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Montaigne (1533-1592)
Que scais-je?1

  • Life & Philosophy
  • Sayings of Montaigne
  • Emerson's "Montaigne
  • Notes

  • Life & Philosophy

    Montaigne was the initiator and greatest master of the Essay as a modern literary form.2 Montaigne is one of the last authors whom modern taste learns to appreciate. He is a man's author, not a woman's; a tired man's, not a fresh man's. We all come to him, late indeed, but at last, and rest in his paneled library.

    It was Montaigne who said, "I determine nothing; I do not comprehend things; I suspend judgment; I examine." In his essays he compared primitive society to civilized society and found that natural society surpasses what man has wrought in many respects, that "pre-civilized man is possessed of natural virtues which civilization has obscured, perverted, or destroyed ..."

    Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born to the aristocracy; the family estate was located thirty miles west of Bordeaux, France. Much of Montaigne's early life is not known, other than this: his early care was taken out of his mother's hands and at the age of four he came under the direct supervision of his father. "Latin," Joseph Barry writes, "was his mother tongue, shaping his future lapidary style. From infancy he was taught no other; at six he was taught French. His mother and the servants had to accommodate themselves to his father's wish and instructions, learning a rudimentary Latin in order to respond to the child's speech."3 Barry continues, "When he went to school, it was with a retinue of tutor and valet, who carried his books and papers." At the university Montaigne studied law. After his studies, he was to practice law at Bordeaux and was to have an important judicial position with the government at Bordeaux. In 1571, his two older brothers dead, Montaigne succeeded to the family estate. This development allowed Montaigne, at age 38, to retreat "to a tower of his chateau to meditate and to write. It was a retreat from a crumbling feudal society, from the wretched religious wars pitting Protestants against Catholics in bloody defeat ..."4 It was there at his estate that Montaigne stayed until his death, to live the life of a country gentleman.5 He produced his first two books of Essays while living in retirement between 1571 and 1580, and the third after 1586.

    Montaigne was an admirer of Socrates. Socrates was always conscious of how much he did not know, and claimed superiority to unthinking men only in that he was aware of his own ignorance. Montaigne, having adopted the Socratic view, is well known to have continually asked the question -- "Que scais-je?" ("What do I know?") So, it should come as no surprise, Montaigne, in addition to being "a prince of egotists," was a skeptic.

    "He was always very conscious of one of the bases of skepticism, the fact that no two things, no two men's opinions, no two opinions of one mind at different times, are ever alike. ... The function of experience, the ultimate method of truth for Montaigne, is to do in its humble way what it can do more surely than its prouder colleague reason: to sift the elements of similarity from the chaos of fact into some pattern that men can live by. ... Our job is not to rule, to hoar, to build; it is to live appropriately. We assume that this is easy; it is not. It is a life study, an exacting art."6

