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Montaigne's Essays: Book III.


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Note on the e-text: this Renascence Editions text was provided by Ben R. Schneider, Lawrence University, Wisconsin. It is in the public domain. "Florio's Translation of Montaigne's Essays was first published in 1603. In 'The World's Classics' the first volume was published in 1904, and reprinted in 1910 and 1924." Content unique to this presentation is copyright © 1998 The University of Oregon. For nonprofit and educational uses only.



TWO OR three yeares are now past since the yeere hath beene shortned tenne dayes in France. Oh how many changes are like to ensue this reformation! It was a right remooving of Heaven and Earth together, yet nothing remooveth from it's owne place: My Neighbours finde the season of their seede and Harvest time, the opportunity of their affaires, their lucky and unlucky dayes, to answer just those seasons to which they had from all ages assigned them. Neither was the errour heretofore perceived, nor is the reformation now discerned in our use. So much uncertainty is there in all things; So grosse, so obscure and so dull [is] our understanding. Some are of opinion this reformation might have bin redressed after a lesse incommodious maner; substracting according to the example of Augustus, for some yeares, the bissextile or leape day, Which in some sort is but a day of hinderance and trouble, Until they might more exactly have satisfied the debt, Which by this late reformation is not done, For wee are yet some dayes in arrerages; And if by such a meane we might provide for times to come, appoynting that after the revolution of such or such a number of yeares, that extraordinary day might for ever be eclipsed; so that our misreckoning should not henceforward exceede foure and twenty houres. Wee have no other computation of time, but yeares; The World hath used them so many ages; and yet is it a measure we have not untill this day perfectly established. And such as wee daily doubt. what forme other Nations have diversely given the same; and which was the true use of it. And if some day,that the Heavens in growing olde compresse themselves towards us, and cast into an uncertainty of houres and dayes? And as Plutarke saith of moneths, that even in his dayes Astrology could not yet limit the motion of the moone? Are not we then well holp-up to keepe a register of things past! I was even now plodding (as often I doe) upon this, what free and gadding instrument humane reason is. I ordinarily see that men, in matters proposed them, doe more willingly ammuze and busie themselves in seeking out the reasons than in searching out the trueth of them. They omit pre-suppositions, but curiously examine consequences. They leave things, and runne to causes. Oh conceited [discoursers]! The knowledge of causes doth onely concerne him who hath the conduct of things; Not us that have but the sufferance of them. And who according to our neede, without entering into their beginning and essence, have perfectly the full and absolute use of them. Nor is wine more pleasant unto him that knowes the first faculties of it. Contrariwise, both the body and the minde interrupt and alter the right which they have of the worlds use and of themselves, commixing therewith the opinion of learning. The effects concerne us, but the meanes nothing at all. To determine and distribute belongeth to superiority and regency as accepting, to subjection and apprentise-shippe. Let us re-assume our custome. They commonly beginne thus: How is such a thing done? Whereas, they should say: Is such a thing done? Our discourse is capable to frame an hundred other Worlds, and finde the beginnings and contexture of them. It needeth neither matter nor ground. Let it but runne on; It will as well build upon emptinesse as upon fulnesse, and with inanity as with matter.
Dare pondus idonea fumo. -- Pers. Sat. v. 20.

That things which vanish straight
In smoke, should yet beare weight.

