Book Club: How Extremists Need Each Other

A reader winds down our discussion by tying the lessons of Montaigne to the current crisis in Gaza:

It seems to me the most compelling angle to look at Montaigne right now is how living through the civil war of religion in France his whole adult life shaped his philosophy of bookclub-beagle-trmoderation. I had no idea how bloodcurdling the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots were. That was just shy of half a century of neighbors dragging neighbors out in the streets to be tortured, killed, and perhaps slowly roasted over an open flame for witchcraft! All over what we now think of as slightly different flavors of Christianity!

Montaigne has been accused of being too bloodless and passive, with his stubborn refusal to pass definitive judgement and his pursuit of equanimity as a cardinal virtue. But if you consider the bloody backdrop of the times he lived through, his very moderation is the bravest and most radical stance I can think of.

As the mob violence spiraled out of control on both sides, the pressure to fall in line and declare the moral supremacy of your cause must be almost irresistible. In fact, “us or them” thinking would have been rational, in a prisoner’s dilemma kind of way. Instead, he championed the power of individual human dignity. Even amid war, he coolly proclaimed, the lives of most people are unaffected most of the time. For an observer of his caliber, that is a statement not of insensitivity but of quiet defiance. Life goes on.

He lived according to his philosophy of modest courage. For instance, he chose not to fortify montaigne.jpgthe defenses for his estate even as anarchy engulfed the countryside. Instead, he hosted travelers so graciously that one group who planned to rob him changed their minds. Politically, he was a passionate moderate who believed the civil war was a political problem with a political, not theological, solution. He complained that as a Catholic with many Protestant friends, he was considered “a Guelph to the Ghibellines and a Ghibelline to the Guelphs”. He toiled as a go-between for the king and the protestant Henry de Navarre.

It seems to me that the true fight that is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the moderates on both sides trying to hold the line against the absolutists on both sides. Even though the ultimate goals for the extremists on both sides are diametrically opposite, their medium-term goal is actually the same: to escalate conflict and prevent any compromise from tainting the purity of their victory. Unfortunately, it is shockingly easy to escalate conflict, especially with partisans on both sides searching for the worst in the others’ actions or rhetorics to justify their own hostile reprisals.

Montaigne would probably advise us to watch out for passion and zeal, so that we do not empower the absolutists. Easier said than done, even for those of us sitting safely with our American asses in our air-conditioned homes. But we all need to be more like Montaigne.

Book Club: Was Montaigne A New Atheist?

A reader welcomes him into the fold:

You ask if Montaigne was an atheist or Christian. Montaigne was most certainly atheist, and his atheism, though concealed for obvious concern about the consequences of opposing the opinions of those “stronger in number.” Montaigne’s atheism shines through in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, written in the wake the French Wars of Religion in which thousands were slaughtered in a sectarian conflict.

montaigneIn his Apology, Montaigne, by placing words in the mouths of others, openly ridicules the promise of heaven and knowledge of divine beings. One example: “The philosopher Antisthenes, as he was being initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest telling him, ‘That those who professed themselves of that religion were certain to receive perfect and eternal felicity after death,’—’If thou believest that,’ answered he, ‘why dost thou not die thyself?'”

Two more examples from the Apology: “‘Tis Socrates’s opinion, and mine too, that the best judging of heaven is not to judge of it at all.” And: “Nothing is made of nothing, God therefore could not make the world without matter. What! has God put into our hands the keys and most secret springs of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?”

Montaigne is, of course, cautious, with numerous references to the trial and execution of Socrates for disbelief in the gods, all expressed in a way that undermines any divine authority:

“For that which our reason advises us to, as the most likely, is generally for every one to obey the laws of his country, as was the advice of Socrates, inspired, as he says, by a divine counsel; and by that, what would it say, but that our duty has no other rule but what is accidental?”

Were Montaigne living today and free from the threat of persecution for his beliefs, his detractors would call him a “New” atheist.

