Friday, 5 May 2017

Michel de Montaigne


Livy (64 or 59 BCE – 17 CE):
Nothing is more deceitful than a depraved piety by which the will of the gods serves as a pretext for crimes.

Suetonius (c69 – after 122 CE):
He who suffers before he needs to, suffers more than he needs to.
(Life of Caesar)

The Road to Perdition

There is a plague on Man: his opinion that he knows something.
That is why ignorance is so strongly advocated by our religion as a quality appropriate to belief and obedience.
(pp 543-4)

In Man curiosity is an innate evil, dating from his origins …
The original Fall occurred when Man was anxious to increase his wisdom and knowledge: that path led headlong to eternal damnation.
Pride undoes man; it corrupts him; pride makes him leave the trodden paths, welcome novelty and prefer to be the leader of a lost band wandering along the road to perdition …
(p 555)

Whatever share in the knowledge of Truth we may have obtained, it has not been acquired by our own powers.
God has clearly shown us that [by choosing from among the common people] simple and ignorant apostles to bear witness of his wondrous secrets …
Our religion did not come to us through reasoned arguments or from our own intelligence: it came to us from outside authority, by commandments.
That being so, weakness of judgement helps us more than strength; blindness, more than clarity of vision.
We become learned in God's wisdom more by ignorance than by knowledge.
It is not surprising that our earth-based, natural means cannot conceive knowledge which is heaven-based and supernatural; let us merely bring our submissiveness and obedience …
(p 557)

Our minds are dangerous tools, rash and prone to go astray: it is hard to reconcile them with order and moderation. …
It is a miracle if you find one who is settled and civilized.
We are right to erect the strictest possible fences around the human mind. …
Certainly few souls are so powerful, so law-abiding and so well endowed that we can trust them to act on their own, allowing them liberty of judgement to sail responsibly and moderately beyond accepted opinion.
It is more expedient to keep them under tutelage.
(pp 629-30)

Every single idea which results from our own reflections and our own faculties — whether it is true or false — is subject to dispute and uncertainty. …
Everything we undertake without God's help, everything we try and see without the lamp of his grace, is vanity and madness.
(An apology for Raymond Sebond, p 622)

St Hilary, the Bishop of Poitiers and a famous enemy of the Arian heresy, was in Syria when he was told that his only daughter Abra, whom he had left overseas with her mother, was being courted by some of the most notable lords of the land …
He wrote to her … saying that he had found for her during his journey a Suitor who was far greater and more worthy, a Bridegroom of very different power and glory, who would vouchsafe her a present of robes and jewels of countless price.
His aim was to make her lose the habit and taste of worldly pleasures and to wed her to God; but since the most sure and shortest way seemed to him that his daughter should die, he never ceased to beseech God in his prayers, vows and supplications that he should take her from this world and call her to Himself.
And so it happened: soon after his return she did die, at which he showed uncommon joy. …

[And,] when St Hilary's wife heard from him how the death of their daughter had been brought about by his wish and design, and how much happier she was to have quitted this world than to have remained in it, she too took so lively a grasp on that eternal life in Heaven that she besought her husband, with the utmost urgency, to do the same for her.
Soon after, when God took her to Himself in answer to both their prayers, the death was welcomed with open arms and with an uncommon joy which both of them shared.
(On fleeing from pleasures at the cost of one's life, p 246)

Honour and Freedom

I condemn all violence in the education of tender minds which are being trained for honour and freedom … and I hold that you will never achieve by force what you cannot achieve by reason, intelligence and skill. …
I have never seen caning achieve anything except making souls more cowardly or more maliciously stubborn. …
[Indeed, even] if I were able to make myself feared [by my children,] I would rather make myself loved.
(On the affection of fathers for their children, pp 437 & 441)

Anyone can see that all things within a State depend upon the way it educates and brings up its children.
Yet quite injudiciously that is left to the mercy of the parents, no matter how mad or wicked they may be.
How many times have I been tempted, among others things, to make a dramatic intervention so as to avenge some little boys whom I saw being bruised, knocked about and flayed alive by some frenzied father or mother beside themselves with anger.
You can see fire and rage flashing from their eyes …
(On Anger, p 809)

(The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, M A Screech, Translator, Penguin, 1991)


Control through Fear
Education through Violence
Domination through Force
Obedience through Submission

Submission is a poor substitute for respect.
Fear instils only servility; it does not command respect.
It is important not to mistake one for the other.