   I finde that wee should say most times: 'There is no such thing.' And I would often employ this answer, but I dare not; for they cry: It is a defeature reduced by ignorance and weakenesse of spirit. And most commonly juggle for company sake, to treate of idle subjects and frivolous discourses, which I believe nothing at all. Since truely, it is a rude and quarellous humour, flatly to deny a proposition. And few misse (especially in things hard to be perswaded) to affirme, that they have seene it; Or to alleadge such witnesses as their authority shall stay our contradiction. According to which use we know the foundation and meanes of a thousand things that never were. And the world is in a thousand questions discanted and bandied too and fro, the pro and contra of which is meerely false. Ita finitima sunt falsa veris ut in præcipitem locum non debeat se sapiens committere: (Cic. Acad. Que. iv.) 'Falsehood is so neere Neighbour to trueth, that a wiseman should not put himselfe upon a slipperie downefall. Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances; their port, their taste, and their proceedings semblable.' Wee behold them with one same eyes. I observe that we are not onely slow in defending our selves from deceipt, but that we seeke and sue to embrace it. Wee love to meddle and entangle our selves with vanity, as conformable unto our being. I have seene the birth of divers miracles in my dayes. Although they be smoothered in the first growth, wee omit not to foresee the course they would have taken had they lived their full age. The matter is to finde the end of the clue; that found, one may winde-off what he list; And there is a further distance from nothing to the least thing in the World, than betweene that and the greatest. Now the first that are embrued with the beginning of strangenesse, comming to publish their history, finde by the oppositions made against them, where the difficulty of perswasion lodgeth, and goe about with some false patch to botch up those places. Besides that, Insita hominibus libidine alendi de industria rumores. 'Men having a naturall desire to nourish reports.' We naturally make it a matter of conscience to restore what hath been lent us, without some usury and accession of our encrease. A particular errour doth first breed a publike errour; And when his turne commeth, a publike errour begetteth a particular errour. So goeth all this vast frame, from hand to hand, confounding and composing it selfe, in such sort that the furthest-abiding testimonie, is better instructed of it then the nearest, and the last informed better perswaded then the first. It is naturall progresse; for whosoever beleeveth any thing, thinkes it a deede of charity to perswade it unto another; Which that he may the better effect, he feareth not to adde something of his owne invention thereunto, so far as he seeth necessary in his discourse, to supply the resistance and defect, he imagineth to bee in anothers conception. My selfe who make an especiall matter of conscience to lie, and care not greatly to add credit or authority to what I say, perceive, nevertheless by the discourses I have in hand, that being earnested, either by the resistance of another or by the earnestnesse of my naration, I swell and amplifie my subject by my voice, motions, vigor and force of wordes; as also by extension and amplification, not without some prejudice to the naked truth. But yet I doe it upon condition that to the first that brings mee home againe, and enquireth for the bare and simple truth at my hands, I sodainly give over my hold, and without exaggeration, emphasis or amplification, I yeeld both my selfe and it unto him: A likely, earnest and ready speech as mine, is easie transported into hyperboles. There is nothing whereunto men are ordinarily more prone then to give way to their opinions. Where ever usuall meanes faile us, we adde commandement, force, fire and sword. It is not without some ill fortune to come to that passe, that the multitude of believers in a throng where fooles doe in number so far exceede the wise, should bee the best touchstone of truth. Quasi vero quidquam sit tam valde, quam nil sapere vulgare. Sanitatis patrocinium est insanientium turba: (Cic. De Divin. ii.) 'As though any thing were so common as to have no wit. The multitude of them that are mad is a defence for them that are in their wit.' It is a hard matter for a man to resolve his judgement against common opinions. The first perswasion taken from the very subject seizeth on the simple: whence under th'authority of the number and antiquity of testimonies it extends it selfe on the wiser sort. As for me, in a matter which I could not believe being reported by one, I should never credit the same though affirmed by a hundred. And I judge not opinions by yeares. It is not long since one of our Princes, in whom the gowt had spoiled a gentle disposition and blith composition, suffered himsefe so far to bee perswaded or misled by the reports made unto him of the wondrous deedes of a Priest, who by way of charmes, spells and gestures cured all diseases, that he undertooke a long-tedious journy to finde him out; and by the vertue of his apprehension did so perswade, and for certaine houres so lull his legs asleepe, that for a while hee brought them