Well, since this is a book club, we can now bring on Marshall MacLuhan the author Sarah Bakewell, to address the question. Here’s her response to the email:

Thank you for raising this fascinating topic! It’s one that I puzzled over constantly while writing the book, and I still feel that the answer is open to interpretation. To some extent (as with other areas) it depends partly on what one wants to read into Montaigne, because he is quite capable of pointing us in several different directions at once.

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. (The modern notion of “science”, let alone “scientific method”, did not exist in his day, which I think is relevant to this debate; it’s dangerously easy to impose our own categories on the sixteenth century).

montaigne.jpgBut “the New Atheism”, as I understand it, is a movement that calls not for the suspension or withholding of belief, but for active opposition to religious world-views. It calls particularly for opposing religion through rational and scientific arguments. This, I think, would have turned Montaigne off, because he was skeptical about the capacity of human reason to give us any certainty about anything at all.

The main thrust of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” leads in that direction. He sets out to defend Sebond against attacks based on reason, by demonstrating the limitations of reason in general (never mind the fact that Sebond himself was a proponent of “rational” theology). Montaigne emerges in this essay as very much the Pyrrhonian Skeptic – a form of skepticism which casts doubt on the possibility of being certain of anything, even one’s own lack of certainty.

(Also, it seems weird to us, but this kind of Skepticism was quite acceptable to the Church authorities of Montaigne’s time, because it helped to shore them up against Reformists who put more emphasis on rational or privately derived beliefs.)

Having said all this, I always had the impression when reading Montaigne that he was FAR more interested in what went on in this world than anything that might happen in the beyond. He was fascinated by the natural world, by history, by the quirks of human behavior, by social variety – particularly by the beliefs of other cultures, which he seemed to find neither more nor less convincing than those of his own.

I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist (still less a New one) – but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

Read the whole Book Club discussion here.

Book Club: Montaigne On Chilling Out

A reader continues the discussion:

The next book club topic is to discuss whether Montaigne was Christian or Atheist? Puh-montaigneleeze. Does it matter? Does it matter to God Himself what you, me, Montaigne or anyone believes? Isn’t that a little prideful?

Do you think the first question God will ask all his Super Christian followers (or atheists) upon their death is what they believe in? Will their God want their opinions on evolution? Global warming? It’s like asking your dog’s opinion when casting your ballot.

It’s much more interesting to see how beliefs are played out. And for that, Montaigne/Sarah Bakewell is fabulous. We’re this Super Christian nation but that doesn’t always play out so well. Sure we don’t drown witches (anymore), but we torture and murder innocent people, turn refugee children away at our border. We justify these actions, as all extremists in crisis conditions do, by claiming exceptional times and unusual circumstances.

If, as Montaigne states, it’s just politics and therefore part of the cycle of decay and rejuvenation, then why react in such extremes? Why sue the President? Why intervene everywhere? Why listen to Hannity or McCain on bookclub-beagle-tranything? However bad things are, as Montaigne says, most of life goes on undisturbed. In the long view, fanatics wear themselves out. Preserving your dignity, your soul, and remaining true to yourself is forever.

Keep picking books like this one and the world will be a better place. No shit!

Send your thoughts on How To Live to

Montaigne And Conservatism


A reader writes:

Andrew, you said in your appreciation of Montaigne:

Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

I am a lifelong liberal, perhaps for genetic reasons (as some recent studies have proposed), conservative-soulbut most certainly because conservatism in America has, as you say elsewhere in your piece, degenerated into reactionary, xenophobic, fundamentalist, hate-inspired lunacy. So, yes, I am a lifelong liberal (also because as a gay man, now in his seventies, the liberal left always seemed to me to be more favorably disposed to accepting me and our kind, though slowly and reluctantly.)

But I tell you, I heartily and wholeheartedly agree with your statement. So I guess I’m a conservative too, at least one of your kind. Can you confess that maybe you’re a liberal too? The progressive objection to the way of Montaigne?