(23 April 2017)


Book I
Book II
Book III

Michel Eyquem (1533 – 1592)

Lord of Montaigne.

  • The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, 1580, M A Screech, Translator, Penguin, 1991.

    On educating children

    [These] are my humours, my opinions:
    I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed.
    My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me.
    I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed.
    (p 167, emphasis added)

    Truth and reason are common to all: they no more belong to the man who first put them into words than to him who last did so.
    (p 170)

    That it is madness to judge the true and the false from our own capacities

    [How] many things which were articles of belief for us yesterday are fables for us today?
    (p 204)

    On the Cannibals

    [Every] man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country.
    (p 231)

    It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature, our great and powerful Mother.
    We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely.
    Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises: …
    All our strivings cannot even manage to reproduce the nest of the smallest little bird, with its beauty and appropriateness to its purpose; we cannot even reproduce the web of the wretched spider.
    (p 232)

    Those who treat subjects under the guidance of human limitations can be excused if they have done their best; but those who come and cheat us with assurances of powers beyond the natural order and then fail to do what they promise, should they not be punished for it and for the foolhardiness of their deceit?
    (p 233)

    Judgements on God's ordinances must be embarked upon with prudence

    The real field and subject of deception are things unknown:
    • firstly because their very strangeness lends them credence;
    • second, because they cannot be exposed to our usual order of argument, so stripping us of the means of fighting them. …
    And so it turns out that nothing is so firmly believed as whatever we know least about, and that no persons are more sure of themselves than those who tell us tall stories …
    (p 242)

    What I consider wrong is our usual practice of trying to support and confirm our religion by the success or happy outcome of our undertakings.
    Our belief has enough other foundations without seeking sanction from events: people who have grown accustomed to such plausible arguments well-suited to their taste are in danger of having their faith shaken when the turn comes for events to prove hostile and unfavourable.
    (p 243)

    A custom of the Isle of Cea

    Living is slavery if the freedom to die is wanting.
    (p 393)

    God gives us ample leave to go when he reduces us to the state where living is worse than dying. …
    Just as I break no laws against theft when I make off with my own property or cut my own purse, nor the laws against arson if I burn my own woods, so too I am not bound to the laws against murder if I take my own life.
    (p 394)

    Of all incitements [to suicide] unbearable pain and a worse death seem to me the most pardonable.
    (p 407)

    Of all the violences done to the conscience the one most to be avoided, it seems to me, is violence against the chastity of women, since an element of bodily pleasure is naturally in it for them.
    For this reason their resistance cannot be absolutely complete and it would seem that the rape may be mingled with a kind of willingness.
    (pp 400-1)

    On Practice

    [Perhaps] our ability to fall asleep, which deprives us of all action and sensation, is [Nature's way of teaching] us that she has made us as much for dying as for living [by showing] us that everlasting state which she is keeping for us when life is over, to get us accustomed to it and to take away our terror [of it.]
    (p 417)

    [Those] who have [suddenly] fallen into a swoon [and] lost all sensation, have been … very close to seeing Death's true and natural face, for it is not to be feared that the fleeting moment at which we pass away comports any hardship or distress, since we cannot have sensation without duration.
    For us, suffering needs time; and time is so short and precipitate when we die that death must be indiscernible.
    (p 418)

    It is a thorny undertaking … to follow so roaming a course as that of our mind's, to penetrate its dark depths and its inner recesses, to pick out and pin down the innumerable characteristics of its emotions. …
    For many years now the target of my thoughts has been myself alone; I examine nothing, I study nothing, but me …
    No description is more difficult than the describing of oneself; and none, certainly, is more useful. …
    My business, my art, is to live my life.
    (p 424-5)

    On Cruelty

    [There] is a kind of respect and a duty in man as a genus which link us not merely to the beasts, which have life and feelings, but even to trees and plants.
    We owe justice to men: and to the other creatures who are able to receive them we owe gentleness and kindness.
    Between them and us there is some sort of intercourse and a degree of mutual obligation.
    (p 488)

    An apology for Raymond Sebond

    When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?
    (p 505)

    Whoever sets out to find something eventually reaches the point where he can say:
    • that he has found it, or
    • that it cannot be found, or
    • that he is still looking for it.
    The whole of Philosophy can be divided into these three categories …
    (p 159)

    I find it unacceptable that the power of God should be limited … by the rules of human language …
    Our speech, like everything else, has its defects and weaknesses.
    Most of the world's squabbles are occasioned by grammar!
    (p 590)

