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How to Live summary

Sarah Bakewell

Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

4.5 (488 ratings)
21 mins

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How to Live by Sarah Bakewell is a biography of Michel de Montaigne. It tells the story of his life and explores his philosophy, which centers around questioning one's own beliefs and embracing uncertainty.

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    How to Live
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    A Morbid Obsession.

    As a young man, Montaigne had a problem. It was making him miserable – but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at him from the outside. 

    On the surface, he seemed to be living a pretty nice life. For starters, he was a nobleman, born into a wealthy family in 1533. He had a cushy childhood, received a classical education, and then began a successful career in law and politics at the age of 24. For the next 13 years, he worked as a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France. 

    He also inherited a profitable winemaking business, a large chateau, and a sprawling country estate full of vineyards, about 30 miles from Bordeaux. He split his time between the estate and the city, living a double life: one urban, dedicated to public service; the other rural, dedicated to wine-growing. 

    Well, sort of. By his own admission, he was incompetent at managing the estate and neglectful of his duties. To avoid them, he’d often go horse riding instead. He spent the rest of his time visiting neighbors, socializing, and reading classical works by ancient Greek and Roman historians, poets, and philosophers. 

    But that’s where the problem began. Those ancient philosophers wrote a lot about death, and Montaigne became increasingly obsessed with the subject as he read them in his 20s. 

    The obsession grew even deeper in his 30s, as more and more of his loved ones passed away. First, his best friend died from the plague. Then, his father died, probably from complications arising from a kidney stone. Then, his younger brother died after getting hit in the head by a ball while playing a game of jeu de paume – the Renaissance-era predecessor of tennis. Then, his first child died when she was only two months old. 

    Meanwhile, people in France were keeling over left and right for all sorts of terrible reasons: famine, civil war, witch trials, smallpox – the list went on and on. Death was lurking everywhere, able to strike anyone at any time from anywhere. Montaigne’s preoccupation with it therefore seemed not only natural but rational and inescapable. With so much death around him, how could he stop thinking about it? And if he couldn’t stop thinking about it, how could he enjoy anything else in life? The idea spoiled everything, and there was no way of shaking it. 

    Or so he thought. But then something happened that would forever change his attitude toward death and give him a second lease on life. 

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    What is How to Live about?

    How to Live (2010) is both a biography of the writer Montaigne and an overview of the monumental work for which he’s famous: the Essays – a genre of writing that he invented. Along the way, it suggests some lessons we can take from his life and apply to our own.

    How to Live Review

    How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) is a captivating exploration of the life and philosophy of Michel de Montaigne. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers insightful reflections on how to live a meaningful life, drawing from the wisdom of Montaigne's essays.
    • Through engaging storytelling and thought-provoking anecdotes, the book provides a unique perspective on the complexities of human existence.
    • By seamlessly weaving together history, philosophy, and personal experiences, Sarah Bakewell creates a compelling narrative that is both enlightening and entertaining.

    Who should read How to Live?

    • Students of the Stoics, Epicureans, or Skeptics who want to learn about one of their greatest prodigies 
    • Fans of biographies about writers and thinkers 
    • Anyone who wants to know more about the life and works of Montaigne

    About the Author

    Sarah Bakewell is a British non-fiction writer who focuses on the lives of philosophers, writers, and adventurers. Her other works include At the Existentialist Café and The English Dane. In 2018, she won the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in non-fiction. 

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    How to Live FAQs 

    What is the main message of How to Live?

    How to Live offers timeless wisdom and practical advice for living a fulfilling life.

    How long does it take to read How to Live?

    The reading time for How to Live varies, but the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is How to Live a good book? Is it worth reading?

    How to Live is a worthwhile read for anyone seeking guidance on living a meaningful life.

    Who is the author of How to Live?

    Sarah Bakewell is the author of How to Live.

    What to read after How to Live?

    If you're wondering what to read next after How to Live, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
    • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
    • Think This, Not That by Josh Axe
    • The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
    • Paradise Lost by John Milton