I haven’t met a leftist ideologue who thought there were “true” solutions since the sixties. You, fighting leftist gays when you were arguing for gay marriage and they were for rejecting your “virtually normal” ideas, may have soured your views of the left, but believe me, there were millions throughout the country who just wanted their rights, to be as lawfully legitimate as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. And we have prevailed, spectacularly.

The key here, it seems to me, is understanding conservatism as a disposition rather than as a fixed ideology. That suggests, of course, that it might pragmatically express itself, at times, as a form of political liberalism as we understand it.

bookclub-beagle-trOne of the aha! moments I had in reading Oakeshott (who was deeply influenced by Montaigne) was when he actually described progressivism as an integral part of the Western conversation – one that a true conservative would not seek to extinguish, but rather respect and nurture. The genius of the modern European state was that it contained two core impulses – collective action and individual liberty – and the conservative mission was to find the right balance between them, at the right time, with a little preference for liberty.

That requires prudential judgment and a light, pragmatic touch. Oakeshott’s vision of the conservative politician was a “trimmer” – someone who trims the sails on a ship to exploit the current winds and weather. The point is merely to keep the ship afloat – not to reach the perfect desert island or to conquer distant lands, but for the sake of the coherence and steadiness of the whole. And when you look at Montaigne’s own political predilections, he fits smack dab in the middle of just such a disposition.

Bakewell, in How To Live, vividly brings to life the era of zeal and religious conflict that Montaigne lived in.

It was like Iraq in the last decade, the bodies piled high from sectarian murder and chaos and fanaticism and hatred (see the depiction of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre above). The human atrocities wrought in the name of ultimate truth and personal salvation beggar belief. And throughout it all, despite being enmeshed in politics at times, Montaigne kept his independence and perspective and balance. Bobbing and weaving between Protestant and Catholic, and finding the extremism of both distasteful, he homed in on the key failing of his time:

Our zeal does wonders when it is seconding our leaning towards hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion. Against the grain, toward goodness, benignity, moderation, unless as by a miracle some rare nature bears it, it will neither walk nor fly.

He embraced moderation as a way of life:

The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.

He sought ordinariness, acceptance of reality (including the reality of one’s own nature), an aversion to heroism and conquest, and the long view of human affairs (he was, after all, dependent for much of his learning on men who lived thousands of years before). That’s partly why he was derided by some as a “politique“, which translated pretty much to Oakeshott’s notion of the “trimmer.” And what motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for “present laughter” over “utopian bliss”. Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are 1024px-Debat-Ponsan-matin-Louvretimes for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I.

As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is “Toujours l’audace!” And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time.

Another reader writes:

Reading PM Carpenter‘s entry into the Montaigne discussion, the ending thought jumped out, as it did to you probably.

“So what of my underlying if not uneasily irrepressible socialism? What of Sullivan’s conservatism? In effect they’re indistinguishable, which is somewhat mind-blowing. But then again, so was Montaigne.”

It made me immediately remember a passage from Eric Hobsbawn, who has a thing or two to say about how to live and how to doubt. This is from The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century:

It may well be that the debate which confronted capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive and polar opposites will be seen by future generations as a relic of the twentieth-century ideological Cold Wars of Religion. It may turn out to be as irrelevant to the third millennium as the debate between Catholics and various reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on what constituted true Christianity proved to be in the eighteenth and nineteenth.

That’s all.

And that’s a lot.

(Paintings: The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529 in Amiens. Although Dubois did not witness the massacre, he depicts Admiral Coligny‘s body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. To the left rear, Catherine de’ Medici is shown emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies; and One morning at the gates of the Louvre, 19th-century painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan. Catherine de’ Medici is in black.)

Book Club: To Philosophize Is To Learn How To Die

A reader adds to the other near-death experiences sparked by Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

I am 65 years old. In 1958, when I was 9, I suffered a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed as flu, so I lay in my bed for a week getting sicker and sicker until I was taken to Lankenau Hospital outside Philadelphia. They treated me with drugs for three days and then operated.

