French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.
“Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.
Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.
The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.
He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.
But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.
This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.
Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.
As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle. [cartoon id="a20629"]
The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”
Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.
Desan scolds both Montaigne and his friend—there is a lot of scolding of subject by author in this book—for thereby recommending or even inventing “the cornerstone of modern liberalism: individual freedom detached from any political or social action.” To say this, though, is surely to underestimate the originality of the position, or its audacity in its time. The assertion of individual freedom is a form of political action. As subsequent generations of intellectuals caught in violent irrational wars or under repressive governments have also learned, learning not to think foolishly is the first step toward sanity. (Live not by the lie, Solzhenitsyn urged his countrymen. Montaigne’s is the same idea, in a warmer climate with better wine.) Your mind belongs to you. Recognizing that everything is customary was not customary. Your body and your allegiance may indeed be given, prudently, to the state. But no one can make your mind follow suit: only a fool fools himself. The first step in dealing with the madness of the political world is not to let it make you crazy. “God keep me from being an honest man, according to the description I daily see made of honor,” Montaigne wrote.
Desan also scolds Montaigne, vis-à-vis La Boétie, on a literary point, complaining that Montaigne, having first been inspired to literary effort by a friend, allows the idea of friendship to dissipate in his later essays, which entail no friend but the reader. The essay becomes an impersonal form of intimacy, betraying a fear of passionate commitment and political engagement. But each written form creates its own reader. A sonnet is addressed to an indifferent object of passion; even if the actual lover warms up, the sonneteer can’t become too easily complacent—a dark lady suddenly sunny produces no one’s idea of a poem. So, too, an essay is always addressed to an intimate unknown. E. B. White, a modern Montaigne, who got there through Thoreau, was deeply attached to his wife, Katharine. But she makes few if any appearances in his essays (though she’s there, hypochondriacally, all over his letters). He wasn’t neglecting her—it’s just that if the essays were even implicitly addressed to a particular intimate they would become too specific. The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers. By dramatizing an isolation that can be cured only by an unknown reader, the confidences come to belong to all.
Montaigne made several attempts at his essais—the French word means, simply, “tries,” in the sense of experimental effort, though the English word “sketches” comes closer—and the bulk of the work of writing was done in the seven years following La Boétie’s death. Far from being rendered in elegant isolation, we now know, the essays were written while Montaigne took part in Bordeaux politics, travelled to Italy (where the book was briefly confiscated by Church authorities, and he was subjected to a withering examination and a warning), and, eventually, became the mayor of Bordeaux. When Montaigne tells us that his library is where “I pass the greatest part of my live days and wear out most hours of the days,” he was being poetical. The pieces were, it now seems, far more often dictated on the run than written in that tower, dictation being the era’s more aristocratic, less artisanal method of composition. (They still occasionally bear dictation’s marks of run-on breathlessness.)
Montaigne’s “Essais,” in any of their stages—they went through three editions in his lifetime—are one of those classic books that benefit from being read irresponsibly. Sit down to read them thoroughly step by step, even in the great contemporary English translation, of 1603, by John Florio (whose renderings I’ve mostly been using), and you will be disappointed, since the “argument” of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies, the utterly modern sentences: “Super-celestial opinions and under-terrestrial manners are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord,” he writes, giving as an example a philosopher who always pisses as he runs.
Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.
By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained,
all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.
Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats. That beautiful and startlingly modern list of mixed emotions suggests a delectation of diversities—he likes not knowing what he feels or who he is, enjoys having “wise” and “ignorant,” insulated by nothing but a comma, anchored together in one soul’s harbor. They bang hulls inside our heads.
Although those epigrammatic sentences can be arresting—“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least”—Montaigne doesn’t think epigrammatically. What makes him astonishing is a sort of “show all work” ethic that forced thought as it really is, mixed in motive and meanings, onto the page. He seems wise, more than smart or shrewd—wise without being smart or shrewd. He can be embarrassing, as he was often thought to be in his time, in a way that recalls less a polished columnist than a great diarist, like James Boswell or Kenneth Tynan, incapable of being guarded, the way shrewder people are. When he writes about the joys of having sex with cripples, we feel uneasy, nervous, and then enlightened. Whatever he’s telling, he’s telling it, as Howard Cosell used to say, like it is.
Desan, writing only about the French Montaigne, avoids the question that, for an English speaker, is essential: the great question of Montaigne’s relationship to Shakespeare. Although Florio’s 1603 effort was the first English rendering of Montaigne’s essays to appear in book form, they had certainly been circulating in manuscript before that. In an introduction to a new edition of the Florio, Stephen Greenblatt tantalizes us with the suggestion that the relation exists, and shows how richly it can be teased out—and then responsibly retreats from too much assertion with too little positive evidence, willing to mark it down to the common spirit of the time.