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    Sayings of Montaigne

    § "We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid."
    § "We must meekly suffer the laws of our condition. We are born to grow old, to grow weak, to be sick, in spite of all medicine."
    § [See Education.]
    § "Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known."
    § "Only the fools are certain and assured."
    § "The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness; her state is like that of things above the moon, ever serene."
    § "Long sufferance begets custom; custom, consent and imitation."
    § "He who would teach men to die would teach them to live."
    § "I want death to find me planting my cabbages."
    § "It is certain that to most men the preparation for death has been a greater torment than the suffering of it."
    Depth and Superficiality
    § "... we should take a little care not to call strength what is only nicety, or solid what is only acute, or good what is only beautiful: which delight more tasted than drunk [Cicero]. Not all that entertains us sustains us, when it is a question not of the wit but of the soul [Seneca]."
    § "... glosses increase doubts."
    § "To satisfy one doubt, they give me three; it is the Hydra's head."
    § [Apprenticeship] "... everything that comes to our eyes is book enough; a page's prank, a servant's blunder, a remark made at a table, are so many new materials --- mixing with men is wonderfully useful and to visit foreign countries ... to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others."
    § [Teachers] "I would urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head; that both these qualities should be required of him, but more particularly character and understanding than learning; and that he should go about his job in a novel way."
    § "Let the tutor make his charge pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust ... set a variety of ideas before him: let him choose if he can."
    § "It should be noted that children's games are not merely games; one should regard them as their most serious activities."
    § "It takes management to enjoy life."
    § "Experience is to do in its humble way what it can do more surely than its prouder colleague reason: to sift the elements of similarity from the chaos of fact into some pattern that men can live by."
    § "I accept other people's choice and stay in the position where God put me ... otherwise I could not keep myself from rolling about incessantly. Thus I have, by the grace of God, kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience, in the ancients beliefs of our religion." [Emerson dealt with this dilemma: "God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, -- you can never have both."]
    § [As a charitable institution:] "Those who in my time have tried to correct the world's morals by new ideas, reform the superficial vices; the essential ones they leave as they were, if they do not increase them; and increase is to be feared. People are likely to rest from all other well doing on the strength of these external, arbitrary reforms, which cost us less and bring greater acclaim; and thereby they satisfy at little expense the other natural, consubstantial, and internal vices."
    § "The middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) spoil all; they will chew our meat for us."
    § "That which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion, can never be attained by force."
    § "The most desirable laws are those that are rarest, simplest, and most general; and I even think that it would be better to have none at all than to have them in such numbers as we have."
    § "In truth lying is an accursed vice. We are men, and held together, only by our word. If we recognize the horror and the gravity of lying, we would persecute it with fire more justly than other crimes."
    § "A good marriage consists of a blind wife and a deaf husband."
    § "Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do."
    § "If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial."
    § "Men do not know the natural infirmity of their mind: it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work, like silkworms, and is suffocated in it. A mouse in a pitch barrel [Erasmus]. It thinks it notices from a distance some sort of glimmer of imaginary light and truth; but while running toward it, it is crossed by so many difficulties and obstacles, and diverted by so many new quests, that it strays from the road, bewildered."
    § "Never did two men judge alike about the same thing, and it is impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in different men, but in the same man at different times."
    § "Our opinions are grafted upon one another."
    § "I offer them [my opinions] as what I believe, not what is to be believed."
    § "I set little value on my own opinions, but I set just as little on those of others. Fortune pays me properly. If I do not take advice, I give still less."
    § "The philosophers falsify them [rules of nature] and show us the face of Nature painted in too high a color, and too sophisticated, whence spring so many varied portraits of so uniform a subject."
    § "I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better."
    § "I have here only made a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them together."
    § "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other."
    § "There is no hostility that excels Christian hostility." [Montaigne was to witness the religious civil wars between Catholics and Protestants which lasted intermittently from 1562 to 1594.]
    § "Our religion is made to extirpate vices; it covers them, fosters them, incites them."
    § "I have my own laws and court to judge me .... Others do not see you, they guess at you by uncertain conjectures; they see not so much your nature as your art. Therefore do not cling to their judgment; cling to your own."
    § "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."
    § "We must lend ourselves to others and give ourselves only to ourselves."
    § "This notion [skepticism] is more clearly understood by asking 'What do I know?'"
    § "The slightest things in the world, whirl it around. ... As for the error and uncertainty of the operations of the senses, each man can furnish himself with as many examples as he pleases, so ordinary are the mistakes and deceptions that they offer us."
    § "Either we judge absolutely, or we absolutely cannot."
    Social Engineers
    § [Who by nature is fixed and unchangeable.] "Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now he is done."
    § "Instead of changing men into angels, they change them into beasts."
    § "Our wisdom and deliberation for the most part follow the lead of chance."
    § "Few men have been admired by their own households." [When described by Hermodotus as "Son of the Sun," Antigonus (c. 382-301 BC) said of himself "My valet is not aware of this."]
    § [See Depth and Superficiality]."
    § [See Education.]
    § "He who remembers having been mistaken so many, many times in his own judgment, is he not a fool if he does not distrust it foreever after? When I find myself convicted of a false opinion by another man's reasoning, I do not so much learn what new thing he has told me and this particular bit of ignorance -- that would be small gain -- as I learn my weakness in general, and the treachery of my understanding; whence I derive the reformation of the whole mass."
    § "The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness; her state is like that of things above the moon, ever serene."
    § "I set myself no goal but a domestic and private one."
    § "... in my own writings [on a rereading] I do not always find again the sense of my first thought; I do not know what I meant to say, and often I get burned by correcting and putting in a new meaning, because I have lost the first one, which was better."
    § "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarity."


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    Extracts from Emerson's "Montaigne"
    "Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals. The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these two sides, to find the other: given the upper, to find the under side. Nothing so thin but has these two faces, and when the observer has seen the obverse, he turns it over to see the reverse. Life is a pitching of this penny,- heads or tails. We never tire of this game, because there is still a slight shudder of astonishment at the exhibition of the other face, at the contrast of the two faces. A man is flushed with success, and bethinks himself what this good luck signifies. He drives his bargain in the street; but it occurs that he also is bought and sold. He sees the beauty of a human face, and searches the cause of that beauty, which must be more beautiful. He builds his fortunes, maintains the laws, cherishes his children; but he asks himself, Why? and whereto? This head and this tail are called, in the language of philosophy, Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real; and many fine names beside.
    Each man is born with a predisposition to one or the other of these sides of nature; and it will easily happen that men will be found devoted to one or the other. One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces, cities and persons, and the bringing certain things to pass;- the men of talent and action. Another class have the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius. ...

    He [the genius] has a conception of beauty which the sculptor cannot embody. Picture, statue, temple, railroad, steam-engine, existed first in an artist's mind, without flaw, mistake, or friction, which impair the executed models. So did the Church, the State, college, court, social circle, and all the institutions. It is not strange that these men, remembering what they have seen and hoped of ideas, should affirm disdainfully the superiority of ideas. Having at some time seen that the happy soul will carry all the arts in power, they say, Why cumber ourselves with superfluous realizations? and like dreaming beggars they assume to speak and act as if these values were already substantiated.

    On the other part, the men of toil and trade and luxury,- the animal world, including the animal in the philosopher and poet also, and the practical world, including the painful drudgeries which are never excused to philosopher or poet any more than to the rest,- weigh heavily on the other side. The trade in our streets believes in no metaphysical causes, thinks nothing of the force which necessitated traders and a trading planet to exist: no, but sticks to cotton, sugar, wool and salt. The ward meetings, on election days, are not softened by any misgiving of the value of these ballotings. Hot life is streaming in a single direction. To the men of this world, to the animal strength and spirits, to the men of practical power, whilst immersed in it, the man of ideas appears out of his reason. They alone have reason.

    Things always bring their own philosophy with them, that is, prudence. No man acquires property without acquiring with it a little arithmetic also. In England, the richest country that ever existed, property stands for more, compared with personal ability, than in any other. ... [Outside of the men of genius their are two kinds:]

    Thus the men of the senses revenge themselves on the professors and repay scorn for scorn. The first had leaped to conclusions not yet ripe, and say more than is true; the others make themselves merry with the philosopher, and weigh man by the pound. They believe that mustard bites the tongue, that pepper is hot, friction-matches incendiary, revolvers are to be avoided, and suspenders hold up pantaloons; that there is much sentiment in a chest of tea; and a man will be eloquent, if you give him good wine. ...

    You that will have all solid, and a world of pig-lead, deceive yourselves grossly. You believe yourselves rooted and grounded on adamant; and yet, if we uncover the last facts of our knowledge, you are spinning like bubbles in a river, you know not whither or whence, and you are bottomed and capped and wrapped in delusions. Neither will he be betrayed to a book and wrapped in a gown. The studious class are their own victims; they are thin and pale, their feet are cold, their heads are hot, the night is without sleep, the day a fear of interruption,- pallor, squalor, hunger and egotism. If you come near them and see what conceits they entertain,- they are abstractionists, and spend their days and nights in dreaming some dream; in expecting the homage of society to some precious scheme, built on a truth, but destitute of proportion in its presentment, of justness in its application, and of all energy of will in the schemer to embody and vitalize it. ...

    He is the considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that a man has too many enemies than that he can afford to be his own foe; that we cannot give ourselves too many advantages in this unequal conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other. ...

    Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing, and say the reverse. The appearance is immoral; the result is moral. Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies,- yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams."


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    1 Montaigne's motto: "What do I know?"

    2 Emerson was to write that Montaigne's Essays "are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that comes into his head, treating everything without ceremony ..." (Representative Men.)

    3 French Lovers (New York: Arbor House, 1987) pp. 64-5.

    4 Ibid., p. 70. To retire, as Donald M. Frame was to write, "from the weary slavery of the courts, as he [Montaigne] put it, to freedom and calm in the bosom of the learned muses." (Selections from Montaigne's Essays (Crofts Classics, Stanford University Press, 1973), in Frame's introduction, pp. v-vi.)

    5 Montaigne, it seems, did come out of retirement and was to become the mayor of Bordeaux (1581-85).

    6 Frame's introduction, Selections from Montaigne's Essays, op. cit., pp. vi-vii.

    7 Extracted from the essay, "Montaigne," as found in Emerson's work, Representative Men.


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    2012 (2019)

    Peter Landry