Montaigne

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Contents  

Introduction

Ways of Living

Hoarding

Truth

Education

Friendship

Poetry

Individuality

Glory

The Senses

Conversation

Old Age

Death

Source

Introduction

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592 CE) developed the essay as a form of literature and with it provided a portrait of himself and his era. He  was born in the family chateau near Bordeaux, France, and was given special training by his father who, until he was six, would not let him hear any other tongue than Latin—the language of learning. He was then sent to the College de Guienne at Bordeaux, famous at that time for humanism and unconventional religious ideas. At thirteen he left to study law. He became a counselor in the Bordeaux parliament in 1554 and was known to be present at sieges of some French cities in the period 1558-1562. He married in 1565 and succeed to the family estate when his father died in 1568. It was in this year that he published a French translation of Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum   ( Natural Theology or the Book of Creatures) by Raimond Sebond, a Spanish theologian who taught at Toulouse. 

Three years later he retired to his chateau and took up the life of essayist, letting his mind entertain and divert itself with complete freedom. In his essays he expressed his judgment on the different ways of living he had experienced and put forward his views on truth, education,  friendship, poetry, individuality, glory, the senses, conversation, old age, death, and other matters. Extracts from some of his essays are given here.

 

 

Ways of Living  

1     When I recently put myself into retirement at my own house, resolving to avoid as much as possible any involvement with external affairs and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I had to live, I fancied I could perform no better service for my mind than to allow it to entertain and divert itself with complete freedom, which I hoped it might better trusted to do by this time, as having become, by passage of years and through observation, more settled and mature. But I find, as Lucan did, that

                      Even in the most retired estate,
                     
Leisure itself does multifarious thoughts create.

Quite contrary to my expectations, my mind is like a horse that has parted from its rider and voluntarily careens over a much wilder course than any horseman would put him to; and it creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that—to better contemplate their strangeness and absurdity at leisure—I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make to them ashamed of themselves.

2     Since childhood, I have made my way through three conditions of life. The first, which continued for nearly twenty years, I passed through with no financial means other than came by chance. Without any certain income, I depended upon the open-handed forbearance and assistance of others. I then spent my money cheerfully and with little care how it went, wholly depending upon my confidence in my luck. Never have I lived more at my ease. I did not ever find the purse of a friend closed towards me, because I made it a rule above all other rules to not fail to make repayment at the appointed time, which they a thousand times delayed, seeing how anxious I was to satisfy them. In this way I made my good faith both a matter of thrift and, in addition, a kind of allurement. Naturally, I also felt a kind of pleasure in paying, as if I eased my shoulders of a troublesome weight and the idea of slavery. Besides that, I have a great satisfaction in pleasing another and doing the right thing.

  3     In this I do not include that type of payment where negotiation and roundabout settlements are involved. Where I can find nobody to ease me out of such hateful torment, I avoid such situations—no matter how scandalously and injuriously—whenever I possibly can, fearing a possible altercation, for which both my personality and way of speaking are so totally unfit. There is nothing I hate so much as driving a bargain: it is merely trafficking in deceit and impudence, where, after a hour’s debasement and evasion, both parties abandon their word and oath for three cents tacked on or taken off.

 

Hoarding

4    My second condition of life was to have money of my own. At this time I so ordered my affairs that I soon laid up a notable sum out of so mean an inheritance. I told myself that all a man could place reliance on was the money left over from his ordinary expense, that a man could not absolutely rely upon income to be received, however free of debt he might be. For what, I asked myself, if I should be surprised by this or that accident? And after turning over in my mind many vain and vicious ideas like this, I would very prudently, by hoarding my money, provide against all inconveniences.  Moreover to such as objected to me that the number of unforeseen difficulties was infinite, I could answer that if I could not lay up for all, I could do it at least for some and for many.