    The hand of God's governance supports all things with an equal and unchanging sway, with the same order, the same power.
    Our concerns contribute nothing to this; our human activities and standards are quite irrelevant …
    (p 592)

    [If] we draw our moral rules from ourselves, what confusion we cast ourselves into!
    For the most convincing advice we get from reason is that each and every man should obey the laws of his own country …
    But what does that mean, except that our rules of conduct are based on chance?
    Truth must present the same face everywhere. …
    Could that ancient god, [the oracle of Apollo,] have more clearly emphasized the place of ignorance within our human knowledge of the divine Being, or taught us that religion is really no more than a human invention, useful for binding societies together, than by telling those who came before his Tripod to beg for instruction that the true way of worship is the one hallowed by custom in each locality?
    (p 652-3)

    We may all lack some sense or other [and] because of that defect, most of the features of objects may be concealed from us.
    How can we know that the difficulties we have in understanding many of the works of Nature do not derive from this, or that several of the actions of animals which exceed our powers of understanding are produced by a sense-faculty which we do not possess?
    Perhaps some of them, by such means, enjoy a fuller life, a more complete life than we do. …
    We have fashioned a truth by questioning our five senses working together; but perhaps we need to harmonize the contributions of eight or ten senses if we are ever to know, with certainty, what Truth is in essence.
    (p 666-7)

    On judging someone else's death

    [We] set too much store by ourselves.
    It appears to us that the whole universe in some way suffers when we are obliterated and that it feels compassion for our predicament …
    None of us gives enough thought to his being only one.
    (p 684-5)

    On presumption

    Finding myself since birth with such a degree of fortune that I had cause to remain as I was, and with such a degree of intelligence as to make me appreciate that fact, I have sought nothing — and have taken nothing either …
    All I needed was gently to enjoy such good things as God in his bounty has placed in my hands.
    I have never tasted excruciating toil of any kind.
    I have had to manage little apart from my own affairs; or if I have had to do anything else, it was in circumstances which let me manage things in my own time and in my own way, delegated to me by such as trusted me, never bothered me and knew me. …
    My very boyhood was spent in a manner slack and free, exempt from rigorous subjection.
    (p 732)

    Faced with danger I do not reflect on how to escape but on how little it matters that I do so.
    If I remained in danger what would it matter?
    Not being able to control events I control myself: if they will not adapt to me then I adapt to them. …
    (p 733)

    [It] is a good thing to be born in a century which is deeply depraved, for by comparison with others you are reckoned virtuous on the cheap. …
    [Thus] there never was a time and place in which princes could find greater or surer reward given to their generosity and justice.
    Unless I am mistaken, the first prince to make himself favoured and trusted in that way will, at little cost, outstrip his companions.
    Might and violence can achieve something, but not always and not everything.
    (p 734-5)

    We should not always say everything: that would be stupid; but what we do say must be what we think: to do otherwise is wicked.
    (p 736)

    [The] more I mistrust my memory, the more confused it gets; it serves me best when I take it by surprise; I have to address requests to it somewhat indifferently, for it becomes paralysed if I try to force it, and once it has started to wobble the more I dig into it the more it gets tied up and perplexed; it serves me in its own time not in mine.
    (p 738)

    [There] is no system so bad (provided it be old and durable) as not to be better than change and innovation.
    Our manners are corrupt in the extreme and wondrously inclined to get worse; many of our French laws and customs are monstrous and barbaric: yet, because of the difficulty of putting ourselves into a better state, and because such is the danger of collapse into ruin, if I could jam the brake on our wheel and stop it dead at this point I would happily do so.

    I find that the worst aspect of the state we are in is our lack of stability …
    It is easy enough to condemn a polity as imperfect since all things mortal are full of imperfection; it is easy enough to generate in a nation contempt for its ancient customs: no man has ever tried to do so without reaching his goal; but as for replacing the conditions you have ruined by better ones, many who have tried to do that have come to grief.

    In my own activities I allow but a small part to my intelligence: I readily let myself be led by the public order of this world.
    Blessed are they who, without tormenting themselves about causes, do what they are told rather than tell others what to do; who, as the Heavens roll, gently roll with them.
    (p 745)

    On freedom of conscience

    It is certain that, in those early days when our religion began to be backed by the authority of law, zeal provided many with weapons to use against all sorts of pagan books, causing the learned public to suffer staggering losses.
    I reckon that this inordinate zeal caused more harm to literature than all the fires started by the Barbarians.
    (p 759)

    In defence of Seneca and Plutarch

    How many have we seen patiently suffering to be roasted or burnt for opinions which, without understanding or knowledge, they have taken from others!

