Usually when I see a title which contains the phrase How to Live, I’m expecting a cocktail of pseudoscience and faux spirituality on the back wall of a suburban Barnes & Nobles. But Sarah Blackwell, who teaches creative writing at City University in London and catalogs rare book collections for the National Trust, has pulled off something really special with her book, How to Live – or a Life of Montaigne.
Using the same prompt – the question of how to live – she weaves the life story of Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher best known for pioneering the essay as a format for serious writers, into a practical playbook for different situations you might find yourself in. It includes advice things like how to deal with the loss of a friend, how to get over the dread of death, how to reflect on your actions.
So this post was a bit easier to write because Montaigne imparts quite a few lessons. Let’s dive into them:
Don’t just read books, internalize them
In the summer between my Junior and Senior year of high school, I read Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. It was the first book I had read which took a single concept and traced its impact throughout history. I was hooked.
When I got back to school, I asked my teachers about other books like this – ones that provide broader explanations for how the world works through the lenses of a few concepts. I remember one of my teachers mentioned, “Sid, stop focusing on reading a new book. Try to internalize and live life using the lessons of the one that you just read.” That comment stuck with me but was tucked away at the back of my head.
When I read How to Live, a particular sentence brought back these memories:
He took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.
You listen to your family. For Montaigne, this was the purpose of books – the company and counsel of some of the smartest people that have ever lived. It’s something that we can try to copy.
In his career as a statesman, he was known as having a “tardy understanding” and a “weak imagination”. How could someone who is regarded as one of the most prominent Renaissance philosophers have a “weak imagination”.
Blackwell’s hypothesis is that he used this reputation as a facade for contrarian ideas:
He deliberately used his inert manner as a cover under which he could hide any number of “bold ideas” and independent opinions. His apparent modesty made it possible for him to claim something more important than quick wits: sound judgement.
He even had a signature phrase that embodied this trick. Having written an exhaustic and long essay on some serious topic which followed different tangents, he would append a “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” at end of it all. This had the opposite effect of underplaying his authority – by acknowledging his limitations, he gained trust with the reader.
This is a common trick played by some of the smartest people in the world. Warren Buffett has been known to say things like, “I’m just a slow Southern boy, could you repeat that for me?” when he notes something not to his liking.
This is also a flip side to this. Sometimes, coming across as intelligent can have real downsides. In my post on Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy on the Gawker–Hulk –Peter Thiel lawsuits, I talked about ho wPeter Thiel ultimately looses the tide of public opinion because they see him as a conniving billionaire using his vast resources to attack the sanctity of the free press.
Create a refuge in your home
On his library, Montaigne had this to say:
“Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!”
The point is not to have a large study or a basement ‘mancave’. It can just be a single table in your room when you can be alone with your thoughts and tune out the outside world. Other people can do this using music anywhere, but for me the physical place is important. So this resonated with me.