Yet was not this done without a great deal of concern and anxiety of mind. I kept my hoard very close, and though I dare talk so boldly of myself, never spoke of my money except deceitfully—just as others do who, being rich, pretend to be poor, or being poor, pretend to be rich, releasing their consciences from the obligation of ever having to say sincerely what they possessed—a ridiculous and shameful prudence. If  I was I going a journey, I thought I had never provided enough for myself. But the more I loaded myself with money, the more was I also loaded with fears: one for the danger of the roads, another for the trustworthiness of the man in charge of my baggage. Like some others that I know, I never felt secure unless I had that man always in view. Did I leave my box behind me? What suspicions and anxiety entered my mind then. What made it  worse, I did not dare acquaint anybody with these fears. My mind was continually taken up with such things; so that, all things considered, there was more trouble in keeping money than in getting it.

5    I continued some years with this hoarding disposition, until I know not what good genius fortunately put me out of it, as he did Damocles [who during a banquet given by Dionysius had his attention drawn to the insecurity of life, by a sword suspended above him by a single hair] and made me throw away all my reserve. The pleasure of a certain voyage I took at very great expense made me spurn this absurd hoarding, causing me to find myself now in a third way of living. In my view this is doubtless much more pleasant and better regulated. In it, my expenses run level with my income; indeed, sometimes the one, sometimes the other, may perhaps be the greater, but it is very rarely that they differ at all. I live from hand to mouth, and content myself in having sufficient for my present and ordinary expense. As for extraordinary occasions, all the hoarding in the world would never suffice. It is the greatest folly imaginable to expect that chance should ever sufficiently arm us against herself. It is with our own arms that we have to fight her: relying on chance will betray us when we are in difficulties. If I save some money, it is for some near and designed expense, and not to purchase lands—of which I have no need—but to purchase pleasure. As Cicero said, “Not to be covetous is wealth; not to be a purchaser is income.” I am neither in any great appre­hension of wanting, nor in any desire of getting more. I agree with that same Roman that “The fruits of riches lie in abundance; satiety declares abundance.’’ And I am very well pleased with myself, that this reformation in me has fallen out in at age naturally inclined to avarice, and that I see myself freed of a folly so common to old men—the most ridiculous of all human follies.

6    Plenty and poverty are matters of opinion. Riches, like glory or health, have no more beauty or pleasure than endowed on them by their owner. Every one is well or ill at ease to the degree he finds himself so. He whom the world believes to be content may not be so; but he who believes himself to be content is so; only in this way does belief invest itself with being and reality. Chance does us neither a favor nor an injury; it only presents us the challenge and the spark, which our mind, more powerful than chance, turns and applies as it best pleases, being the sole cause and independent master of its own happy or unhappy condi­tion. All external influences receive taste and color from our internal personality, just as clothes warm us not with their heat but with our own, which they are designed to enclose and keep in. Likewise, covering a cold body in this way keeps in the cold, for that is how snow and ice are preserved. And after the same manner that study is a torment to a sluggard, abstinence from wine to a drunkard, frugality to the spendthrift, and exercise to a lazy, feeble fellow, so it is of all the rest. Things are not so painful and difficult of themselves, but our weakness or cowardice makes them so. To judge of great and high matters requires a suitable mind, otherwise we attribute a vice to them which is really our own. A straight oar seems crooked in the water: it is not only important that we see a thing, but how and after what manner we see it.

   

Truth

7    I see some, who are powerfully given to study, meditate and comment upon their astrological tables, and produce them for authority when some notable thing happens. And, indeed, it is to be expected that in claiming so much they must sometimes stumble upon some truth amongst an infinite number of errors.  As Cicero remarked “For who can shoot all day at a target and not sometimes hit it?” Of course, I never think the better of them for some accidental hits. There would be more value in their claims if they could be relied on to be always lying. Nobody records their misleading and false forecasts, since they are infinite and common; but if they hit upon one truth, that is triumphantly broadcast, as being rare, incredible, and prodigious. So argued Diagoras, surnamed the atheist, when he was shown in the temple at Samothrace offerings and stories in paintings of those who had escaped shipwreck. He was asked “Look, you who think the gods have no care of human things, what do you say on seeing so many persons preserved from death by their special favor?” Diagoras answered “I say that there are no pictures here of the drowned, which were a much greater number.” [Cicero]

