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Michel de Montaigne
Squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
( Paris, 1581 )
Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, was born near Bordeaux, in France, on February 28, 1533, the son of an immensely wealthy Catholic family. He is often considered the 'father of the Essay', with his truly vast output of discursive, almost random, literary notes filled with observations on the lives of others and on his own.
I.--Of Death, and How It Findeth a Man
I was born between eleven of the clock and noon, the last of February, 1533, according to our computation, the year beginning on January 1. It is but a fortnight since I was thirty-nine years old. I want at least as much more of life. If in the meantime I should trouble my thoughts with a matter so far from me as death, it were but folly. Of those renowned in life I will lay a wager I will find more that have died before they came to five-and-thirty years than after.
How many means and ways has death to surprise us! Who would ever have imagined that a Duke of Brittany should have become stifled to death in a throng of people, as whilom was a neighbour of mine at Lyons when Pope Clement made his entrance there? Hast thou not seen one of our late kings slain in the midst of his sports? and one of his ancestors die miserably by the throw of a hog? æschylus, fore-threatened by the fall of a house, when he was most on his guard, was struck dead by the fall of a tortoise-shell from the talons of a flying eagle. Another was choked by a grape-pip. An emperor died from the scratch of a comb, æmilius Lepidus from hitting his foot against a door-sill, Anfidius from stumbling against the door as he was entering the council chamber. Caius Julius, a physician, while anointing a patient's eyes had his own closed by death. And if among these examples I may add one of a brother of mine, Captain St. Martin, playing at tennis, received a blow with a ball a little above the right ear, and without any appearance of bruise or hurt, never sitting or resting, died within six hours afterwards of an apoplexy. These so frequent and ordinary examples being ever before our eyes, why should it not continually seem to us that death is ever at hand ready to take us by the throat?
What matter is it, will you say unto me, how and in what manner it is, so long as a man do not trouble and vex himself therewith? It sufficeth me to live at my ease, and the best recreation I can have that do I ever take. It is uncertain where death looks for us: let us look for her everywhere. The premeditation of death is a fore-thinking of liberty. He who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is no evil in life for him who has well conceived that the privation of life is no evil. I am now, by the mercy of God, in such a taking that, without regret or grieving at any worldly matter, I am prepared to dislodge whensoever He shall please to call me. No man did ever prepare himself to quit the world more simply and fully. The deadest deaths are the best.
* * * * *
Were I a composer of books I would keep a register of divers deaths, which, in teaching me to die, should afterwards teach them to live.
My father in his household order had this, which I can commend, though I in no way follow. Besides the day-book of household affairs, wherein are registered at least expenses, payments, gifts, bargains, and sales that require not a notary's hand to them--of which book a receiver had the keeping--he appointed another journal-book to one of his servants, who was his clerk, wherein he should orderly set down all occurrences worthy of the noting, and day by day register the memories of the history of his house--a thing very pleasant to read when time began to wear out the remembrance of them, and fit for us to pass the time withal, and to resolve some doubts: when such and such a work was begun, when ended; what way or course was taken, what accidents happened, how long it continued; all our voyages and journeys, where, and how long we were away from home; our marriages; who died, and when; the receiving of good or bad tidings; who came, who went; changing or removing of household officers, taking of new or discharging of old servants, and such matters. An ancient custom, and a sound one, which I would have all men use and bring into fashion again.
II.--In My Library
Intercourse with books comforts me in age and solaces me in solitariness, eases me of weariness and rids me of tedious company. To divert importunate thoughts there is no better way than recourse to books. And though they perceive I on occasion forsake them, they never mutiny or murmur, but welcome me always with the self-same visage.
I never travel, whether in peace or in war, without books. It is wonderful what repose I find in the knowledge that they are at my elbow to delight me when time shall serve. In this human peregrination this is the best munition I have found.