to doe him that service which for a long time they had forgotten. Had fortune heaped five or six like accidents one in the necke of another, they had doubtles beene able to bring this miracle into nature. Whereas afterward there was so much simplicity and so little skill found in the architect of these works, that he was deemed unworthy of any punishment: As likewise should be done,with most such-like things, were they throughly knowen in their nature. Miramur ex intervallo fallentia: 'Wee wonder at those things that deceive us by distance.' Our sight doth in such sort, often represent us a farre-off with strange images, which vanish in approaching neerer. Nunquam ad liquidum fama perducitur: 'Fame is never brought to be cleare.' It is a wonder to see how from many vaine beginnings and frivolous causes, so famous impressions doe ordinarily arise and ensue. Even that hindereth the information of them: For while a man endevoureth to finde out causes, forcible and weighty ends, and worthy so great a name, hee loseth the true and essentiall. They are so little that they escape our sight. And verily a right wise, heedy and subtle inquisitor is required in such questings - impartiall and not preoccupated. All these miracles and strange events, are untill this day hidden from me: I have seene no such monster or more expresse wonder in this world than my selfe. With time and custome a man doth acquaint and enure himselfe to all strangenesse: But the more I frequent and know my selfe the more my deformitie astonieth me, and the lesse I understand my selfe. The chiefest priviledge to produce and advance such accidents is reserved unto fortune. Travelling yesterday through a village within two leagues of my house, I found the place yet warme of a miracle that was but newly failed and discovered, wherewith all the country thereabout had for many months beene ammused and abused, and divers bordering Provinces began to listen unto it, and severall troupes of all qualities ceased not thicke and threefold to flocke thither. A yong man of that towne undertooke one night in his owne house (never dreaming of any knavery) to counterfeit the voice of a spirit or ghost; but onely for sport, to make himselfe merry for that present, which succeeding better than be had imagined, to make the jest extend further and himselfe the merrier, he made a country maiden acquainted with his devise; who because she was both seely and harmelesse, consented to bee secret and to second him: In the end they got another, and were now three, all of one age and like sufficiency; and from private spirit-talking, they beganne with hideous voices to cry and roare aloud, and in and about churches biding themselves under the chiefe Altar, speaking but by night, forbidding any light to be set up; From speeches tending the worlds subversion, and threatning of the day of judgement (which are the subiects by whose authority and abusive reverence imposture and illusion is more easily lurked) they proceeded to certaine visions and strange gestures, so foolish and ridiculous  that there is scarce any thing more grosse and absurd used among Children in their childish sports. Suppose, I pray you, that fortune would have seconded this harmelesse devise or jugling tricke, Who knoweth how farre it would have extended, and to what it would have growen? The poore seely three Divels are now in prison, and may happily e're long pay deere for their common sottishnesse, and I wot not whether some cheverell judge or other will be avenged of them for his. It is manifestly seene in this, which now is discovered, as also in divers other things of like quality, exceeding our knowledge; I am of opinion that we uphold our judgement as wel to reject as to receive. Many abuses are engendered into the World, or, to speake more boldly, all the abuses of the World are engendered upon this, that wee are taught to feare to make profession of our ignorance, and are bound to accept and allow all that wee cannot refute. Wee speake of all things by precepts and resolution. The Stile of Rome did heare that even the same that a witnes deposed, because he had seen it with his own eyes, and that which a Judge ordained of his most assured knowledge, was conceived in this form of speech, 'It seemeth so unto me.' I am drawen to hate likely things, when men goe about to set them downe as infallible. I love these words or phrases which mollifie and moderate the temerity of our propositions: 'It may be: Peradventure: In some sort: Some: It is aside: I thinke,' and such like: And had I beene to instruct children, I would so often have put this manner of answering in their mouth, enquiring and not resolving: 'What meanes it? I understand it not: It may well bee: Is it true?' that they should rather have kept the forme of learners untill three score yeeres of age, than present themselves Doctors at ten, as many doe. Whosoever will be cured of ignorance must confesse the same. Iris is the daughter of Thaumantis; Admiration is the ground of all Philosophy; Inquisition the progresse; Ignorance the end. Yea but there is some kinde of ignorance strong and generous, that for honor and courage is nothing beholding to knowledge. An ignorance which to conceive rightly there is required no less learning than to conceive true learning.