8    In plain truth, lying is a hateful and an accursed vice. We are men, we have no other bond with one another but our word. If we did but perceive the horror and ill consequences of lying, we would pursue it with fire and sword, and with greater justification than the pursuit of other crimes. I see parents who lack prudence commonly correct their children for little innocent faults, and torment them for playful childish tricks that are neither remarkable nor of any great consequence. Whereas, in my opinion, only lying and—what is of something a lower form—willful obstinacy are the faults which ought on all occasions to be combated, both in the infancy and in the progress of these vices. Otherwise they will mature and gain strength with age.

9   After a tongue has once got the knack of lying, it is not to be imagined how difficult it is, almost impossible, to reclaim it. Which is why we see some so subject to this vice, who are otherwise very upright men. I have a good man for my tailor, who I never yet knew guilty of one truth; no, not even when it would have been to his advantage. If false­hood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms with it; for we could then take the contrary of what the liar says for certain truth. But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand shapes, occupying an undefined territory, without bound or limit. The Pythagoreans held that good was certain and finite, whereas evil was infinite and uncertain. There are a thousand ways to miss the center of the target, there is only one way to hit it. For my own part, I have this vice in so great horror that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from being roused to the most obvious and extreme violence by an impudent and solemn lie. Pliny says that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand: “As a foreigner, to one that understands not what he says, cannot be said to supply the place of a man” And how much less sociable is false speaking than silence?

 

Education

10   It is the custom of schoolmasters to be eternally yelling into their pupils’ ears, as they were pouring learning through a funnel, with the object that the pupils should repeat only what the others have said before. Now I would have a teacher avoid this error. From the very beginning he should challenge his pupil according to his ability, permitting his pupil to taste and relish ideas himself, and to choose and recognize them himself, the teacher sometimes opening the way for him, and sometimes making him break the ice himself. That is, I would not have the teacher alone decide on subjects and do the talking. He should also hear his student speak in turn. Socrates and, since him, Arcesilaus, first made their students speak, and then spoke to them.  “The authority of those who teach is very often an impediment to those who desire to learn.” [Cicero]

11  According to our common way of education, teachers undertake with one and the same lesson—and the same measure of direction—to instruct several children of differing and unequal capacities.  They need not wonder, therefore, if among the multitude of pupils there are found only two or three who benefit from their time and discipline. Let the teacher not only examine a student about the bare words of his lesson, but also as to the sense and meaning of them, and let him judge of the profit the student has made not by the testimony of his memory, but by that of his understanding. Let him make the student put what he has learned into a hundred several forms, and accommodate it to so many several subjects—to see if he really comprehends it properly and has made it his own—making progress in in­struction by the methods of Plato. It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; the stomach has not performed its office unless it has altered the form and condition of what was committed to it for digestion.

12  Let the teacher make his student examine and thoroughly sift every thing he reads, and lodge nothing in his head upon simple authority and upon trust. Let Aristotle’s principles be no more principles to him than those of Epicurus and the Stoics; let the diversity of opinions be propounded and laid before him, he will himself choose, if he is able. If not, he will remain in doubt. Dante wrote “I love sometimes to doubt as well as know.”

13  For if a student embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato by the exercise of his own reason, they will no longer be solely theirs, but become his own. Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing—in fact, seeks nothing. Seneca was able to say “We are not under a king; let every one take care of himself.”  Let a student, at least, know that he does know. It is for him to imbibe their knowledge, but not to adopt their dogmas. It does not matter if he forgets where he had his learning, provided he knows how to apply it to his own use. Truth and reason are shared by every one, and no more belong to he who spoke them first than to whoever spoke them after.

 

Friendship

14  There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have shaped us for as to be social; and Aristotle said that good legislators had more respect for friendship than for justice. Thus, in true friendship lies the supreme point of society’s perfection. But, in general, all those friendships created and nourished by pleasure, profit, public or private interest are so much the less noble and generous, and so much the less friendships, by the extent to which they mix up another cause and motive with friendship itself. Neither do the four ancient categories— natural, sociable, hospitable, and sexual—either separately or jointly, make up a true and perfect friendship.

