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Montaigne's Essays: Book II


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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.



WHEN WE judge of others assurance or boldnesse in death, which without all peradventure is the most remarkeable action of humane life, great heed is to be taken of one thing, which is, that a man will hardly beleeve he is come to that point. Few men die with a resolution that it is their last houre: and nowhere doth hopes deceit ammuse us more. She never ceaseth to ring in our eares that others have been sicker and yet have not died: the cause is not so desperate as it is taken; and if the worst happen, God hath done greater wonders. The reason is, that we make too much account of our selves, It seemeth that the generality of things doth in some sort suffer for our annullation and takes compassion of our state. Forsomuch as our sight, being altered, represents unto itselfe things alike; and we imagine that things faile it as it doth to them: As they who travell by sea, to whom mountaines, fields, townes, heaven and earth, seeme to goe the same motion, and keepe the same course they doe:
Provehimur portu, terræque vrbesque recedunt. -- Virg.  Æn. iii. 72.

We sayling launch from harbour, and
Behinde our backes leave townes, leave land.

  Who ever saw old age that commended not times past, and blamed not the present, charging the world and mens customes with her misery and lowring discontent?
Iamque caput quassans grandis suspirat arator,
Et cum tempora temporibus prmsentia confert
Præteritis, laudat fortitnas sæpe parentis
Et crepat antiquum genus ut pietas repletum. --  Lucr. ii. 113.

The gray-beard Plow-man sighes, shaking his hoarie head,
Compares times that are now with times past heretofore.
Praises the fortunes of his father long since dead,
And crackes of ancient men, whose honesty was more.

  We entertaine and carry all with us: Whence it followeth that we deeme our death to be some great ma tter, and which passeth not so easily, nor without a solemne consultation of the Starres; Tot circa unum caput tumultuantes Deos: 'So many Gods keeping a stirre about one mans life.' And so much the more we thinke it, by how much the more we praise ourselves. What? should so much learning and knowledge be lost with so great dammage, without the Destinies particular care? A soule so rare and exemplar, costs it no more to be killed than a popular and unprofitable soule? This life that covereth so many others, of whom so many other lives depend, that for his use possesseth so great a part of the world and filleth so many places, is it displaced as that which holdeth by its owne simple string? No man of us thinkes it sufficient to be but one. Thence came those words of Cæsar to his pilot, more proudly swolne than the sea that threatned him:
------Italiam si, cælo authore, recusas,
Me pete: sola tibi causa hæc est iusta timoris,
Vectorem non nosse tuum; perrumpe procellas
Tutem secure mei.  -- Lucan. iii. 579.

If Italie thou do refuse with heaven thy guide,
Turn thee to me: to thee only just cause of feare
Is that thy passenger thou know'st not: stormie tide
Breake through, secure by guard of me, whom thou dost beare.

  And these:
-----credit jam digna pericula Cæsar
Fatis esse suis: tantusque evertere (dixi)
Me superis labor est, parvi quem puppe sedentem.
Tam magno petiere mari. -- Ibid. 653.

Cæsar doth now beleeve those dangers worthie are
Of his set fate; and saies, doe Gods take so much pain
Me to undoe, whom they thus to assault prepare
Set in so small a skiffe, in such a surging maine?

   And this common foppery that Phoebus for one whole yeare bare mourning weedes on his forehead for the death of him:
Ille etiam extincto miseratus Cæsare Romam,
Cum caput obscura nitidum ferrugine texit.  --  Virg. Geor. i. 466.

The Sunne did pity take of Rome when Cæsar dide,
When he his radiant head in obscure rust did hide.

   And a thousand such wherewith the world suffers it selfe to be so easily conicatcht, deeming that our owne interests disturbe heaven, and his infinitie is moved at our least actions. Non tanta cælo societas nobiscum est, ut nostro fato mortalis sit il le quoque siderum fulgar: (Plin. nat. hist. ii. c. 8.) 'There is no such societie betweene heaven and us, that by our destinie the shining of the starres should be mortall as we are.' And to judge a resolution and constancie in him, who though he be in manifest danger, doth not yet beleeve it, it is no reason; and it sufficeth not that he die in that ward, unlesse he have directly and for that purpose put himselfe into it: it hapneth that most men set a sterne countenance on the matter, looke big, and speake stoutly, there by to acquire reputation, which, if they chance to live, they hope to enjoy. Of all I have seene die, fortune hath disposed their countenances, but not their desseignes. And of those which in ancient times have put themselves to death, the choice is great, whether it were a sodaine death or a death having time and leasure. That cruell Romane Emperor said of his prisoners that he would make them feele death; and if any fortuned to kill himselfe in prison, that fellow had escaped me (would he say). He would extend and linger death, and cause it be felt by torments.
Vidimus et toto quamvis in corpore cæso,
Nil anima, lethale datum, moremque nefanda,
Durum sævitiæ, pereuntis parcere morti. -- Lucan. ii. 179.

