The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne

The art of the introduction is dying. It used to be that when you opened, say, a Penguin or Oxford classic you’d find a short, engaging tour d’horizon, quirky in the English style and focused on essentials. It predisposed you to give the author an even break. Today you bang your knee instead against belabored essays by scholars who think “foreground” and “background” are verbs. They lecture you on the narrow historical context they’ve banished the book to and its ordained place in the author’s development; then it’s on to mind-numbing debates about which manuscript or folio or annotated edition or critical commentary (their own) is to be preferred.

What they never tell you is why you should read the book. Doesn’t it occur to publishers that while this scholarly detritus may have a place in footnotes and appendices, it does not constitute an introduction, whose function is, well, to introduce? When any of us presents someone or something to another person, the first thing we try to convey is why he, she, or it might matter. You must try this, you must meet her. But apparently publishers have concluded that appeals to taste or pleasure or (why not) truth are bad for the college market, so we are left with these grim checkpoints guarding the border between the us and the author, protecting him from any embrace. I forbid my students to read them.

What a delight, then, to come upon Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, an engaging introduction to the life and thought of Michel de Montaigne, and a pleasure to read. Here is a writer whose love for her subject is so infectious that some readers might abandon her halfway through and plunge straight into the Essays. It is not the sort of introduction that would have been written a half-century or more ago, when it could be assumed that readers would be familiar with Montaigne and his place in the historical unfolding of European philosophy and literature.

Bakewell begins at ground zero, much as Montaigne did, without assuming anything more than that her readers have an interest in themselves and a desire to live well, which she addresses by cleverly organizing her book as a series of suggestions Montaigne makes for doing just that. (“Don’t worry about death,” “Give up control,” “Reflect on everything; regret nothing,” “Be ordinary and imperfect.”) She’s generous toward her subject, keeping herself out of sight and never dumbing him down, or dumbing him up into the kind of systematic philosopher he mocked. The connections she makes between his life and his thought are unforced, and her deft discussion of the historical background, especially the twists and turns of the Wars of Religion, is as detailed as it needs to be but not more. She is an excellent guide for first-time readers of the Essays today.

Why today? Because her Montaigne is so congenial to contemporary tastes. We live in a self-revealing age that prefers memoirs to fiction or poetry (unless they…

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