15  I return to the more just and true description taken from Cicero, which I use myself: “Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgment and length of time.” For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintances and connections, contracted either by accident or upon some motive, by means of which there happens some small interchange between our minds. But, in the friendship I speak of, they min­gle and melt into one piece, with so universal a mixture that there is left no more sign of the seam by which they were first put together. If any one should demand that I give a reason why I loved someone, I feel it could no otherwise be expressed than by the answer, “Because he was he; because I was I”. 

16  If—in the friendship of which I speak—one friend would give something to the other, the receiver of the benefit would be the man that obliged his friend. For each of them studies above all things how to be useful to the other. Thus he that affords the occasion for giving is the generous man, in providing his friend the satisfaction of doing that which, above all things, he most desires to do. When the philosopher Diogenes wanted money, he used to say that he returned it from his friends, not that he demanded it.

To let you see how this concept of friendship works out in practice, I will here produce an ancient and singular example. Eudamidas, a Corinthian, had two friends, Charixenus, a Syconian, and Aretheus, a Corinthian. When he found death approaching, Eudamidas, being poor while his two friends were rich, drew up his will after this manner: I bequeath to Aretheus the maintenance of my mother, to support and provide for her in her old age; and to Charixenus I bequeath the care of marrying my daughter, and to give her as good a dowry as he is able. And in case one of these chances to die, I hereby substitute the survivor in his place.”  After Eudamidas died, they who saw this will found the contents very amusing; but the heirs being made acquainted with it, accepted the legacies with very great content. One of them, Charixenus, died five days later, and Aretheus, charged with the care of the heirs, nourished the old woman with very great care and tenderness. And, of the five talents he had, he gave two and a half in marriage with the only daughter he had of his own, and two and a half in marriage with the daughter of Eudamidas, and in one and the same day solemnized both their nuptials.

17    I am not guilty of the common error of judging another by myself. I readily believe in another’s disposition that is contrary to my own. And though I find myself pledged to one particular way of life, I do not require, as many do, that others also follow it. Rather, I accept and understand a thousand different ways of living and, contrary to most men, more readily recognize differences than uniformity amongst us. I—as frankly as any one would have me—relieve any man of my prejudices and principles, and consider him simply as he is, without reference to myself, taking him according to his own particular design. Though I do not deny myself the simple amenities of life, I nevertheless sincerely approve the self-denial of the monastic Feuillants and the Capuchins, and highly commend their way of living. In my imagination, I can easily put myself in their place, and love and honor them the more for being other than I am myself. I very much desire that we may be judged every man by himself, and would not be drawn into the consequences of following common exemplars.

 

Poetry

18   For reading, history is my delight or else poetry—for which I confess I have a particular fondness and esteem. For, as Cleanthes said, just as the voice forced through the narrow passage of a trumpet comes out more forcible and shrill, so, I think, a sentence couched in the harmony of verse darts more briskly upon the understanding, and strikes both my ear and apprehension with a smarter and more pleasing power. As to the natural abilities I have, of which these essays are a specimen, I find they bow un­der their burden. My imagination and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling in their way; and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied, for I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, wrapped up in clouds, that with troubled and imperfect sight, I am not able to penetrate. I take it upon myself to write impartially about whatever comes into my head—and therein making use of nothing but my own proper and natural means. If, as often happens, I accidentally meet in any good author the same subjects and opinions upon which I have attempted to write (as I did lately in Plutarch’s discourse on the power of the imagination), I see myself so weak and miserable, so heavy and sleepy, in comparison with those better writers, I at once pity and despise myself.