And we have seene, when all the body tortur'd lay,
Yet no stroke deadly giv'n, and that in humane way
Of tyranny, to spare his death that sought to die.

  Verily, it is not so great a matter, being in perfect health and well setled in mind, for one to resolve to kill himselfe: It is an easy thing to show stoutnesse and play the wag before one come to the pinch. So that Heliogabalus, the most dissolute man of the world, amidst his most riotous sensualities, intended, whensoever occasion should force him to it, to have a daintie death. Which, that it might not degenerate from the rest of his life, he had purposely caused a stately towre to be built, the nether part and forecourt whereof was floored with boards richly set and enchased with gold and precious stones, from off which he might headlong throw himselfe downe: He had also caused cordes to be made of gold and crimson silke, therewith to strangle himselfe; and a rich golden rapier to thrust himselfe through, and kept poison in boxes of Emeraldes and Topases, to poison himselfe with, according to the humor he might have, to chuse which of these deaths should please him.
Impiger et fortis virtute coacta. -- iv. 797. Gurio.

A ready minded gallant,
And in forst vallour valiant.

Notwithstanding, touching this man, the wantonnesse of his preparation makes it more likely that he would have fainted had he beene put to his triall. But even of those who most undantedly have resolved themselves to the execution, we must consider (I say) whether it were with a life ending stroke, and that tooke away any leasure to feele the effect thereof. For it is hard to guesse seeing life droope away little by little, the bodies-feeling entermingling it selfe with the soules, meanes of repentance being offered, whether in so dangerous an intent, constancie or obstancie were found in him. In Cæsars civill warres, Lucius Dominus taken in Prussia, having empoysoned himselfe, did afterwards rue and repent his deede. It hath hapned in our daies that some having resolved to die, and at first not stricken deepe enough, the smarting of his flesh, thrusting his arme backe, twice or thrice more wounded himself, anew, and yet could never stricke sufficiently deepe. Whilst the arraignment of Plantius Silvanus was preparing, Vrgulania, his grandfather, sent him a poignard, wherewith, not able to kill himselfe thoroughly, he caused his owne servants to cut his veines. Albucilla, in Tiberius time, purposing to kill herself, but striking over faintly, gave her enemies leasure to apprehend and imprison her, and appoint her what death they pleased. So did Captaine Demosthenes after his discomfiture in Sicilie. And C. Fimbria having over-feeblie wounded himselfe, became a sutor to his boy to make an end of him. On the other side, Ostorius, who forsomuch as he could not use his owne arme, disdained to employ his servants in any other thing but to hold his dagger stiffe and strongly; and taking his running, himselfe carried his throate to its point, and so was thrust through. To say truth, it is a meate a man must swallow without chewing, unlesse his throat be frostshod. And therefore Adrianus the emperour made his Physitian to marke and take the just compasse of the mortall place about his pap, that so his aime might not faile him, to whom he had given charge to kill him. Loe why Cæsar being demanded, which was the death he most allowed, answered, 'The least premeditated, and the shortest.' If Cæsar said it, it is no faintness in me to beleeve it. A short death (saith Plinie) is the chiefe happe of humane life. It grieveth them to acknowledge it. No man can be said to be resolved to die that feareth to purchase it, and that cannot abide to looke upon and out-stare it with open eies. Those which in times of execution are seene to runne to their end, and hasten the execution, do it not with resolution, but because they will take away time to consider the same; it grieves them not to be dead, but to die.
Emori nolo, sed me esse mortuum, nihil æstimo. -- Cic. Tusc. Qu. i Epicha.

I would not die too soone,
But care not, when 'tis done.

