a lot less reflection).

Montaigne advised that children should not ‘trust authority’ and ‘pass everything through a sieve’. Teachers today understand the importance of developing critical literacy skills in students in this age of infowhelm and conspiracy theories. They also understand that children and teenagers are sharing much of their inner lives online. New community standards about privacy are evolving and need thoughtful discussion and evaluation. Multiple perspectives are indeed what we face in our pluralistic and open societies. Many skills are needed.

Bakewell discusses Montaigne’s legacy, using the example of the  The Oxford Muse, with the interesting, unusual and wonderfully titled self-portraits to be discovered at the site. To me it seems that more people are reflecting deeply, publicly, than ever before online. It is also true that a large majority are sharing, in a much more shallow way, through pithy status updates (and with inane lolcats in mind).

Or is this too shallow an analysis?

There is more (for students) to consider than one suspects (you’ll see what I mean if you clicked on the last link).

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by wallyg

Bakewell scribed a 7-part series on Montaigne for The Guardian that you will likely enjoy.

You can follow @Sarah_Bakewell on twitter too.

Have you read Montaigne or Bakewell? What are your favourite insights from their writings?

NB. I would read The English Dane by her too, if it was available on Kindle.


Slider Image Credit: Robert Burdock


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