19   Here is something to be wondered at. We have more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry. It is easier to write an indifferent poem than to understand a good one. There is, indeed, a certain low and moderate sort of poetry that a man may well enough judge by certain rules of art; but the true, supreme, and divine poetry is above all the rules of reason. Whoever discerns the beauty of it, with the most assured and steady sight, sees no more than the quick reflection of a flash of lightning. This is the sort of poetry that does not test our judgment but ravishes and overwhelms it. The elation that possesses him who is able to penetrate into this poetry is also aroused in a third man who hears him repeat it. It is like a magnetic stone that not only attracts a needle, but also infuses into it the virtue to attract others.

 

Individuality

20  Wives, children, goods, and especially health must be had by him that can get them; but we are not to so set our heart upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon any one of them. We must reserve a private inner realm, wholly our own, our principal secluded place and retreat where we are entirely free to establish our true liberty. And in this we must, for the most part, entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no knowledge or communication of any foreign concern be admitted there. And there we are free to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, staff, or visitors; so that—when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these—it may be no new thing to be without them. We then have a mind that can turn to itself, that can be its own company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give. Then we shall not fear, in this solitude, to languish in an uncomfortable vacancy of thought. We shall have followed the admonition of Tibullus, who said “In solitary places provide good company for yourself.”

21  Socrates says that boys should cause themselves to be instructed, men should occupy themselves with well doing, and old men should retire from all civil and military employments, living at their own discretion, without the obligation to any office. There are some personalities more suited to these precepts of retire­ment, than others. Such as are of a cautious understanding, of a delicate will, and possessed by feelings that are not easily subjugated by employment—which is my own case—will be more inclined to accept this advice than active and busy souls who embrace all, engage in all, and are hot upon every thing—who offer, present, and devote themselves up to every occasion. We should take advantage of accidental and adventitious occasions, so far as they are congenial to us; but we should by no means make them our principal foundation. For that is not a true basis for life: neither nature nor reason can allow it to be so. And why, then, should we, contrary to their laws, enslave our own contentment by giving it into the power of another?

     

Glory

22  Of all the foolish dreams of the world, that which is most universally received is the concern for reputation and glory. We are fond of this to such a degree that we abandon riches, peace, life, and health—which are effectual and substantial goods—to pursue this vain phantom and empty word that has neither body nor substance. In the words of Tasso:

      Glory, whose sweet and captivating sound
Enchants proud mortals all the world around, 
Is but an echo, dream, or phantom snare,  
Moved and dispersed by every breath of air.

Among all the irrational states of mind of men, it should seem that the philosophers themselves are the most preoccupied with this the most impatient and obstinate of all follies—and do the least to disengage themselves from it, “because it does not cease to tempt the wisest minds,” [Augustine]

23    There is not any one vice of which reason does so clearly accuse our vanity as pursuit of glory; but it is so deeply rooted in us that I doubt whether any one ever clearly freed himself from it. After you have said all, and believed all that has been said to its prejudice, it creates so intestine an inclination in opposition to your best arguments that you have little power and firmness to resist it. For, as Cicero says, even those who controvert it want the books they write to appear before the world with their names on the title page, and seek to derive glory from seeming to despise it..

24  Observe how Plato’s reputation is tumbled and tossed about, everyone ennobling his own opinions by applying Plato’s thoughts to himself, and making him support what cause he pleases. People bring Plato into an argument and furnish him with all the new opinions the world becomes familiar with; they make him, because of the way things have changed since his time, differ from himself. Every one, according to his own sense, makes Plato disavow the manners and customs lawful in his age, because they are unlawful in ours; and all this is done with an energy and vivacity, depending on the forcefulness and sprightliness of the interpreter’s wit.

 