    I have known hundreds and hundreds of women … whom you would have more easily made to bite a red-hot iron than made to let go of an opinion conceived in a fit of choler once they have got their teeth into it.
    Women are rendered intractable by blows and constraint.
    (p 821)

    On the resemblance of children to their fathers

    Health is precious.
    It is the only thing to the pursuit of which it is truly worth devoting not only our time but our sweat, toil, goods and life itself.
    Without health all pleasure, scholarship and virtue lose their lustre and fade away. …

    It is quite certain that among all the works of Nature things may be found with properties which can preserve our health.
    (p 865)

    [But,] as far as I can see, no tribe of people are more quickly ill nor more slowly well than those who are under the jurisdiction of medicine.
    The constraints of their diets impair and corrupt their health.
    Doctors are not content with treating illness; they make good health ill too so as to stop us ever escaping from their jurisdiction. …
    Yet are the lives of doctors themselves so long and so happy that they can witness to the manifest effectiveness of their discipline? …
    Nations without number have no knowledge of medicine and live longer and more healthily than we do here.
    (p 866)

    When a patient is under doctors' orders anything lucky which happens to him is always due to them.
    Take those opportune circumstances which have cured me and hundreds of others who never call in medical help …
    [But] when anything untoward happens they either disclaim responsibility altogether or else blame it on the patient, finding reasons so vacuous that they need never fear they will ever run out of them …
    Or when we get worse … they palm us off with assertions that without their remedies things would have been even worse.
    (p 867-8)

    I have nothing against doctors, only against their Art; I do not blame them much for taking advantage of our follies: most people do; many vocations, both less honourable and more so, have no other base or stay than the abuse of a trusting public.
    (p 881)

    My travels have provided occasions for seeing virtually all the famous baths of Christendom …
    [And though] I have never seen any miraculous or extraordinary cures there … nevertheless I have also hardly met anyone who was made worse by taking the waters …
    (p 877)

    If you cannot come with enough spriteliness to enjoy the company gathered there or the walks and relaxations to which we are tempted by the beauty of the countryside in which most of these spas are situated, you certainly lose the better and surer part of their effect. …
    Each country has its own peculiar opinions about how to make use of the waters as well as their own rules and methods.
    In my experience the effects are virtually identical. …

    So much then for the only branch of medicine which I have frequented; it is the least artificial but has its fair share of the confusion and uncertainty you see everywhere else in that Art.
    (p 878)

    On the useful and the honourable

    Our laws have freed me from great anguish: they have chosen my party for me and have given me a master: all other superior authority is related to the authority of that law; all other obligations are restrained by it.
    That does not mean that if my affections inclined to the other side that I would immediately lend it my support: our wills and desires are laws unto themselves but our actions must accept law as ordained by the State.
    (p 896)

    On repenting

    I have known the blade, the blossom and the fruit; and I now know their withering.
    Happily so, since naturally so.
    I can bear more patiently the ills that I have since they come in due season, and since they also make me recall with more gratitude the long-lasting happiness of my former life.
    (p 920)

    On some lines of Virgil

    Women are not entirely wrong when they reject the moral rules proclaimed in society, since it is we men alone who have made them.
    (p 964)

    [We] assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs, under pain of punishments of the utmost severity.
    No passion is more urgent than this one, yet our will is that they alone should resist it …
    Meanwhile we men can give way to it without blame or reproach. …

    [Men want their] wives to be in good health, energetic, radiant, buxom … and chaste at the same time, both hot and cold at once.
    (p 965)

    We train women from childhood for the practices of love:
    • their graces,
    • their clothes,
    • their education,
    • their way of speaking
    regard only that one end.
    (p 966)

    I think it easier to keep on a suit of armour all your life than to keep a maidenhead.
    (p 972)

    [Male] and female are cast in the same mould: save for education and custom the difference between them is not great.
    (p 1016)

    On vanity

    Nothing crushes a State save novelty.
    Change alone provides the mould for injustice and tyranny.
    (p 1084)