I have a number of memories from the three weeks I spent in the hospital but my near-death experience is still very close to me 55 years later. I, too, have a vivid memory of looking down on myself from up high, the minister at my right hand, and my already grieving parents on my left. I remember seeing a bright light and feeling a great sensation of peace and comfort surrounding me. Then my father kept shaking me. He kept saying “Wake up! Don’t go to sleep!” He pulled me back from that gate or passage I was about to enter.

I also have another vivid memory which I have kept from that time. While I was passing in and out of consciousness I had a dream that has stuck with me.

My heritage is Latvian, and my Latvian forebears are Nordic looking. In my dream I was wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of a big, black limousine like a Packard. I was taken to the ferryboat landing at the foot of Flower St. in Chester PA where we used to cross the Delaware to New Jersey on the way to the shore, before the bridges were built. It was night and cold (I got sick in January.) Very blond men wearing cashmere coats and black Homburg hats took me out of the car and onto the ferryboat. They laid me on one of the wooden benches polished from decades of use. The engines started and the ship began to vibrate. I felt cold and was shivering. Then, one of the men came back for me and picked me up in my blanket. He took me back to the Packard. He said “it’s not time yet. We made a mistake.”

Now I have bladder cancer and have been in the OR 12 times in the past four years. I am able to control my fear and make the most of it now largely on the basis of my early brush with death. To tell you the truth, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. I don’t want to die just yet but, you know, it really isn’t that big a deal.

Montaigne would be chuffed. Another reader:

One thing I took away from this excellent biography is something you touched on a bit in your very good kickoff to the discussion. Montaigne‘s essays are the antidote to today’s happiness-obsessed culture. Parents raise their children instilling happiness as the most important, above even having good morals. Our social climate today believes that if you’re not happy all the time, there’s something wrong with you.

It hasn’t always been that way. When my father told his father he was divorcing my mother because they were no longer happy, my grandfather, dismayed, replied, “Who told you you were supposed to be happy?” But now, if you live in NYC or Los Angeles, it’s unusual to not have a therapist. Campus counseling services cannot keep up with influx of demand. So the title of this book is sublime irony.

Hope this is valuable. So glad you’ve started these monthly discussions. I have read all three books so far.

Read the whole Book Club conversation here. Send your own thoughts to

Book Club: Your Near-Death Experiences

Readers continue the conversation over Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

Montaigne‘s near-death interval is very interesting – it makes me wonder how generalizable Dimethyltryptamine_27febhis description is to other peoples’ experiences. The pleasantness is an interesting surprise, because his physical behaviors manifest unpleasantness during this time. I can’t help but think of a friend of a friend, who, described the feeling accompanying beholding her newborn as “just like tripping on DMT.” There’s definitely some writing hypothesizing a connection between near death experience and DMT release; it does occur in some amounts in mammals. And it does seem that Montaigne‘s “out of body experience” allowed him to avoid the suffering associated with the experiences of the body at the time.

Another shares his own story:

What would someone 500 years ago, when people lived without indoor plumbing, have to say? And wouldn’t the writing be filled with difficult words, clumped together in long, montaigneflowery paragraph-free chunks? That’s what I thought, so before buying the book, I downloaded a sample and while reading it, remembered something I’d completely forgotten.

During sixth grade, I contracted Valley Fever. I was so sick for so long and nobody knew what was wrong with me. I found myself floating above myself, looking down, finally pain-free. I could hear the oldies (“These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “King of the Road”) playing on the radio that someone put beside my bed. But I simply let go and became more relaxed than anything I’d ever experienced in my uber-Protestant-work-ethic-running-around-in-circles-as-fast-as-you-can family. I knew I was close to death, but at eleven, what does that mean?

Montagne’s account of his own near-death experience brought this feeling back as if it were yesterday. The feeling of relief, of letting go, is beyond words, particularly when you are naturally tightly-wound. My adult kids hate it now when I tell them I look forward to death, as there is a peace you can never describe, and the opposite of competitive, hurry-hurry life trying to get ahead (of what?) in San Francisco. Fine, I tell them. They can join my parents in extreme FoxNews-like fear of death, which, when they talk about it, sounds more like they’re afraid of not controlling everything and everyone, and what will we do without that?bookclub-beagle-tr

Think I’ll share a little Montaigne, particularly the chapter entitled, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.” It’s about as far as you can get from our family’s Mission Statement (“what are you doing reading when you could be doing something?”).