The Senses

25     From the same foundation that Heraclitus derived the proposition that all things had in them those forms that we discern,  Democritus drew quite a contrary conclusion— that objects have in them nothing that we discern in them. And because honey is sweet to one person and bitter to another, he consequently argued that it was neither sweet nor bitter.
    The Pyrrhonians would say that they not know whether it is sweet or bitter, or whether the one or the other, or both; for these philosophers always sought, and achieved, the highest degree of doubt.
    The Cyrenaics held that nothing was perceptible from without: only that was perceptible that inwardly touched us, as pain and pleasure. They acknowledged neither sound nor color, but only certain feelings that we receive from them. They concluded that man’s judgment had no other basis.
    Protagoras believed that what seems true to every one, is true to every one.
    The Epicureans lodged all judgment in the senses, and in the knowledge of things, and in pleasure.  
    Plato would have the judgment of truth—and truth itself— to derive from opinions and the senses, to belong both to the natural ability to perceive and to think carefully.  
    This discourse has put me upon the consideration of the senses, in which is found the greatest foundation and proof of our ignorance. Whatever is known, is presumably known by the inherent ability of the knower. For, seeing that judgment proceeds from the mental operations of him who judges, it can be concluded that these operations are performed by his abilities and will, not by means of something outside him, as it would happen if we knew things according to the power and the law of their essential forms. Now all knowledge is con­veyed to us by the senses; they are our masters. In the words of Lucretius,

Sensation is the surest path belief can find  
To enter human heart and mind.

Science begins with the senses, and is resolved into them. After all, we should know no more than a stone if we did not know there is sound, odor, light, taste, measure, weight, softness, hardness, sharpness, color, smoothness, breadth, and depth. These are the platforms and principles of the structure of all our knowledge; and, according to some, science is nothing else but sense. He that could make me contradict the senses would have to take me by the throat. He could not drive me back further from the truth. The senses are the beginning and the end of human knowledge

26   Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of which the first, thinking the human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a mocking and laughing countenance; Heraclitus, on the other hand, commiserated with our condition, and always appeared with a sorrowful look and tears in his eyes. .  .

27    I am clearly for the first disposition; not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it is more contemptuous, and expresses more condemnation than the other. For I think we can never be sufficiently despised as we deserve. Compassion and bewailing seem to imply some esteem of, and value for, the thing bemoaned; whereas the things we laugh at are by that expressed to be of no importance. I do not think that we are so unhappy as we are vain, or have in us so much malice as folly. We are not so full of mischief as inanity, nor so miserable as we are vile and mean. . .  

         Of the same strain was Statilius’s answer when Brutus courted him to join the conspiracy against Caesar; “He was satisfied that the enterprise was just, but he did not think mankind so considerable as to deserve a wise man’s concern.” 

28      I do not know why the great should, any more than us, be required to conceal their faults, since what is only reputed indiscretion in us, in them the people brand as tyranny and contempt of the laws. However, besides their proclivity to vice, it would seem the great have found heightened pleasure in insulting the laws and trampling upon public observances. Indeed, Plato in his Gorgias defines a tyrant as one who has license in a city to do whatever his own will desires. And because this is carried out with impunity, the publication of their vices often creates more mischief by its example than the vice itself. Every one fears to be spied on and overseen; but government leaders are always so. Their very gestures, looks, and thoughts, are viewed by people who believe they have right and obligation to censure and be judges of them. Furthermore, the faults appear greater according to the eminency and luster of the place where they are found—just as a mole or a wart appears more conspicuous on the forehead than a wide wound elsewhere.

29  We have no understanding of being, because all human nature is always in the middle—between birth and dying—giving but an obscure appearance and shadow, a weak and uncertain opinion of itself. Furthermore, if you perhaps turn your thoughts to apprehend your being, it would be but like grasping water; for the more you clutch your hand to squeeze and hold what is in its own nature flowing, so much more you lose what you would grasp and hold. So, seeing that all things are subject to change from one thing to another, when reason looks for a real substance, it finds itself deceived, not being able to apprehend any thing that is subsistent and permanent, because every thing is either entering into being and not yet arrived at it, or begins to die before it is born. [Plutarch]

 

Conversation

30  The most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind, in my opinion, is conversation. I find the use of it more captivating than of any other action of life. For that reason, if I were compelled to choose, I think I would sooner consent to lose my sight than my hearing and speech. The Athenians, and also the Romans, kept the exercise of conversation in great honor in their academies; the Italians retain some following in their footsteps to this day, to their great advantage, as is manifest by the comparison of our understandings with theirs. . .