    To throw off the burden of a present evil is no cure unless the general condition is improved.
    The surgeon's aim is not to cause the death of foetid flesh: that is merely the means which lead to the cure.
    He looks beyond that, to making natural flesh grow back again and to restoring the limb to its proper state.
    Anyone who proposes merely to remove what is irking him falls short, for good does not necessarily succeed evil. …
    All great revolutions convulse the State and cause disorder.
    (p 1085)

    I have gone to bed in my own home hundreds of times thinking that I would be betrayed and killed that night, bargaining with Fortune that the event should not be terrifying and long drawn-out.
    (p 1098)

    The most useful science and the most honourable occupation for a wife is home-management.
    I am aware of … few who are good managers.
    (p 1102)

    Yet to be one is a wife's chief virtue, the one that we should look for first as the only dowry which may either save our households or ruin them. …
    I enable my wife to do this properly when, by my absence, I leave the government of my house in her hands. …
    It is unjust and absurd that our wives should be maintained in idleness by our sweat and toil.
    (p 1103)

    If I were allowed to choose I would, I think, prefer to die in the saddle rather than in my bed, away from home and far from my own folk.
    (p 1106)

    Your heart is racked with pity at hearing the lamentations of those who love you — and perhaps with anger at hearing other lamentations, feigned and hypocritical. …
    If we need a 'wise-woman' to midwife us into this world we need an even wiser man to get us out of it. …

    Not from fear but from cunning, I want to go to earth like a rabbit and steal off as I pass away. …
    I am satisfied with a death which will withdraw into itself, a calm and lonely one, entirely my own, one in keeping with my life — retiring and private. …
    I have enough to do to console myself without having to console others; enough thoughts in my mind without fresh ones evoked by my surroundings; enough to think about without drawing on others.
    This event is not one of our social engagements: it is a scene with one character.
    Let us live and laugh among our own folk, but let us die, grinding our teeth, among strangers.
    (p 1107)

    Since there are deaths good for fools and others for sages, let us find some which are good for people in between.
    (p 1113)

    On restraining your will

    [The] more we increase our needs and possessions the more we expose ourselves to adversities and to the blows of Fortune.
    (p 1143)

    When my convictions make me devoted to one faction, it is not with so violent a bond that my understanding becomes infected by it.
    During the present confusion in this State of ours my own interest has not made me fail to recognize laudable qualities in our adversaries nor reprehensible ones among those whom I follow.
    People worship everything on their own side: for most of what I see on mine I do not even make excuses.
    A good book does not lose its beauty because it argues against my cause.
    Apart from the kernel of the controversy, I have remained balanced and utterly indifferent …
    (p 1144)

    I want us to win, but I am not driven mad if we do not.
    I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties, but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable.
    (p 1145)

    [When] the outlook or the outcome of an event is unfavourable, they want each man to be blind and insensible towards his own party, and that our judgement and conviction should serve not the truth but to project our desires. …
    I have seen in my time amazing examples of the indiscriminate and prodigious facility which peoples have for letting their beliefs be led and their hopes be manipulated towards what has pleased and served their leaders, despite dozens of mistakes piled one upon another and despite illusions and deceptions. …

    You do not belong if you can change your mind, if you do not bob along with all the rest.
    Yet we certainly do wrong to just parties when we would support them by trickery.
    I have always opposed that.
    It only works for sick minds: for sane ones there are surer, [and more honourable, ways] of sustaining courage and explaining setbacks.
    (p 1146)

    On physiognomy

    If we have known how to live steadfastly and calmly we shall know how to die the same way.
    (p 1190)

    While it is credible that we should have a natural fear of pain, it is not credible that we should fear dying as such, which is a part of the essence of our being, no less than living is. …
    The failing of one life is the gate to a thousand other lives.
    (p 1195)

    On experience

    How many innocent parties have been discovered to have been punished … ?
    And how many have never been discovered?
    Here is something which has happened in my time: some men had been condemned to death for murder; the sentence, if not pronounced, was at least settled and determined.
    At this juncture the judges were advised by the officials of a nearby lower court that they were holding some prisoners who had made a clean confession to that murder and thrown an undeniable light on to the facts.
    The Court deliberated whether it ought to intervene to postpone the execution of the sentence already given against the first group.
    The judges considered the novelty of the situation; the precedent it would constitute for granting stays of execution, and the fact that once the sentence had been duly passed according to law they had no powers to change their minds.
    In short those poor devils were sacrificed to judicial procedures. …
    How many sentences have I seen more criminal than the crime … ?
    (p 1214-5)

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