The book is available here if you’d like to join in. Think of it as a blast of sixteenth century sanity for a crazy 21st century world.

Next up: was Montaigne a closet atheist? Or a very modern kind of Christian? Send your thoughts to I’ll weigh in – but check out this Mark Lilla essay first.

(GIF of Dimethyltryptamine, aka DMT, via Wiki)

Book Club: Good News About Dying

A reader gushes:

I feel blindsided by joy and wonder reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightfully accessible book. I montaignehad no idea that this man from half a millennium past would give so many “that’s me” moments. Example: I’ve always felt that my forgetfulness was a plus. Something happens. I let go of it and it recedes to some far back place in my memory, unlikely to reappear. I’ve always referred to it as my Etch-A-Sketch mind. Lift up the plastic. All gone.

The other mindblower for me is allowing for doubt. This is a theme that has been mentioned many times in Dish posts. Its relevance in today’s world can not be overstated. Last year, I had a button-maker friend make me some “allow for doubt” buttons. I would notice many pitying looks when I wore it. I suppose nothing beats certainty.

This book club choice is a home run. It has expanded and reinforced my inquiry of life. Thank you.

A more reluctant fan:

I thought – essays? – on how to live? Heavy sigh. But I found the book at the library and decide that giving Montaigne a go probably wouldn’t kill me. I read the first chapter today while I sat at the pool during my daughter’s swimming lesson. It took me less than 15 minutes and I had time enough left to write a few pages.

It was a surprisingly light read. I was expecting tortured prose and deep, knee-bend navel gazing. But it was on death. An easy one and I was delighted to discover that Montaigne was a normal person for all his wandering in the mental back forty.bookclub-beagle-tr-2

I have been convinced for some time that dying – the actual moments – is not at all what it appears to be and doesn’t need to be prepped for in any specific way (unless that makes a person feel happy or better in some way, though Montaigne‘s suffering over it in his youthful years would seem to suggest otherwise). I feel not vindicated, but reassured, after this first chapter.

I have low expectations for this experience, but I am determined to read a chapter a day. I don’t think he is going to be my bestie in literary terms, but he has made a good first impression.

That struck me also as something that jumped out. Today, we live our lives in terror not simply of death but of dying. In fact, we seem more afraid of dying than death itself. And Montaigne insists this may not be necessary at all. Dying might actually be pleasant. And not because he had confidence in Jesus (although he did have a priest preside over his eventual death at the age of 59). It was because an early near-death experience gave him a whole new take on the subject. On the surface, he was knocked off his horse, lost consciousness, started puking blood and began tearing away at his doublet as if a great weight were on him. But on the inside, all was calm, even light:

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

In this, as in everything, Montaigne seemed to trust his own nature, to let it be, to have confidence that, beneath the wandering flickers of our minds, something deeper endures, if only we can accept it. It’s that calm acceptance of what is, along with gladness for it, that makes Montaigne almost Taoist at times. P.M. Carpenter joins the conversation:

One non-political passage in Sullivan’s superb survey I identified with rather acutely:

If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be [his] staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching…. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well:  the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.

In my young and soulfully beautiful wife’s death I never found comfort in Scripture–“mysterious ways” my ass, she died young because we pour tons more cash into weaponry than cancer research–although in our daughter, hope does sustain me. She is my best and dearest friend and she’s as soulfully gorgeous as her mother. The prospect of my own imminent death disturbs me little; I already know its cause–years of self-destructive behavior. This seems only fair. I knew what I was doing and I proceeded to do more of it. I deserve what I get. My wife did not.