I enter into conversation and argument with great liberty and ease, since other people’s opinions meet in me a soil very unfit for penetration or taking deep root. No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, though never so contrary to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and extravagant that does not seem to me a suitable product of the human mind. We who deprive our judgments of the right of coercing others, look calmly at adverse opinions; and if we do not incline our judgments to them, yet we easily give them the hearing.

Where one scale is totally empty, I let the other waver under old wives’ dreams. I think myself excusable if I’d rather choose the odd number, Thursday rather than Friday, if I’d had rather be twelfth or fourteenth than thirteenth at table, if I’d rather on a journey see a hare run by me than cross my way, and if I’d rather give my man my left foot than my right, when he comes to dress me. All such whimsies as are in use amongst us deserve at least to be listened to. For my part, they only signify inanity, but they do signify that. Moreover, vulgar and casual opinions are something more than nothing in nature; and he who will not suffer himself to give them ear, perhaps falls into the vice of obstinacy, to avoid that of superstition.

 

Old Age

31  I would always have a man up and doing, and as much as he is able, extending and spinning out the offices of life. Let death take me planting cabbages, without any regard for him, and much less for my garden’s not being finished. I saw a man die who, at his last gasp, seemed to be concerned with nothing so much as that destiny was about to cut the thread of a history he was then compiling, when he was got no farther than the fifteenth or sixteenth of our kings. As Lucretius wrote

They tell us not that, dying, we no more
            Desire the things we did before.

32  An old weather-beaten soldier of Caeser’s guard came to ask him leave that he might kill himself. Taking notice of his withered body and decrepit gait, Ceaser  replied with a smile, “You imagine, then, that you are still alive?” Should a man fall from a sprightly and vigorous youth suddenly into the aches and impotencies of age, I do not think any human would  be able to  endure such a change. But nature, leading us by the hand at an easy and, as it were, insensible pace, little by little, step by step, conducts us gently to that miserable condition, and by that means makes it familiar to us. Thus we do not perceive—nor are aware of the occasion—when our youth dies in us, though it be really a harder death than the final dissolution of a languishing body, which is only the death of old age; because the fall is not so great from an uneasy being to none at all, as it is from a sprightly and florid being to one that is unwieldy and painful.

 

Death

33   Is it reasonable to so long fear a thing that will so soon be over? A long life and a short are made all one by death; for there is no long nor short to things that are no more. Aristotle tells us that there are certain little beasts upon the banks of the river Hypanis that never live above a day: they that die at eight of the clock in the morning die in their youth, and those that die at five in the evening die in extreme age. Which of us would not laugh to see these few moments of continuance as making the difference between happiness and sorrow? Yet the most and the least of our lives, in comparison to eternity, or even to the duration of mountains, rivers, stars, trees, even of some animals, is no less ridiculous. But Nature compels us to her way: “Go out of this world”, she says, “as you entered it. The same passage you made from death to life—without passion of fear—the same, in a like manner, repeat from life to death. Your death is part of the order of the universe, it is a part of the life of the world.”

34   The philosopher Lycon prudently ordered his executors to dispose of his body where they should think most fit and, as to his funeral, to order it to be neither too superfluous, nor too mean. For my part, I shall wholly refer the ordering of this ceremony to custom, and leave the whole matter to the discretion of those to whose lot it shall fall to do me that last office. Said Cicero,

               The place of our burial is wholly to be ignored  
 
              by us, but not to be neglected by our friends.

And it was the view of Saint Augustine that the care of funerals, the place of burial, and the pomp of obsequies, are rather consolations to the living than any benefit to the dead. The same consideration made Socrates answer Criton, who, at the hour of his death, asked him, how he would be buried ? “How you will,” he replied.

   

Source

Adapted from The Works of Michael de Montaigne, by W. Hazlitt and edited by O. W. Wight. In four volumes. Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston, 1879.  

A translation of the Essays by Charles Cotton is available on-line at Oregon State University.

French and English versions of the Essays at available on-line at the Montaigne Studies site.

A biography of Montaigne is available at the web site of Oxford Modern Political Theorists.

                Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000