Quotes from How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

6 – (Bernard Levin) I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?”

10 – As the novelist Gustave Flaubert advised a friend who was wondering how to approach Montaigne: “Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.”

21 – M: If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

29 – (Pliny the Elder) Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain. And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man.

29 – (Euripides) How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely?

29 – (Sophocles) There is no more beautiful life than that of a carefree man; Lack of care is a truly painless evil.

36 – M: If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

43 – M: If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off – though I don’t know.

110 – (Stoics and Epicureans)… thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present… The catch is that both are almost impossible to do. So difficult are they that one cannot approach them head-on. It is necessary to sidle in from lateral angles, and trick oneself into achieving them.

111 – Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life.

112 – (Seneca) Place before your mind’s eye the vast spread of time’s abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity.

113 – (Epictetus) Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.

113 – M: If I had to live over again, I would lived as I have lived.

124 – Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this manoeuvre: in Greek, epokhe. It means ‘I suspend judgement’. Or in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: ‘I hold back.’ This phrase conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes.

127 – All Pyrrho renounced, according to Montaigne, was the pretension most people fall prey to: that of ‘regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth’.

136 – M: When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

150 – M: At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.

150 – M: The surest way to be taken in is to think oneself craftier than other people.

150 – M: Chance and caprice rule the world.

150 – They also aspired to be honnêteté, ‘honesty’, which meant a life of good morals, but also of ‘good conversation’ and ‘good company’. according to the French Académie’s dictionary of 1694.

155 – M (on a woman who’s thinking about someone else when making love to you): What if she eats your bread with the sauce of a more agreeable imagination?

160 – (Aristotle) A man should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.

162 – M: We should have wife, children, goods and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop of our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.

168 – M: Nothing costs me dear except care and trouble. I seek only to grow indifferent and relaxed.

168 – M: I avoid subjecting myself to any sort of obligation.

200 – (Nietzsche) Moderation see itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.

200 – Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions: for him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman.

214 – Montaigne reminded his contemporaries of the old Stoic lesson: to avoid feeling swamped by a difficult situation, try imagining your world from different angles or at different scales of significance.

219 – (Stefan Zweig’s eight freedoms) Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate: be master of your own life. Be free from death: life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.

221 – As Flaubert told his friends, ‘Read Montaigne… He will calm you.’ But, as he also added: ‘read him in order to live.’

224 – M: I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.

317 – M: I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.

320 – Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it. “(M) Our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.”

326 – M: Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

333 – I first met Montaigne when, some twenty years ago in Budapest, I was so desperate for something to read on a train that I took a chance on a cheap Essays translation in a second-hand shop. It was the only English-language book on the shelf; I very much doubted that I would enjoy it. There is no one in particular I can thank for this turn of events; only Fortune, and the Montaignean truth that the best things in life happen when you don’t get what you think you want.

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