So yes, there’s the unfairness of life’s departure, but more than that there’s its seemingly vile Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 1.42.35 AMrandomness. Three years ago the universe ceased to make any sense to me, and its flagrant indifference to earthly justice I now find metaphysically offensive. What’s more, there’s the guilt–the pounding guilt: inhuman, senseless and random tragedies such as MH-17 occurred with grim regularity before my wife’s death, and yet I never wept over them. They failed to haunt me day after day as my wife’s death does a thousand times a day–and ruthlessly compel me to ask, “Why?” Thus I’m forced to conclude that I’m as indifferent to most human suffering as the universe is. And that’s a hard conclusion to accept.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pour my heart out here. See: Oscar Wilde. What I’ve instead attempted is a practical point which, I trust, Montaigne himself would have made: There are no plausible certainties about life, accept, perhaps, the one of the often dismaying utility of a searching skepticism. We can’t, and really don’t, know beans.

Follow the whole Montaigne discussion here. Buy Bakewell’s book here and share your thoughts at

(Bottom image of victims from MH-17 via the NYT. Tweet translation from Dishtern Phoebe: “But as for death, we can only try it once; we are all apprentices when we get there.”)

Book Club: A Guide To Living

The stroke of genius in Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne is that she framed his biography as a guide to life. You could justify this as a way to appeal to a distracted 21st Century audience otherwise highly unlikely to read about a sixteenth century French essayist, but she makes that entirely unnecessary. What she shows is why Nietzsche had such a fondness for the diminutive and inquisitive skeptic: everything he wrote was really about his own life, and how best to live it, and he does it all with such brio and detail and humanity that you cannot help but be encouraged to follow his lead. He proves nothing that he doesn’t simultaneously subvert a little; he makes no over-arching argument montaigne.jpgabout the way humans must live; he has no logician’s architecture or religious doctrine. He slips past all those familiar means of telling other people what’s good for them, and simply explains what has worked for him and others and leaves the reader empowered to forge her own future – or, rather (for this is Montaigne), her own present.

It’s a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. You can see its eccentric power by considering the alternative ways of doing what Montaigne was doing. Think of contemporary self-help books – and all the fake certainty and rigid formulae they contain. Or think of a hideous idea like “the purpose-driven life” in which everything must be forced into the box of divine guidance in order to really live at all. Think of the stringency of Christian disciplines – say, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and marvel at how Montaigne offers an entirely different and less compelling way to live. Think of the rigidity of Muslim practice and notice how much lee-way Montaigne gives to sin. This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. And it is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”. And of course it begs the question that Pascal posed: how can skepticism not be skeptical about itself? Is it, in fact, a self-refuting way of being?

Logically, of course it refutes itself. And you can easily torment yourself with that fact. When I first tried to grapple with philosophy, the need to force every text I read into the rubric of “is this the truth about the world?” dominated everything. And in retrospect, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do not have a desire to figure out the truth about the whole, you’ll never start the philosophical project at all. And you can find in philosophy any number of clues about how to live; you can even construct them into an ideology that explains all of human life and society – like Marxism or free market fundamentalism or a Nietzschean will to power. But as each totalist system broke down upon how-to-live-sdmy further inspection, I found myself returning to Montaigne and the tradition of skepticism he represents (and that reached one of its modern high points in the thought of Michael Oakeshott). Maybe we need to start with what little we actually do know – through experience, narrative, anecdote and conversation.

And here’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism. You can see why it has scarcely any resemblance to the fanatics, ideologues and reactionaries who call themselves “conservative” in America today.

But what Bakewell helped me see better is that Montaigne’s Stoic disposition really was influenced by a couple of epiphanies. The first was the loss of his dear friend, Etienne de la Boétie. The second was his own near-death experience in a riding accident. What he’s grappling with in both cases is loss. And what he seeks to do with his friendship is to understand what he lost more completely, which makes his essay “On Friendship” the greatest treatment of that theme ever penned. But his near-death experience – which he subsequently wrote down with eerily modern skills of careful observation – could be seen as the window onto his entire body of work. He works back from this reality – our inescapable finitude – to construct a deeper and more humane understanding of what life is for. By seeing the limits, he seems to say, we actually live more vividly and well and can die at peace with the world.