   Being yong, I saw a law-case which Corras, a Counsellor of Thoulouse, caused to be printed of a strange accident of two men, who presented themselves one for another. I remember (and I remember nothing else so well) that me thought, he proved his imposture, whom he condemned as guilty, so wondrous strange and so far exceeding both our knowledge and his owne who was judge, that I found much boldnes in the sentence which had condemned him to be hanged. Let us receive some forme of sentence that may say: 'The Court understands nothing of it; more freely and ingenuously than did the Areopagites, who finding themselves urged and entangled in a case they could not well cleare or determine, appointed the parties to come againe and appeare before them a hundred yeares after. The witches about my country are in hazard of their life upon the opinion of every new authour that may come to give their dreames a body. To apply such examples as the holy Word of God offreth us of such things (assured and irrefragable examples) and ioyne them to our moderne events, since we neyther see the causes nor meanes of them, some other better wit than ours is thereunto required. Peradventure it appertaineth to that onely most-mighty testimony to tell us, this here, and that there, and not this other are of them. God must be beleeved, and good reason he should be so. Yet is there not one amongst us that will be amazed at his owne narration (and he ought necessarily to be astonished at it, if he be not out of his wits) whether he employ it about others matters or against himselfe. I am plaine and homely, and take hold on the maine point, and on that which is most likely, avoiding ancient reproches. Majorem fidem homines adhibent iis quæ non intelligunt. Cupidine humani ingenii libentius obscura creduntur: 'Men give more credit to things they understand not; Things obscure are more willingly beleeved through a strange desire of mans wit.' I see that men will be angry, and am forbid to doubt of it upon paine of execrable injuries, A new manner of perswading. Mercy for God's sake. My beliefe is not carried away with blowes. Let them tyrannize over such as accuse their opinion of falsehood; I onely accuse mine of difficulty and boldnesse. And equally to them I condemne the opposite affirmation, if not so imperiously. He that with bravery and by commandement will establish his discourse declareth his reason to bee weake. For a verball and scholastical altercation that they have as much apparance as their contradictors. Videantur sane, non affirmentur modo: 'Indeede let them seeme, so they bee not avouched.' But in effectuall consequence they draw from it, these have great ods. To kill men there is required a bright-shining and cleare light. And our life is over-reall and essentiall to warrant their supernaturall and fantasticall accidents. As for drugges and poisons, they are out of my element; they are homicides, and of the worst kinde. In which, neverthelesse, it is said that one must not alwayes rely upon the meere confession of those people: For they have sometimes beene seene to accuse themselves to have made away men which were both sound and living. In these other extravagant accusations I should easily say that it sufficeth what commendations soever he hath, a man be believed in such things as are humane, but of such as are beyond his conception and of a supernaturall effect, he ought then only be believed when a supernaturall approbation hath authorized him. That priviledge if hath pleased God to give some of our testimonies ought not to be vilified, or slightly communicated. Mine eares are full of a thousand such tales. Three saw him such a day in the east; three saw him the next day in the west, at such an houre, in such a place, and thus and thus attired; verily in such a case I could not beleeve my selfe. How much more naturall and more likely doe I finde it, that two men should lie, then one in twelve houres pass with the windes from East to West? How much more naturall that our understanding may by the volubility of our loose-capring minde be transported from his place? then that one of us should by a strange spirit, in flesh and bone, be carried upon a broome through the tunnell of a chimny? Let us, who are perpetually tossed too and fro with domesticall and our owne illusions, not seeke for forrane and unknowen illusions. I deeme it a matter pardonable not to beleeve a wonder, so far foorth at least as one may divert and exlude the verification by no miraculous way. And I follow Saint Augustine's