At home I betake me somewhat oftener to my library. It is in the chief approach to my house, so that under my eyes are my garden, my base-court, my yard, and even the best rooms of my house. There, without order or method, I can turn over and ransack now one book and now another. Sometimes I muse, sometimes save; and walking up and down I indite and register these my humours, these my conceits. It is placed in a third storey of a tower. The lowermost is my chapel, the second a chamber, where I often lie when I would be alone. Above is a clothes-room. In this library, formerly the least useful room in all my house, I pass the greatest part of my life's days, and most hours of the day--I am never there of nights. Next it is a handsome, neat study, large enough to have a fire in winter, and very pleasantly windowed.
If I feared not trouble more than cost I might easily join a convenient gallery of a hundred paces long and twelve broad on each side of this room, and upon the same floor, the walls being already of a convenient height. Each retired place requireth a walk. If I sit long my thoughts are prone to sleep. My mind goes not alone as if legs moved it. Those who study without books are all in the same case.
My library is circular in shape, with no flat side save that in which stand my table and chair. Thus around me at one look it offers the full sight of all my books, set round about upon shelves, five ranks, one above another. It has three bay windows, of a far-extending, rich, and unobstructed prospect. The room is sixteen paces across.
In winter I am less constantly there, for my house being on a hill, no part is more subject to all weathers than this. But this pleases me only the more, both for the benefit of the exercise--which is a matter to be taken into account--and because, being remote and of troublesome access, it enables me the better to seclude myself from company that would encroach upon my time. There is my seat, that is my throne.
My rule therein I endeavour to make absolute, that I may sequester that only corner from all, whether wife, children, or acquaintances. For elsewhere I have but a verbal and qualified authority, and miserable to my mind is he who in his own home has nowhere to be to himself.
Plutarch somewhere says that he finds no such great difference between beast and beast as between man and man. He speaks of the mind and internal qualities. I could find in my heart to say there is more difference between one man and another than between such a man and such a beast; and that there are as many degrees of spirits as steps between earth and heaven.
But concerning the estimation of men, it is marvellous that we ourselves are the only things not esteemed for their proper qualities. We commend a horse for his strength and speed, not for his trappings; a greyhound for his swiftness, not his collar; a hawk for her wing, not for her bells. Why do we not likewise esteem a man for that which is his own? He has a goodly train of followers, a stately palace, so much rent coming in, so much credit among men. Alas, all that is about him, not in him. If you buy a horse you see him bare of saddle and cloths. When you judge of a man, why consider his wrappings only? In a sword it is the quality of the blade, not the value of the scabbard, to which you give heed. A man should be judged by what he is himself, not by his appurtenances.
Let him lay aside his riches and external honours and show himself in his shirt. Has he a sound body? What mind has he? Is it fair, capable, and unpolluted, and happily equipped in all its parts? Is it a mind to be settled, equable, contented, and courageous in any circumstances? Is he- A wise man, of himself commander high, Whom want, nor death, nor bands can terrify, Resolved t'affront desires, honours to scorn, All in himself, close, round, and neatly borne, Against whose front externals idly play, And even fortune makes a lame essay?
Such a man is five hundred degrees beyond kingdoms and principalities; himself is a kingdom unto himself. Compare with him the vulgar troop--stupid, base, servile, warring, floating on the sea of passions, depending wholly on others. There is more difference than between heaven and earth, yet in a blindness of custom we take little or no account of it. Whereas, if we consider a cottage and a king, a noble and a workman, a rich man and a poor, we at once recognise disparity, although, as one might say, they differ in nothing but their clothes.
An emperor, whose pomp so dazzles us in public, view him behind the curtain is but an ordinary man, and peradventure viler and sillier than the least of his subjects! Cowardice, irresolution, ambition, spite, anger, envy, move and work in him as in another man. Fear, care, and suspicion haunt him even in the midst of his armed troops. Does the ague, the headache, or the gout spare him more than us? When age seizes on his shoulders, can the tall yeoman of his guard rid him of it? His bedstead encased with gold and pearls cannot allay the pinching pangs of colic!
The flatterers of Alexander the Great assured him he was the son of Jupiter, but being hurt one day, and the blood gushing from the wound, "What think you of this?" said he to them. "Is not this blood of a lively red hue, and merely human?" If a king have the ague or the gout what avail his titles of majesty? But if he be a man of worth, royalty and glorious titles will add but little to good fortune.
Truly, to see our princes all alone, sitting at their meat, though beleaguered with talkers, whisperers, and gazing beholders, I have often rather pitied than envied them. The honour we receive from those who fear and stand in awe of us is no true honour. "Service holds few, though many hold service."
Every man's manners and his mind His fortune for him frame and find.
IV.--Of the Use of Apparel
I was devising in this chill-cold season whether the fashion of these late-discovered nations to go naked be a custom forced by the hot temperature of the air, as we say of the Indians and Moors, or whether it be an original manner of mankind. My opinion is, that even as all plants, trees, living creatures, are naturally furnished with protection against all weathers, even so were we. But like those who by artificial light quench the brightness of day, so we have spoilt our proper covering by what we have borrowed. Nations under the same heaven and climate as our own, or even colder, have no knowledge of clothes. Moreover, the tenderest parts of us are ever bare and naked--our eyes, face, mouth, nose, ears; and our country swains, like their forefathers, go bare-breasted to their middles.
Had we been born needing petticoats and breeches nature would have armed that which she has left to the battery of the seasons with some thicker skin or hide, as she has our finger ends and the soles of our feet.
"How many men in Turkey go naked for devotion's sake?" a certain man demanded of one of our loitering rogues whom in the depth of winter he saw wandering up and down with nothing but his shirt about him, yet as blithe and lusty as another that keeps himself muffled up to the ears in furs. "And have not you, good sir," answered he, "your fate all bare? Imagine I am all face."
The Italians say that when the Duke of Florence asked his fool how, being so ill-clad, he could endure the cold, he replied, "Master, use but my receipt, and put all the clothes you have on you, as I do all mine, and you shall feel no more cold than I do."
King Massinissa, were it never so sharp weather, always went bareheaded. So did the Emperor Severus. In the battle of the Egyptians and Persians, Herodotus noticed that of those slain the Egyptians had skulls much harder than the Persians, by reason that these go ever with their heads covered with coifs and turbans, while those are from infancy shaven and bareheaded. King Agesilaus wore his clothes alike winter and summer. Suetonius says Cæsar always marched at the head of his troops, and most commonly bareheaded and on foot, whether the sun shone or whether it rained. The like is reported of Hannibal.
Plato, for the better health and comfort of the body, earnestly persuades that no man should ever give feet or head other cover than nature had allotted them.
We Frenchmen are accustomed to array ourselves strangely in parti-coloured suits (not I, for I seldom wear any but black and white, like my father) to protect ourselves against the cold, but what should we do in cold like that Captain Martyn du Bellay describes--frosts so hard that the wine had to be chopped up with axes and shared to the soldiers by weight?
Let us leave apart the outworn comparison between a solitary and an active life, and ask those who engage themselves "for the public good" whether what they seek in these public charges is not, after all, private commodity? Public or private, as I suppose, the end is the same, to live better at ease. But a man does not always seek the best way to come at it, and often supposes himself to have quit cares when he has but changed them.
There is not much less vexation in the government of a private family than in managing a state. Wheresoever the mind is buried, there lies all. And though domestic occupations may be less important, they are not less importunate.
Moreover, though we have freed ourselves from court or from market, we have still the torments of ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and unsatisfied desires. These follow us even into cloisters and schools of philosophy. When Socrates was told that a certain man was none the better for his travels, "I believe it well," said he, "for he took himself with him."
If a man do not first get rid of what burthens his mind, moving from place to place will not help him. It is not enough for a man to sequester himself from people; he must seclude himself from himself. We carry our fetters with us. Our evil is rooted in our mind, and the mind cannot escape from itself. Therefore must it be reduced and brought into itself, and that is the true solitariness, which may be enjoyed even in the throng of peopled cities or kings' courts.
A man may, if he can, have wife, children, goods, health, but not so tie himself to them that his felicity depends on them. We should reserve for ourselves some place where we may, as it were, hoard up our true liberty. Virtue is contented with itself, without discipline, words, or deeds. Shake we off these violent holdfasts which engage us and estrange us from ourselves. The greatest thing is for a man to know how to be his own.
I esteem not Arcesilaus, the philosopher, less reformed because I know him to have used household utensils of gold and silver, as the condition of his fortune permitted. And knowing what slender hold accessory comforts have, I omit not, in enjoying them, humbly to beseech God of His mercy to make me content with myself and the goods I have in myself. The wiser sort of men, having a strong and vigorous mind, may frame for themselves an altogether spiritual life. But mine being common, I must help to uphold myself by corporal comforts. And age having despoiled me of some of these, I sharpen my appetite for those remaining. Glory, which Pliny and Cicero propose to us, is far from my thoughts. "Glory and rest are things that cannot squat on the same bench." Stay your mind in assured and limited cogitations, wherein it best may please itself, and having gained knowledge of true felicities, enjoy them, and rest satisfied without wishing a further continuance either of life or of name.
VI.--Opinion in Good and Evil
Men, saith an ancient Greek, are tormented by the opinion they have of things, and not by things themselves. It were a great conquest of our miserable human condition if any man could establish everywhere this true proposition. For if evils lie only in our judgment, it is in our power to condemn them or to turn them to good.
In death, what we principally fear is pain; as also poverty has nothing to be feared for but what she casts upon us through hunger, thirst, cold, and other miseries. I will willingly grant that pain is the worst accident of our being; I hate and shun it as much as possible. But it is in our power, if not to annul, at least to diminish it, with patience, and though the body should be moved, yet to keep mind and reason in good temper.
If it were not so, what has brought virtue, valour, magnanimity, fortitude, into credit? If a man is not to lie on the hard ground, to endure the heat of the scorching sun, to feed hungrily on a horse or an ass, to see himself mangled and cut in pieces, to have a bullet plucked out of his bones, to suffer incisions, his flesh to be stitched up, cauterised, and searched--all incident to a martial man--how shall we purchase the advantage and pre-eminence we so greedily seek over the vulgar sort?
Moreover, this ought to comfort us, that naturally, if pain be violent it is also short; if long, it is easier. Thou shall not feel it over-long; if thou feel it over-much, it will either end itself or end thee. Even as an enemy becomes more furious when we fly from him, so does pain grow prouder if we tremble under it. It will stoop and yield on better terms to him who makes head against it. In recoiling we draw on the enemy. As the body is steadier and stronger to a charge if it stand stiffly, so is the soul.
Weak-backed men, such as I am, feel a dash of a barber's razor more than ten blows with a sword in the heat of fight. The painful throes of childbearing, deemed by physicians and the word of God to be very great, some nations make no account of. I omit to speak of the Lacedæmonian women; come we to the Switzers of our infantry. Trudging and trotting after their husbands, to-day you see them carry the child around their neck which but yesterday they brought into the world.
How many examples have we not of contempt of pain and smart by that sex! What can they not do, what will they not do, what fear they to do, so they may but hope for some amendment of their beauty? To become slender in waist, and to have a straight spagnolised body, what pinching, what girding, what cingling will they not endure! Yea, sometimes with iron plates, with whalebones, and other such trashy implements, that their very skin and quick flesh is eaten in and consumed to the bones, whereby they sometimes work their own death.
There is a certain effeminate and light opinion, and that no more in sorrow than it is in pleasure, whereby we are so dainty tender that we cannot abide to be stung of a bee, but must roar and cry out. This is the total sum of all, that you be master of yourself.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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