If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be this staringbookclub-beagle-tr-2 of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching. It is what our culture refuses to do much of the time, thereby disempowering us in the face of our human challenges. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.

Is this enough? Or is it rather a capitulation to relativism, a manifesto for political quietism, a worldview that treats injustice as something to be abhorred but not constantly fought against? This might be seen as the core progressive objection to the way of Montaigne. Or is his sensibility in an age of religious terror and violence and fanaticism the only ultimate solution we have?

Email your thoughts to You can still buy the book here and join the conversation (or use the public library here). Update from our first participant:

As Sarah Bakewell points out in her wonderful book, people don’t just “read” Montaigne; they “meet” him. He’s not a classic author to tick off a personal must-read list but more like a good friend. Though I’ve never laid eyes on a word of his Essays, he has been my companion, my guru, my pal, my virtual best friend. My Michel has the friendly, bracing, comforting voice of an actor named Christopher Lane on my 49 hour, 39 minute audio book. For two months last year, Montaigne was alive, talking quietly to me, confiding in me his thoughts as I walked, drove, did household chores, rode the bus, and saw all my own fears and thoughts and immediate surroundings through his eyes.

I spend a great deal of time walking through Chicago with my son Walker, who has autism.

He’s now 28, a lively, happy, intelligent guy hobbled by a near inability to converse. I talk to him in frequent speeches about everything around us, but I also listen to audiobooks. The one rule in choosing them is that they must be funny or positive or somehow life-affirming. I don’t need any more angst, thank you, walking mile after mile as I fight anxiety about my son’s future life without me and his mother. P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books are my great standbys. I walk along laughing while Walker smiles his big appreciative grin.

But Montaigne is special. He calmly reminds me that nothing I fear or think is new. Just as he found all his wisdom in ancient authors, I find mine in him. This 16th-century French aristocrat sitting alone in his tower as the wars of religion swirled around him speaks to me with great immediacy. Never mind that it’s 2014 and I’m walking along Rush Street in Chicago or in the sand on Oak Street Beach in 2014. He’s as personal as say, Andrew Sullivan talking about God and war and life’s meaning.

One of the big challenges for us parents of autistic children is isolation. We often feel out of touch with friends, with the buzz of life. Most people have learned to not even ask my wife and me out to dinner – they know we’re, I have to say it, “trapped.” But Montaigne brings companionship right into my ears in a very personal way, as though he were walking alongside Walker and me, sitting in the car with us, smiling at Starbucks baristas with us.

Thanks to Sarah Bakewell and her lively book. She reminds all of us that Montaigne lives.

Book Club: Montaigne As Your Mentor, Ctd

On Monday I’m planning to start the discussion over Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, so buy the book here if you’d like to join in. My intro to the book selection is here. A reader writes:

Great book recommendation, but I’m pretty pissed at the number of Game Of Thrones 513f2INPtgLspoilers that Bakewell crams in her work. Henri II is killed in a jousting tournament when his visor is knocked off and a splinter is lodged in his brain? Then his adolescent son takes over under the domineering regency of Cersei – I mean Catherine de Medici? Just replace “Huguenots” with “White Walkers” and I think I know how George RR Martin will end Song of Ice and Fire.

Seriously, this small passage in page 70 of my copy of How To Live was a great reminder that the Middle Ages were more brutal and hostile than even our modern imaginations. Actual history beats the hell out of fantasy.


I’m a subscriber to Dish, and enjoy the quality of its thought and breadth of exposure to interesting issues. For the second time now, I’ve downloaded a book you’ve recommended (just bought How to Live and just finished On Looking). But when I click on a link to give you credit for the purchase, it only takes me to the Kindle edition.  I prefer Apple iBooks, to be read on my iPad.  (Yes, I’ve drunk thebookclub-beagle-tr iKoolAid.)  So I get out of Amazon, go to Apple, and buy the book there, but then you don’t get any credit, or even the knowledge that people are buying stuff you recommend.  You might consider additional links to those of us who prefer a different online format.

