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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.



IIf a man should demaund of mee, which of all men that ever came to my knowledge I would make choise of, me seemeth I finde three who have beene excellent above all others. The one is Homer: not that Aristotle or Varro (for example sake) were not peradventure as wise and as sufficient as he: nor that Virgil (and possibly in his owne arte) be not comparable unto him. I leave that to their judgements that know them both. I who know but one of then, according to my skill may onely say this, that I cannot be persuaded the Muses themselves did ever go beyond the Roman.
Tale facit carmen docta testudine, quale
   ---Cynthius impositis temperat articulis,  --  Propert. 1. ii. Eleg. xxxiv. 79.

He on his learned lute such verse doth play
As Phoebus should thereto his fingers lay.

    In which judgement this must notwitlistdnding not be forgotten, that Virgil doth especially derive his sufficiency from Homer, and he is his guide and schoolemaster, and that but only glance or sentence of the Iliads hath given both body and matter to that great and divine poem of the Æneid. My meaning is not to account so: I entermix divers other circumstances which yeeld this man most admirable unto me, and as it were beyond humane condition. And truely I am often amazed that he who hath produced, and by his authority brought so many deities in credit with the world, hath' not obtained to be reputed a god himselfe. Being blind and indigent, having lived before ever the sciences were redacted into strict rules and certaine observations, he had so perfect knowledge of them, that all those which since his time have labored to establish pollicies or commonwealths, to manage warres, and to write either of religion or philosophy, in which sect soever or of all artes, have made use of him as of an absolutely perfect master in the knowledge of all things; and of his books, as of a seminary, a spring-garden or store-house of all kinds of sufficiency and learning.
Qui quid sit pulchchrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non,
Plenius ac melius, Chrysippo, ac Crantore dicit.  --  Hor. 1. i. Epist. xxiii.

What is faire, what is foule, what profit may, what not,
Better than Crantor or Chrysippus, Homer wrot.

And as another saith:
        ------a quo ceu fonte perrenni
Vatum Pieriis labra rigantur aquis.  --  Ovid. Am. 1. iii. Eleg. viii. 25.

By whom, as by an ever-flowing-filling spring,
With Muses liquor poets lippes are bath'de to sing.

And another:
Adde Heliconiadum comites, quoram unus Homerus,
Astra potitus  --  Lucr. 1. iii. 1081.

Muses companions adde to these, of all
One onely Homer hath in heav'n his stall.

And another:
              ------ cujusque ex ore profuso
Omnis posteritas latices in carmina duxit,
Amnemque in tenues, ausa est deducere rivos:
Unius faacunda bonis.  --  Manil. Ast. 1. ii. 8.

From whose large mouth for verse all that since live
Drew water, and grew bolder to derive
Into thinne shallow rivers his deepe flood
Richly luxuriant in one man's good.

    It is against nature's course that he bath made the most excelent production that may be: for the ordinary birth of things is imperfect: they are augmented by encrease and corroborated by growth. He hath reduced the infancy of poesie and divers other sciences to be ripe, perfect, and compleate. By which reason he may be termed the first and last of poets, following the noble testimony antiquity hath left us of him, that having had no man before him whom he might imitate, so bath hee had none after him could imitate him. His wordes (according to Aristotle) are the onely words that have motion and action: they are the onely substantiall wordes. Alexander the Great, having lighted upon a rich casket amongst Darius his spoils, appoynted the same to be safely kept for himselfe to keepe his Homer in, saying he was the best adviser and faithfullest counselor he had in his military affaires. By the same reason said Cliomenes, sonne to Anaxandridas, that hee was the Lacedemonians poet, for he was an excellent good teacher or master of warrelike discipline. This singular praise and particular commendation hath also been given him by Plutarke, where he saith that he is the only author in the world who yet never distasted reader, or glutted man, ever showing himself other and different to the readers, and ever flourishing with a new grace. That wagge Alcibiades, demanding one of Homers bookes of one who professed letters, because he had it not, gave him a whirrit on the eare, as if a man should finde one of our Priests without a breviarie. Xenophanes one day made his moane to Hieron, the tyrant of Siracusa, that he was so poore as he had not wherewithall to finde two servants. How commeth that to passe? (answered Hieron). Homer, who was much poorer than thou art, dead as he is, findeth more than tenne thousand. What left Panætius unsaide when he named Plato the Homer of Philosophers? Besides, what glory may be compared to his? There is nothing liveth so in mens mouthes as his name and his workes; nothing so knowne and received as Troy, as Helen and her warres, which peradventure never were. Our children are yet called by the names he invented three thousand years since and more. Who knoweth not Hector? Who hath not heard of Achilles? Not onely some particular races, but most nations, seeke to derive themselves from his inventions. Machomet, the second of that name, Emperour of Turkes, writing to Pope Pius the second: I wonder (saith he) how the Italians will bandie against me, seeing we have our common offspring, from the Troians; and I as well as they have an interest to revenge the blood of Hector upon the Græcians whom they favour against me. Is it not a worthy comedie, whereof kings, commonwealths, principalities, and emperours have for many ages together played their parts, and to which this great universe serveth as a theatre? Seven cities of Greece strived amongst themselves about the places of his birth, so much honour his very obscuritie procured him.
Smyrna, Rhodos, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, Athenæ.  A. Gel. Noct. Att. 1. iii. c. 11.

Rhodes, Salamis, Colophon, Chios, Argos, Smyrna, with Athens.

    The other is Alexander the great. For who shall consider his age, wherein hee beganne his enterprises; the small meanes he had to ground so glorious a desseigne upon, the authoritie he attained unto in his infancie amongst the greatest commanders and most experienced captaines in the world, by whom he was followed: the extraordinary favour wherwith fortune embraced him and seconded so many of his haughty-dangerous exploites, which I may in a manner call rash or fond-hardie.
Impellens quicquid sibi summa petenti
Obstaret, gaudensque viam fecisse ruinæ.  --  Lucan1. i. 148 .

While he shot at the high'st, all that might stay
He for'st and joyde with ruine to make way.

    That eminent greatnesse to have at the age of  thirtie yeares, passed victoriously through all the habitable earth and but with half the life of a man to have attained the utmost endeavour of human nature so that you cannot imagine his continuance lawfull, and the lasting of his increase in fortune, and progres in vertue even unto a just terme of age, but you must suppose something above man to have caused so many royal branches to issue from out the loines of his souldiers, leaving the world after his death to be shared between foure successors, onely captaines of his armie, whose successors have so long time since continued, and descendants maintained that large possession. So infinite, rare, and excellent vertues that were in him, as justice, temperance, liberalitie, integritie in words, love toward his, and humanitie toward the conquered. For in truth his maners seeme to admit he no just cause of reproach: indeed some of his particular, rare, and extraordinary actions may in some sort be taxed. For it is impossible to conduct so great and direct so violent motion with the strict rules of justice. Such men ought to be judged in gross by the mistris end of their actions. The ruine of Thebes; the murder of Menander, and of Ephestions Physitian; the massacre of so many Persian prisoners at once; of a troupe of Indian souldiers, not without some prejudice unto his word and promise; and of the Cosæians and their little children, are escapes somewhat hard to be excused. For concerning Clitus, the fault was expiated beyond its merit; and that action, as much as any other, witnesseth the integritie and cheerfulness of his complexion, and that it was a complexion in it selfe exceedingly formed to goodnesse. And it was wittily said of one that he had vertues by nature and vices by accident. Concerning the point that he was somewhat too lavish a boaster, and over-impatient to heare himselfe ill spoken of; and touching those mangers, armes and bits, which he caused to be scattered in India, respecting his age and the prosperitie of his fortune, they are in my conceit pardonable in him. He that shall also consider his many vertues, as diligence, f oresight, patience, discipline, policie, magnanimitie, resolution and good fortune, wherein though Haniballs authority had not taught it us, he hath beene the first and chiefe of men: the rare beauties, matchlesse features, and incomparable conditions of his person, beyond all comparison and wonder breeding; his carriage, demeanor, and venerable behaviour, in a face so young, so vermeill, and heart enflaming:
Oualis ubi Occam perfusus Lucifer unda,
Quem Venus ante alios astror um diligit ignes,
Extulit os sacrum cælo, tenebrasque resolvit.  --  Virg. Æn. 1. viii. 589.

As when the day-starre washt in ocean streames,
Which Venus most of all the starres esteemes,
Showes sacred light, shakes darkenesse off with beames.

    The excellencie of his wit, knowledge and capacity; the continuance and greatnesse of his glory unspotted, untainted, pure and free from all blame or envie: insomuch as long after his death it was religiously beleeved of many that the medalls or brooches representing his person brought good lucke unto such as wore or had them about them. And that more Kings and Princes have written his gests and actions then any other historians of what a quality soever, have registered the gests or collected the actions of any other King or Prince that ever was: and that even at this day the Mahometists, who contemne all other histories, by special priviledge allow, receive, and onely honour his. All which premises duely considered together, hee shall confesses I have had good reason to preferre him before Cæsar himselfe, who alone might have made me doubt of my choice. And it must needes bee granted that in his exploites there was more of his owne, but more of fortunes in Alexander's achievements. They have both had many things mutually alike, and Cæsar happily some greater. They were two quicke and devouring fires, or two swift and surrounding streames, able to ravage the world by sundry wayes.
Et velut immissi diversis partibus ignes
Arentem in silvam, et virgulta sonantia lauro:
Aut ubi decursu rapido de montibus altis
Dant sonitum spumosi amnes, et in æquora currunt,
Quisque suum populatus iter.  -- Virg. Æn. 1. xii. 521.

As when on divers sides fire is applied
To cracking bay-shrubs, or to woods sunne dried
Or as when flaming streames from mountaines hie,
With downe-fall swift resound, and to sea flie
Each one doth havocke-out his way thereby.

    But grant Cæsar's ambition were more moderate, it is so unhappy in that it met, with this vile subject of the subversion of his countrie, and universall empairing of the world; that all parts impartially collected and put together in the balance, I must necessarily bend to Alexander's side. The third, and in my judgement most excellent man, is Epaminondas. Of glorie he hath not so much as some, and is farre shorte of divers (which well considered is no substantiall part of the thing) in resolution and true valour, not of that which is set on by ambition, but of that which wisedome and reason may settle in a well-disposed minde, hee had as much as maybe imagined or wished for. He hath in mine opinion made as great triall of his vertues as ever did Alexander or Cæsar, for although his exploites of warre be not so frequent and so high raised, yet being throughly considered, they are as weightie, as resolute, as constant, yea and as authenticall a testimony of hardnes and military sufficiencie as any man's else. The Greacians, without any contradiction, affoorded him the honour to entitle him the chiefe and first man among themselves: and to be the first and chiefe man of Greece is without all question to bee chiefe and first man of the world. Touching his knowledge and worth, this ancient judgement doth yet remaine amongst us, that never was man who knew so much, nor never man that spake lesse than he. For he was by sect a Pythagorean, and what he spake no man ever spake better. An excellent and most perswasive orator was hee. And concerning his maners and conscience therein be farre outwent all that ever medled with managing affaires: for in this one part, which ought especially to be noted, and which alone declareth that we are, and which only I counterpoise to al others together, he giveth place to no philosopher; no not to Socrates himselfe. In him innocencie is a qualities proper, chiefe, constant, uniforme, and incorruptible; in comparison of which, it seemeth in Alexander subalternall, uncertaine, variable, effeminate and accidentall. Antiquitie judged that precisely to sift out, and curiously to prie into all other famous captaines, there is in every one severally some speciall quality which makes him renowned and famous. In this man alone it is a vertue and sufficiencie, every where compleate and alike, which in all offices of humane life leaveth nothing more to be wished for. Be it in publike or private, in peaceable negociations or warlike occupations, be it to live or die, greatly or gloriously, I know no forme or fortune of man that I admire or regard with so much honour, with so much love. True it is, I finde this obstinacie in povertie somewhat scrupulous, and so have his best friends pourtrayed it. And this onely action (high notwithstanding and very worthy admiration) I finde or deeme somewhat sharpen so as I would not wish nor desire the imitation thereof in me, according to the forme it was in him. Scipio Æmilianus alone (wold any charge him with as fierie and nobly-minded an end, and with as deepe and universall knowledge of sciences) might be placed in the other scale of the ballance against him. Oh what a displeasure hath swift-gliding Time done me, even in the nick, to deprive our eyes of the chiefest paire of lives, directly the noblest that ever were in Plutarke, of these two truly worthy personages: by the universall consent of the world, the one chiefe of Græcians, the other principall of Romanes. What a matter, what a workeman! For a man that was no saint, but as we say a gallant-honest man, of civil maners and common customes, of a temperate haughtinesse, the richest life I know (as the vulgar saying is)  to have lived amongst the living, and fraughted with the richest qualities and most to be desired parts (all things impartially considered) in my humour, is that of Alcibiades. But touching Epaminondas, for a patterne of excessive goodness I will here insert certaine of his opinions. The sweetest contentment he had in all his life he witnesseth to have beene the pleasure he gave his father and mother of his victory upon Leuctra: he staketh much in preferring their pleasure before his content, so just and full of so glorious an action. Hee thought it unlawfull, yea were it to recover the libertie of his countrey, for any one to kill a man except he knew a just cause. And therefore was he so backeward in the enterprise of Pelopidas his companion, for the deliverance of Thebes. He was also of opinion that in a battell a man should avoid to encounter his friend, being on the contrary part, and if he met him to spare him. And his humanitie or gentleness even towards his very enemies, having made him to be suspected of the Boeotians, forsomuch as after he had miraculously forced the Lacedemonians to open him a passage, which at the entrance of Morea, neere Corinth, they had undertaken to make good, he was contented, without further pursuing them in furie, to have marched over their bellies, was the cause he was deposed of his office of Captaine Generall. Most honourable for such a cause, and for the shame it was to them, soone after to be forced by necessitie to advance him to his first place, and to acknowledge how their glorie, and confesse that their safetie, did onely depend on him: victory following him as his shadow whither soever he went, and as the prosperitie of his countrie was borne by and with him, so it died with and by him.

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