opinion, that 'a man were better bend towards doubt than encline towards certaintie, in matters of difficult triall and dangerous beliefe.' Some yeares are now past that I travelled through the country of a soveraigne Prince, who in favour of mee, and to abate my incredulity, did mee the grace, in his owne presence and in a particular place, to make mee see tenne or twelve prisoners of that kinde, and amongst others an olde beldam witch, a true and perfect sorceresse, both by her ugliness and deformity, and such a one as long before was most famous in that profession. I sawe both proofes, witnesses, voluntary confessions, and some other insensible markes about this miserable olde woman. I enquired and talked with her a long time, with the greatest heed and attention I could, yet am I not easily carried away by preoccupation. In the end, and in in conscience, I should rather have appointed them Helleborum than Hemlocke. Captisque res magis mentibus quam consceleratis similis visa. 'The matter seemed liker to mindes captivate than guiltie.' Law hath her owne corrections for such diseases. Touching the oppositions and arguments that honest men have made unto mee, both there and often elsewhere, I have found none that tie mee, and that admit not alwaies a more likely solution than their conclusions. True it is that proofes and reasons grounded upon the fact and experience, I untie not, for indeede they have no end, but often cut them, as Alexander did his knot. When al is done it is an overvaluing of ones conjectures by them to cause a man to be burned alive. It is reported by divers examples (and Prestantius saith of his father) that being in a slumber much more deeply then in a full sound sleepe, he dreamed and verily thought himselfe to be a Mare, and served certaine souldiers for a sumpter-horse, and was indeede what he imagined to bee. If sorcerers dreame thus materially: If dreames may sometimes be thus incorporated into effects, I cannot possibly believe that our will should therefore be bound to the lawes and justice; which I say, as one who am neither a Judge nor a Counsellor unto kings, and furthest from any such worthinesse; but rather a man of the common stamp, and both by my deedes and sayings borne and vowed to the obedience of publique reason. Hee that should register my humours to the prejudice of the simplest law, or opinion, or custome of this village, should greatly wrong himselfe and injure me as much. For in what I say, I gape for no other certainly but that such was then my thought. A tumultuous and wavering thought. It is by way of discourse that I speake of all, and of nothing by way of advise. Nec me pudet, ut istos, fateri nescire quod resciam: 'Nor am I ashamed, as they are to confesse I know not that which I doe not know.'
   I would not be so hardy to speake if of duty I ought to bee believed; and so I answered a great man who blamed the sharpnesse and contention of my exhortations. When I see you bent and prepared on one side, with all the endevour I can I will propose the contrary unto you, to resolve and enlighten your judgement, not to subdue or binde the same. God hath your hearts in his hands, and hee will furnish you with choise. I am not so malapert as to desire that my opinions alone should give sway to a matter of such importance. My fortune hath not raised them to so powerfull and deepe conclusions. Truely, I have not onely a great number of complexions, but an infinite many of opinions, from which, had I a sonne of mine owne, I would disswade him, and willingly make him to distaste them. What? If the truest are not ever the most commodious for man, he being of so strange and untamed a composition: Whether it be to the purpose, or from the purpose, it is no great matter. It is a common Proverbe in Italie, that 'He knowes not the Perfect pleasure of Venus that hath not laine with a limping woman.' Either fortune or some particular accident have long since brought this by-saying in the peoples mouth; and it is as well spoken of men as of women, For the Queene of the Amazons answered the Scithian that wooed her to loves-embracements. αριστα χολ'ος οιει, 'The crooked man doth it best.' In that feminine common-wealth of theirs, to avoyde the domination of men, they were wont in their infancy to maime them, both their armes, and legges, and other limmes, that might any way advantage their strength over them, and make onely that use of them that we in our World make of our Women. I would have saide that the loose or disjoynted motion of a limping or crooke-backt