The iBooks link is here. To help you find the book at a public library, go here. But this link to Amazon is the only way to support the Dish with some affiliate revenue (especially if you purchase other things on your shopping list during that web session). It’s pennies on the dollar, but those pennies add up for a small independent company.

Book Club: Montaigne As Your Mentor

Many readers are getting psyched about our latest Book Club selection, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. My full intro to the book selection is here. Buy the book through this link to support the Dish. One reader:

Just a note to say that I am delighted that your third book club discussion will be bookclub-beagle-trabout Montaigne. If you haven’t read it, Mark Lillia’s very positive review of Bakewell is worth checking out. She misses Montaigne’s implied critique of Christianity, he argues. And M’s worldview leaves no space for transcendence, or our inescapable attraction to it.

To me, Montaigne cures us of that desire, though only temporarily. In that sense he is a proto-liberal: a skeptic, of course, and a thinker who put stability in politics before truth. I’ve been a lurker until now, but I look forward to a discussion about Montaigne on the Dish. How the ethos Montaigne recommends is challenged today by religion and by unworldly politics would be a great focus. And also the parallels and differences between The Essays and blogging.

That’s exactly why I chose this. It’s not just about life; it’s about politics, ideology, and fanaticism. Montaigne’s disposition is what we lack so much today – and need to reclaim. Another reader exclaims:

Woo Hoo! Montaigne next!

Why did I pick up How To Live last year at my public library? Probably because I saw it mentioned on the Dish or on Maria 513f2INPtgLPopova’s website. I renewed it several times so I could take it with me on vacation … to France. I greatly enjoyed the format, mixing Montaigne’s biography with Sarah Bakewell’s commentary. And I learned so much about Montaigne’s life, his essays and 16th century French history to boot.

I live in the USA, but I am originally from the Bordeaux area of France, and I go home pretty much every year to visit family. So last summer, my one objective was to visit Montaigne’s estate, as it is less than an hour’s drive from my parents’ house. It felt like a pilgrimage. Walking up the stairs of the tower, standing in Montaigne’s library, looking up to decipher the inscriptions on the ceiling. Better than a trip to Lourdes!

I also used several sections of How To Live when I taught a survey of French literature to my Advanced French class this past school year.  And the book is once again on my coffee table, so I can reread it this summer (along with my digital copy of Les Essais). So a big thank you (or should I say “mille mercis”!) to you, Andrew and the Dish, for introducing me to this wonderful book and for making me want to rediscover Montaigne’s essays. I am looking forward to reading what other book club participants will think about it.

Another nerds out even more:

You recommend the Frame translation of the essays, and I understand that translation is widely regarded as the most faithful in English. But I wonder if you’re aware that the New York Review of Books just a few months ago published selections from the 1603 Florio translation.

It’s titled Shakespeare’s Montaigne because Florio’s was apparently the translation Shakespeare read and was inspired by. Nothing against the Frame translation, but reading Florio’s translation has been for me like discovering the masterful poetry of the KJV bible after only reading the bland NIV.

Some groveling fan mail sentiment incoming: Founding member here and I’ve been reading you – pretty much every post – since late 2007. I’ve only written in once or twice, and you published the view from my window several years ago. Pardon the morbidity, but I often measure how strongly a feel about the people in my life by how I would feel if I lost them. When I think about how it would affect me if you were to die or stop writing, well, only the loss of a handful of immediate family members would be more devastating. I follow the output of other public figures as closely – a few songwriters and novelists –  and feel I know them through their work. But I guess there is less artifice, more of your unfiltered self in what you do. The only other writer that even comes close in that respect is, in fact, Montaigne. So it doesn’t surprise me that you view him as a major influence.

Again, I really look forward to the July book club discussions.

Another primes the discussion further:

Not sure if you caught this on PBS several years ago, but they did a cool series on philosophers and the idea of happiness, and this was the portion they did on Montaigne: