Michel de Montaigne.

The Essays of Montaigne — Volume 15 online

. (page 1 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by David Widger


Translated by Charles Cotton

Edited by William Carew Hazilitt



V. Upon Some verses of Virgil.




By how much profitable thoughts are more full and solid, by so much are
they also more cumbersome and heavy: vice, death, poverty, diseases, are
grave and grievous subjects. A man should have his soul instructed in
the means to sustain and to contend with evils, and in the rules of
living and believing well: and often rouse it up, and exercise it in this
noble study; but in an ordinary soul it must be by intervals and with
moderation; it will otherwise grow besotted if continually intent upon
it. I found it necessary, when I was young, to put myself in mind and
solicit myself to keep me to my duty; gaiety and health do not, they say,
so well agree with those grave and serious meditations: I am at present
in another state: the conditions of age but too much put me in mind, urge
me to wisdom, and preach to me. From the excess of sprightliness I am
fallen into that of severity, which is much more troublesome; and for
that reason I now and then suffer myself purposely a little to run into
disorder, and occupy my mind in wanton and youthful thoughts, wherewith
it diverts itself. I am of late but too reserved, too heavy, and too
ripe; years every day read to me lectures of coldness and temperance.
This body of mine avoids disorder and dreads it; 'tis now my body's turn
to guide my mind towards reformation; it governs, in turn, and more
rudely and imperiously than the other; it lets me not an hour alone,
sleeping or waking, but is always preaching to me death, patience, and
repentance. I now defend myself from temperance, as I have formerly done
from pleasure; it draws me too much back, and even to stupidity. Now I
will be master of myself, to all intents and purposes; wisdom has its
excesses, and has no less need of moderation than folly. Therefore, lest
I should wither, dry up, and overcharge myself with prudence, in the
intervals and truces my infirmities allow me:

"Mens intenta suis ne seit usque malis."

["That my mind may not eternally be intent upon my ills."
- Ovid., Trist., iv. i, 4.]

I gently turn aside, and avert my eyes from the stormy and cloudy sky I
have before me, which, thanks be to God, I regard without fear, but not
without meditation and study, and amuse myself in the remembrance of my
better years:

"Animus quo perdidit, optat,
Atque in praeterita se totus imagine versat."

["The mind wishes to have what it has lost, and throws itself
wholly into memories of the past." - Petronius, c. 128.]

Let childhood look forward and age backward; was not this the
signification of Janus' double face? Let years draw me along if they
will, but it shall be backward; as long as my eyes can discern the
pleasant season expired, I shall now and then turn them that way; though
it escape from my blood and veins, I shall not, however, root the image
of it out of my memory:

"Hoc est
Vivere bis, vita posse priore frui."

["'Tis to live twice to be able to enjoy one's former life again."
- Martial, x. 23, 7.]

Plato ordains that old men should be present at the exercises, dances,
and sports of young people, that they may rejoice in others for the
activity and beauty of body which is no more in themselves, and call to
mind the grace and comeliness of that flourishing age; and wills that in
these recreations the honour of the prize should be given to that young
man who has most diverted the company. I was formerly wont to mark
cloudy and gloomy days as extraordinary; these are now my ordinary days;
the extraordinary are the clear and bright; I am ready to leap for joy,
as for an unwonted favour, when nothing happens me. Let me tickle
myself, I cannot force a poor smile from this wretched body of mine;
I am only merry in conceit and in dreaming, by artifice to divert the
melancholy of age; but, in faith, it requires another remedy than a
dream. A weak contest of art against nature. 'Tis great folly to
lengthen and anticipate human incommodities, as every one does; I had
rather be a less while old than be old before I am really so.' I seize on
even the least occasions of pleasure I can meet. I know very well, by
hearsay, several sorts of prudent pleasures, effectually so, and glorious
to boot; but opinion has not power enough over me to give me an appetite
to them. I covet not so much to have them magnanimous, magnificent, and
pompous, as I do to have them sweet, facile, and ready:

"A natura discedimus; populo nos damus,
nullius rei bono auctori."

["We depart from nature and give ourselves to the people, who
understand nothing." - Seneca, Ep., 99.]

My philosophy is in action, in natural and present practice, very little
in fancy: what if I should take pleasure in playing at cob-nut or to whip
a top!

"Non ponebat enim rumores ante salutem."

["He did not sacrifice his health even to rumours." Ennius, apud
Cicero, De Offic., i. 24]

Pleasure is a quality of very little ambition; it thinks itself rich
enough of itself without any addition of repute; and is best pleased
where most retired. A young man should be whipped who pretends to a
taste in wine and sauces; there was nothing which, at that age, I less
valued or knew: now I begin to learn; I am very much ashamed on't; but
what should I do? I am more ashamed and vexed at the occasions that put
me upon't. 'Tis for us to dote and trifle away the time, and for young
men to stand upon their reputation and nice punctilios; they are going
towards the world and the world's opinion; we are retiring from it:

"Sibi arma, sibi equos, sibi hastas, sibi clavam, sibi pilam,
sibi natationes, et cursus habeant: nobis senibus, ex lusionibus
multis, talos relinquant et tesseras;"

["Let them reserve to themselves arms, horses, spears, clubs,
tennis, swimming, and races; and of all the sports leave to us old
men cards and dice." - Cicero, De Senec., c. 16.]

the laws themselves send us home. I can do no less in favour of this
wretched condition into which my age has thrown me than furnish it with
toys to play withal, as they do children; and, in truth, we become such.
Both wisdom and folly will have enough to do to support and relieve me by
alternate services in this calamity of age:

"Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem."

["Mingle with counsels a brief interval of folly."
- Horace, Od., iv. 12, 27.]

I accordingly avoid the lightest punctures; and those that formerly would
not have rippled the skin, now pierce me through and through: my habit of
body is now so naturally declining to ill:

"In fragili corpore odiosa omnis offensio est;"

["In a fragile body every shock is obnoxious."
- Cicero, De Senec., c. 18.]

"Mensque pati durum sustinet aegra nihil."

["And the infirm mind can bear no difficult exertion."
- Ovid, De Ponto., i. 5, 18.]

I have ever been very susceptibly tender as to offences: I am much more
tender now, and open throughout.

"Et minimae vires frangere quassa valent."

["And little force suffices to break what was cracked before."
- Ovid, De Tris., iii. 11, 22.]

My judgment restrains me from kicking against and murmuring at the
inconveniences that nature orders me to endure, but it does not take away
my feeling them: I, who have no other thing in my aim but to live and be
merry, would run from one end of the world to the other to seek out one
good year of pleasant and jocund tranquillity. A melancholic and dull
tranquillity may be enough for me, but it benumbs and stupefies me; I am
not contented with it. If there be any person, any knot of good company
in country or city, in France or elsewhere, resident or in motion, who
can like my humour, and whose humours I can like, let them but whistle
and I will run and furnish them with essays in flesh and bone:

Seeing it is the privilege of the mind to rescue itself from old age, I
advise mine to it with all the power I have; let it meanwhile continue
green, and flourish if it can, like mistletoe upon a dead tree. But I
fear 'tis a traitor; it has contracted so strict a fraternity with the
body that it leaves me at every turn, to follow that in its need. I
wheedle and deal with it apart in vain; I try in vain to wean it from
this correspondence, to no effect; quote to it Seneca and Catullus, and
ladies and royal masques; if its companion have the stone, it seems to
have it too; even the faculties that are most peculiarly and properly its
own cannot then perform their functions, but manifestly appear stupefied
and asleep; there is no sprightliness in its productions, if there be not
at the same time an equal proportion in the body too.

Our masters are to blame, that in searching out the causes of the
extraordinary emotions of the soul, besides attributing it to a divine
ecstasy, love, martial fierceness, poesy, wine, they have not also
attributed a part to health: a boiling, vigorous, full, and lazy health,
such as formerly the verdure of youth and security, by fits, supplied me
withal; that fire of sprightliness and gaiety darts into the mind flashes
that are lively and bright beyond our natural light, and of all
enthusiasms the most jovial, if not the most extravagant.

It is, then, no wonder if a contrary state stupefy and clog my spirit,
and produce a contrary effect:

"Ad nullum consurgit opus, cum corpore languet;"

["When the mind is languishing, the body is good for nothing."
(Or:) "It rises to no effort; it languishes with the body."
- Pseudo Gallus, i. 125.]

and yet would have me obliged to it for giving, as it wants to make out,
much less consent to this stupidity than is the ordinary case with men of
my age. Let us, at least, whilst we have truce, drive away incommodities
and difficulties from our commerce:

"Dum licet, obducta solvatur fronte senectus:"

["Whilst we can, let us banish old age from the brow."
- Herod., Ep., xiii. 7.]

"Tetrica sunt amcenanda jocularibus."

["Sour things are to be sweetened with those that are pleasant."
- Sidonius Apollin., Ep., i. 9.]

I love a gay and civil wisdom, and fly from all sourness and austerity of
manners, all repellent, mien being suspected by me:

"Tristemque vultus tetrici arrogantiam:"

["The arrogant sadness of a crabbed face." - Auctor Incert.]

"Et habet tristis quoque turba cinaedos."

["And the dull crowd also has its voluptuaries." (Or:)
"An austere countenance sometimes covers a debauched mind."
- Idem.]

I am very much of Plato's opinion, who says that facile or harsh humours
are great indications of the good or ill disposition of the mind.
Socrates had a constant countenance, but serene and smiling, not sourly
austere, like the elder Crassus, whom no one ever saw laugh. Virtue is a
pleasant and gay quality.

I know very well that few will quarrel with the licence of my writings,
who have not more to quarrel with in the licence of their own thoughts:
I conform myself well enough to their inclinations, but I offend their
eyes. 'Tis a fine humour to strain the writings of Plato, to wrest his
pretended intercourses with Phaedo, Dion, Stella, and Archeanassa:

"Non pudeat dicere, quod non pudet sentire."

["Let us not be ashamed to speak what we are not ashamed to think."]

I hate a froward and dismal spirit, that slips over all the pleasures of
life and seizes and feeds upon misfortunes; like flies, that cannot stick
to a smooth and polished body, but fix and repose themselves upon craggy
and rough places, and like cupping-glasses, that only suck and attract
bad blood.

As to the rest, I have enjoined myself to dare to say all that I dare to
do; even thoughts that are not to be published, displease me; the worst
of my actions and qualities do not appear to me so evil as I find it evil
and base not to dare to own them. Every one is wary and discreet in
confession, but men ought to be so in action; the boldness of doing ill
is in some sort compensated and restrained by the boldness of confessing
it. Whoever will oblige himself to tell all, should oblige himself to do
nothing that he must be forced to conceal. I wish that this excessive
licence of mine may draw men to freedom, above these timorous and mincing
virtues sprung from our imperfections, and that at the expense of my
immoderation I may reduce them to reason. A man must see and study his
vice to correct it; they who conceal it from others, commonly conceal it
from themselves; and do not think it close enough, if they themselves see
it: they withdraw and disguise it from their own consciences:

"Quare vitia sua nemo confitetur? Quia etiam nunc in
illia est; somnium narrare vigilantis est."

["Why does no man confess his vices? because he is yet in them;
'tis for a waking man to tell his dream." - Seneca, Ep., 53.]

The diseases of the body explain themselves by their increase; we find
that to be the gout which we called a rheum or a strain; the diseases of
the soul, the greater they are, keep, themselves the most obscure;
the most sick are the least sensible; therefore it is that with an
unrelenting hand they most often, in full day, be taken to task, opened,
and torn from the hollow of the heart. As in doing well, so in doing
ill, the mere confession is sometimes satisfaction. Is there any
deformity in doing amiss, that can excuse us from confessing ourselves?
It is so great a pain to me to dissemble, that I evade the trust of
another's secrets, wanting the courage to disavow my knowledge. I can
keep silent, but deny I cannot without the greatest trouble and violence
to myself imaginable to be very secret, a man must be so by nature, not
by obligation. 'Tis little worth, in the service of a prince, to be
secret, if a man be not a liar to boot. If he who asked Thales the
Milesian whether he ought solemnly to deny that he had committed
adultery, had applied himself to me, I should have told him that he ought
not to do it; for I look upon lying as a worse fault than the other.
Thales advised him quite contrary, bidding him swear to shield the
greater fault by the less;

[Montaigne's memory here serves him ill, for the question being put
to Thales, his answer was: "But is not perjury worse than
adultery?" - Diogenes Laertius, in vita, i. 36.]

nevertheless, this counsel was not so much an election as a
multiplication of vice. Upon which let us say this in passing, that we
deal liberally with a man of conscience when we propose to him some
difficulty in counterpoise of vice; but when we shut him up betwixt two
vices, he is put to a hard choice as Origen was either to idolatrise or
to suffer himself to be carnally abused by a great Ethiopian slave they
brought to him. He submitted to the first condition, and wrongly, people
say. Yet those women of our times are not much out, according to their
error, who protest they had rather burden their consciences with ten men
than one mass.

If it be indiscretion so to publish one's errors, yet there is no great
danger that it pass into example and custom; for Ariston said, that the
winds men most fear are those that lay them open. We must tuck up this
ridiculous rag that hides our manners: they send their consciences to the
stews, and keep a starched countenance: even traitors and assassins
espouse the laws of ceremony, and there fix their duty. So that neither
can injustice complain of incivility, nor malice of indiscretion. 'Tis
pity but a bad man should be a fool to boot, and that outward decency
should palliate his vice: this rough-cast only appertains to a good and
sound wall, that deserves to be preserved and whited.

In favour of the Huguenots, who condemn our auricular and private
confession, I confess myself in public, religiously and purely: St.
Augustin, Origeti, and Hippocrates have published the errors of their
opinions; I, moreover, of my manners. I am greedy of making myself
known, and I care not to how many, provided it be truly; or to say
better, I hunger for nothing; but I mortally hate to be mistaken by those
who happen to learn my name. He who does all things for honour and
glory, what can he think to gain by shewing himself to the world in a
vizor, and by concealing his true being from the people? Praise a
humpback for his stature, he has reason to take it for an affront:
if you are a coward, and men commend you for your valour, is it of you
they speak? They take you for another. I should like him as well who
glorifies himself in the compliments and congees that are made him as if
he were master of the company, when he is one of the least of the train.
Archelaus, king of Macedon, walking along the street, somebody threw
water on his head, which they who were with him said he ought to punish:
"Aye, but," said he, "whoever it was, he did not throw the water upon me,
but upon him whom he took me to be." Socrates being told that people
spoke ill of him, "Not at all," said he, "there is nothing, in me of what
they say."

For my part, if any one should recommend me as a good pilot, as being
very modest or very chaste, I should owe him no thanks; and so, whoever
should call me traitor, robber, or drunkard, I should be as little
concerned. They who do not rightly know themselves, may feed themselves
with false approbations; not I, who see myself, and who examine myself
even to my very bowels, and who very well know what is my due. I am
content to be less commended, provided I am better known. I may be
reputed a wise man in such a sort of wisdom as I take to be folly.
I am vexed that my Essays only serve the ladies for a common piece of
furniture, and a piece for the hall; this chapter will make me part of
the water-closet. I love to traffic with them a little in private;
public conversation is without favour and without savour. In farewells,
we oftener than not heat our affections towards the things we take leave
of; I take my last leave of the pleasures of this world: these are our
last embraces.

But let us come to my subject: what has the act of generation, so
natural, so necessary, and so just, done to men, to be a thing not to
be spoken of without blushing, and to be excluded from all serious and
moderate discourse? We boldly pronounce kill, rob, betray, and that we
dare only to do betwixt the teeth. Is it to say, the less we expend in
words, we may pay so much the more in thinking? For it is certain that
the words least in use, most seldom written, and best kept in, are the
best and most generally known: no age, no manners, are ignorant of them,
no more than the word bread they imprint themselves in every one without
being, expressed, without voice, and without figure; and the sex that
most practises it is bound to say least of it. 'Tis an act that we have
placed in the franchise of silence, from which to take it is a crime even
to accuse and judge it; neither dare we reprehend it but by periphrasis
and picture. A great favour to a criminal to be so execrable that
justice thinks it unjust to touch and see him; free, and safe by the
benefit of the severity of his condemnation. Is it not here as in matter
of books, that sell better and become more public for being suppressed?
For my part, I will take Aristotle at his word, who says, that
"bashfulness is an ornament to youth, but a reproach to old age." These
verses are preached in the ancient school, a school that I much more
adhere to than the modern: its virtues appear to me to be greater, and
the vices less:

"Ceux qui par trop fuyant Venus estrivent,
Faillent autant que ceulx qui trop la suyvent."