Woman might adde some new kinde of pleasure unto that businesse or sweete sinne, and some un-assaid sensuall sweetnesse to such as make triall of it; but I have lately learnt that even ancient Philosophy hath decided the matter, Who saith that the legs and thighs of the crooked-backt or halting-lame, by reason of their imperfection, not receiving the nourishment due unto them, it followeth that the Genitall parts that are above them are more full, better nourished and more vigorous. Or else, that such a defect hindring other exercise, such as are therewith possessed, do lesse waste their strength and consume their vertue and so much the stronger and fuller they come to Venus sports. Which is also the reason why the Græcians described their Women- Weavers to bee more hotte and earnestly-luxurious than other Women; Because of their sitting-trade without any violent exercise of the body. What cannot we dispute of according to that rate? I might likewise say of these, that the same stirring which their labour so sitting doth give them, doth rouze and sollicite them, as the jogging and shaking of their Coache doth our Ladies. Doe not these examples fit that whereof I spake in the beginning? That our reasons doe often anticipate the effect, and have the extension of their jurisdiction so infinite, that they judge and exercise themselves in inanity, and to a not being? Besides the flexibilitie of our invention, to frame reasons unto all manner of dreames; our imagination is likewise found easie to receive impressions from falsehood by very frivolous apparances. For, by the onely authoring of the antient and publike use of this word or phrase, I have heretofore perswaded my selfe to have received more pleasure of a Woman in that she was not straight, and have accompted hir crookednesse in the number of hir graces. Torquato Tasso, in the comparison he makes between Italy and France, reporteth to have noted that we commonly have more slender and spiny legges than the Italian Gentlemen; and, imputeth the cause unto our continuall riding and sitting on horse-backe. Which is the very same, from which Suetonius draweth another cleane contrary conclusion; For, he saith, that Germanicus had by the frequent use of this exercise brought his to be very big. There is nothing so supple and wandering as our understanding. It is like to Theramenez shooe, fit for all feet. It is double and diverse, and so are matters diverse and double. Give me a Dragme of Silver, said a Cinicke Philosopher unto Antigonus. It is not the present of a King answered he; Give then a talent: It is not gift for a Cinicke, quoth he.
Seu plures calor ille vias, et cæca relaxat
Spiramenta, novas veniat qua succus in herbas:
Seu durat magis, et venas astringit hiantes,
Ne tenues pluviæ. rapidive potentia solis
Acrior, aut Boreæ penetrabile frigus adurat. -- Virg. Georg. i. 89.

Whether the heate layes open holes unseene,
Whereby the sappe may passe to hearbs fresh-greene
Or rather hardens and bindes gaping vaines,
Lest sharpe power of hot sunne, or thinning raines
Or piercing North-cold blaste,
Should scortch, consume and waste.

   Ogni medaglia ha il suo riverscio: 'Each outside hath his inside,' saith the Italian. Lo, why Clitomachus was wont to say that Carneades had surmounted the labours of Hercules, because be had exacted consent from men; that is to say, opinion and temerity to judge. This fantasia of Carneades, so vigorous (as I imagine) proceeded antiently from the impudency of those who make profession to know, and from their excessive selfe-overweening. Aesope was set to sale, together with two other slaves; a Chapman enquired of the first what he could doe; he to endeare him selfe, answered, mountains and wonders, and what not? For he knew and could doe all things. The second answered even so for himselfe, and more too; But when he came to Aesope, and demaunded of him what be could doe, Nothing (said he), for these two have forestaled all, and know and can doe all things, and have left nothing for mee. So hath it happened in the schoole of philosophy. The rashnes of those who ascribed the capacity of all things to mans wit, through spight and emulation produced this opinion in others, that humane wit was not capable of any thing. Some holde the same extremity in ignorance that others hold in knowledge. To the end none may deny that man is not immoderate in all and every where, and hath no other sentence or arrest than that of necessity, and impuissance to proceede farther.

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