   It is a degree of constancie unto which I have experienced to arive, as those that cast themselves into danger, or into the sea, with closed eies. In mine opinion there is nothing more worthy the noting in Socrates life, then to have had thirty whole daies to ruminate his deaths decree, to have digested it all that while, with an assured hope, without dismay or alteration, and with a course of actions and words rather supprest, and loose-hanging, then out-stretched and raised by the weight of such a cogitation. That Pomponius Atticus, to whom Cicero writeth, being sicke, caused Agrippa, his sonne in lawe, and two or three of his other friends, to be called for, to whom he said, that having assaid how he got nothing in going about to be cured, and what he did to prolong his life did also lengthen and augment his griefe, he was now determined to make an end of one and other; intreating them to allow of his determination, and that by no meanes they would lose their labour to diswade him from it. And having chosen to end his life by abstinence, his sicknesse was cured by accident. The remedy he had employed to make himselfe away brought him to health again. The Physitians and his friends, glad of so happy a successe and rejoycing thereof with him, were in the end greatly deceived; for, with all they could do, they were never able to make him alter his former opinions saying that as he must one day passe that careire, and being now so forward, he would remove the care another time to beginne againe. This man having with great leasure apprehended death, is not only no whit discouraged when he comes to front it, but resolutely falls upon it for being satisfied of that for which he was entred the combate, in a braverie he thrust himselfe into it, to see the end of it. It is farre from fearing death to goe about to taste and savour the same. The historie of Cleanthes, the Philosopher, is much like to this. His gummes being swolne, his Physitians perswaded him to use great abstinence. Having fasted two daies, he was so well amended, as they told him he was well, and might returne to his wonted course of life. He contrarily having already tasted some sweetnes in this Painting, resolveth not to drawe back, but to finish what he had so well begunne, and was so far waded into. Tullius Marcellinus, a yong Romane gentleman, willing to prevent the houre of his destiny, to ridde himselfe of a disease which tormented him more than he would endure, although Physitians promised certainely to cure him, howbeit not sodainely: called his friends unto him to determine about it: some (saith Seneca) gave him that counsell, which for weaknesse of heart themselves would have taken; others for flatteries that which they imagined would be most pleasing unto him but a certain Stoike standing by, said thus unto him: 'Toile not thy selfe, Marcellinus, as if thou determinedst some weightie matter: to live is no such great thing, thy base groomes and bruit beasts live also, but it is a matter of consequence to die honestly, wisely and constantly. Remember how long it is; thou doest one same thing, to eate, to drinke, and sleepe; to drinke, to sleepe, to eate. Wee are ever uncessantly wheeling in this endlesse circle. Not only bad and intolerable accidents, but the very satiety to live, brings a desire of death.' Marcellinus had no need of a man to counsell, but of one to helpe him: his servants were afraid to meddle with him; but this Philosopher made them to understand that familiars are suspected onely when the question is, whether the maisters death hath beene voluntary: otherwise it would bee as bad an example to hinder him as to kill him, forasmuch as,
Inuitum qui servat, idemfacit occidenti. -- Hor. Art. Poet. 467.

Who saves a man against his will
Doth ev'n as much as he should kill.

   Then he advertised Marcellinus, that it would not be unseemely, as fruit or comfets at our tables, when our bellies be full, are given unto bystanders, so, the life ended, to distribute something to such as have beene the ministers of it. Marcellinus being of a frank and liberal disposition, caused certaine summes of mony to be divided amongst his servants, and comforted them. And for the rest there needed neither yron nor blood; he undertooke to departe from this life, not by running from it: not to escape from death, but to taste it. And to have leisure to conditione or bargaine with death having quit all manner of nourishment, the third day ensuing, after he had caused himselfe to be sprinkled over with luke-warme water, by little and little he consumed away; and (as he said) not without some voluptuousnesse and pleasure. Verily, such as have had these faintings and swownings of the heart, which proceed from weaknesses say that they feele no paine at all in them, but rather some pleasure, as of a passage to sleepe and rest. These are premeditated and digested deaths. But that Cato alone, may serve to all examples of vertue, it seemeth his good destiny caused that hand wherewith he gave himselfe the fatall blow to be sicke and sore: that so bee might have leisure to affront death and to embrace it, reenforcing his courage in that danger in lieu of mollifieing the same. And should I have represented him in his proudest state, it should have beene all bloody-gored, tearing his entraile, and rending his gutts, rather then with a sword in his hand, as did the statuaries of his time. For this second murther, was much more furious then the first.

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