["They err as much who too much forbear Venus, as they who are too
frequent in her rites." - A translation by Amyot from Plutarch, A
philosopher should converse with princes.]

"Tu, dea, rerum naturam sola gubernas,
Nec sine to quicquam dias in luminis oras
Exoritur, neque fit laetum, nec amabile quidquam."

["Goddess, still thou alone governest nature, nor without thee
anything comes into light; nothing is pleasant, nothing joyful."
- Lucretius, i. 22.]

I know not who could set Pallas and the Muses at variance with Venus, and
make them cold towards Love; but I see no deities so well met, or that
are more indebted to one another. Who will deprive the Muses of amorous
imaginations, will rob them of the best entertainment they have, and of
the noblest matter of their work: and who will make Love lose the
communication and service of poesy, will disarm him of his best weapons:
by this means they charge the god of familiarity and good will, and the
protecting goddesses of humanity and justice, with the vice of
ingratitude and unthankfulness. I have not been so long cashiered from
the state and service of this god, that my memory is not still perfect in
his force and value:

"Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae;"

["I recognise vestiges of my old flame." - AEneid., iv. 23.]

There are yet some remains of heat and emotion after the fever:

"Nec mihi deficiat calor hic, hiemantibus annis!"

["Nor let this heat of youth fail me in my winter years."]

Withered and drooping as I am, I feel yet some remains of the past

"Qual l'alto Egeo, per the Aquilone o Noto
Cessi, the tutto prima il volse et scosse,
Non 's accheta ei pero; ma'l suono e'l moto
Ritien del l'onde anco agitate e grosse:"

["As Aegean seas, when storms be calmed again,
That rolled their tumbling waves with troublous blasts,
Do yet of tempests passed some show retain,
And here and there their swelling billows cast." - Fairfax.]

but from what I understand of it, the force and power of this god are
more lively and animated in the picture of poesy than in their own

"Et versus digitos habet:"

["Verse has fingers." - Altered from Juvenal, iv. 196.]

it has I know not what kind of air, more amorous than love itself. Venus
is not so beautiful, naked, alive, and panting, as she is here in Virgil:

"Dixerat; et niveis hinc atque hinc Diva lacertis
Cunctantem amplexu molli fovet. Ille repente
Accepit solitam flammam; notusque medullas
Intravit calor, et labefacta per ossa cucurrit
Non secus atque olim tonitru, cum rupta corusco
Ignea rima micans percurrit lumine nimbos.
. . . . . . Ea verba loquutus,
Optatos dedit amplexus; placidumque petivit
Conjugis infusus gremio per membra soporem."

["The goddess spoke, and throwing round him her snowy arms in soft
embraces, caresses him hesitating. Suddenly he caught the wonted
flame, and the well-known warmth pierced his marrow, and ran
thrilling through his shaken bones: just as when at times, with
thunder, a stream of fire in lightning flashes shoots across the
skies. Having spoken these words, he gave her the wished embrace,
and in the bosom of his spouse sought placid sleep."
- AEneid, viii. 387 and 392.]

All that I find fault with in considering it is, that he has represented
her a little too passionate for a married Venus; in this discreet kind of
coupling, the appetite is not usually so wanton, but more grave and dull.
Love hates that people should hold of any but itself, and goes but
faintly to work in familiarities derived from any other title, as
marriage is: alliance, dowry, therein sway by reason, as much or more
than grace and beauty. Men do not marry for themselves, let them say
what they will; they marry as much or more for their posterity and
family; the custom and interest of marriage concern our race much more
than us; and therefore it is, that I like to have a match carried on by a
third hand rather than a man's own, and by another man's liking than that
of the party himself; and how much is all this opposite to the

1 3 4 5 6 7