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How to Live

December 8, 2010

Dumonstier-17th century portrait of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Over the past few days I have been reading Sarah Bakewell’s new biography of the 16th century French essayist, nobleman and public servant Michel de Montainge entitled How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Bakewell’s unique approach frames her portrait not as a series of snapshots but rather as twenty shorts not unlike YouTube videos in word alone.

As Bakewell notes, the question borrowed from the man himself which serves as the basis of her examination of his life and work is a very different question than the ones we usually ask. Neither she nor Montaigne is asking how we shouldlive or how we do live or how others live and what lessons we should take from their lives. Rather the question is something much closer to this: What does the act of living entail?

How we participate in and experience the world around us begins with how we experience ourselves. Yet we often fail to take the time to ask ourselves who we are or how we feel or what it is that makes us feel fulfilled or sad, anxious or curious, or how we know the difference between any such complex emotions. Even simple experiences like the sensation of warmth or rain often eludes us as we hurry to our next engagement.

For a 16th century man of high station and extensive education, Montaigne took great interest in even the most mundane details of daily life; not only his own life but also the lives of the peasants and townspeople around him. His observations and musings reflect not only an innate curiosity about himself and the world but a willingness to put himself in others’ places. In doing so, he developed a deep reluctance to draw definitive conclusions about the things he saw and felt.

This tendency makes reading Montaigne even today seem more like reading a well-written blog than something scrawled on parchment in the dim light of a candle over a 20-year period more than 400 years ago. Indeed, Montaigne was a very modern man and someone whose thoughts about the current state of our world I cannot help but wonder about.

What attracts me to Montaigne more than any other feature of his writing though is his desire to use the essay — a form that he practically invented — as a window into his own consciousness, as an attempt to peel back the layers of the onion of his own understanding and wipe away the tears of bias that cloud his vision of the truth. The truth Montaigne seeks and the one we seek as homeland security professionals is not something profound and unapproachable. Rather it is that which lies before us at all times.

We need not ask what motivates others to behave as they do to understand their intentions. All we have to do is look at our own actions and ask with all humility and without expectation of certainty: What are we doing? What makes us do it? And what do we hope to achieve from doing it?

Ever the pragmatist — even before there was such a thing to be called — Montaigne takes both sides in the question of living in turbulent times. The conflicts of his age involved protestants and Catholics, and were every bit as savage as those we see playing out today. Rather than taking sides or endorsing conflict as a means of resolving disputes, Montaigne takes the view in his essay “Of Experience” that such events reflect the flawed but full expression of the human condition. Savagery and civility are both rooted in human reason and emotion.

I recommend Bakewell’s intriguing treatment of this important historical figure. And I welcome your observations  about how we might learn lessons from our own experience and actions that will expose our biases and improve our appreciation of others as we confront turbulent times and the conflicts in the world around us.


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