Well, essayists can go where scholars dare not tread—a key lesson to take from Montaigne—and this essayist finds it impossible to imagine that Shakespeare had not absorbed Montaigne fully, and decisively, right around 1600. It is evident not in the ideas alone but in a delighted placement of opposites in close relation, even more apparent in Shakespeare’s prose than in his verse. Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how inﬁnite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:
How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!
It’s not merely in the steady (and modern) use of exclamation points but in the sudden turns and reversals, without the mucilage of extended argument—the turn-on-a-dime movements, the interjections, the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back. The alteration in the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters around 1600, as evident in “As You Like It” as in “Hamlet,” bears his mark—as in Jaques’s speech on the seven ages of man, which very much resembles Montaigne’s insistence that life-living is role-playing. (“We must play our parts duly, but as the part of a borrowed personage.”)
Indeed, the Frenchman Jaques, even more than Hamlet, and from the same year, is Montaignean man. In this case, a specific relation seems to exist between Montaigne’s great essay “On Cruelty” and the scene in “As You Like It” where Jaques is reported brooding on the death of a deer. Montaigne’s point is that when it comes to cruelty we should subordinate all other “reasoning”—stoic, of degree and dependency—to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can reason our way past another creature’s pain, but, as we do so, such “reason” becomes the indicted evil. Jaques feels the same way. “We are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse / To fright the animals and kill them up,” he says, while “weeping and commenting upon the sobbing deer.” We are meant to find Jaques’s double occupation of weeping and commenting, feeling and keeping track of his feelings, mildly comic—Shakespeare being always convinced, in his English way, that the French are hypersensitive and overintellectual. But Jaques is not a ridiculous figure. He is conscience speaking through contradiction.
It was in the midst of all this that Montaigne was elevated to mayor of Bordeaux—an achievement, Desan shows, that was rather like getting appointed police commissioner under Tammany Hall. He wasn’t much of a mayor, although it was under his administration that the first protection and “control” of Bordeaux’s cru bourgeois was attempted, wine having crept up to become the city’s most important export, more important even than the salt fish that the family fortune had been built on. (It was a sign of the middle-class affluence that sped along in spite of the wars of faith.) His one attempted intervention in the religious conflict led to his being arrested and held in the Bastille, for a few hours, by extremist Catholics in Paris. He was released only after convincing the jailers of his Catholic bona fides. Fanaticism always seems foolish until it locks you up.
After his mayoralty, combining, as it did, the trivial and the terrifying, Montaigne moved away from political action, and Desan, in the end, is hard on his politics. “Montaigne’s humanism, as it was conceptualized starting in 1585, implies a renunciation of politics,” he declares, and elsewhere he sees in Montaigne a sort of false dawn of liberalism. Montaigne’s retreat was only a rich man’s way of getting off the highway before history ran him over. “Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of . . . the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought,” Desan writes. “Modern liberal thought discerns in Montaigne the starting point of its history . . . but let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form of (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its purely historical and political dimension.”
This view is deaf to the overtones of Montaigne’s self-removal. To be against violence, frightened of fanaticism, acutely conscious of the customary nature of our most devout attachments—without this foundation in realism, political action always pivots toward puritanical self-righteousness. It is not that Montaigne is placed on a pedestal; it’s that we look up at him only to find that he is already down here with us. His houses are built on sand, rock being too hard for people, who are bound to fall. His moral heroism lies in his resilience in retreat, which allows him to remind us of our capacity to persevere. His essays insist that an honest relation to experience is the first principle of action. As a practical matter, this has been most actively inspirational at times of greatest stress. The German author Stefan Zweig, in flight from Nazism, turned first of all to Montaigne, writing, “Montaigne helps us answer this one question: ‘How to stay free? How to preserve our inborn clear-mindedness in front of all the threats and dangers of fanaticism, how to preserve the humanity of our hearts among the upsurge of bestiality?’ ”
Montaigne is present now in the things he feels and the way he sounds, and that is like a complete human being. He’s funny, he’s touching, he’s strange, he’s inconclusive. Ironic self-mockery, muted egotism, a knowledge of one’s own absurdity that doesn’t diminish the importance of one’s witness, a determinedly anti-heroic stance that remains clearly ethical—all these effects and sounds of the essayist are first heard here. We imitate the sound without even knowing its source. Good critics and scholars can teach us how to listen. Only writers show us how to speak—even when they tell us that it is best to whisper.
Montaigne’s writing has not been taken out of his time. It exists outside of his time. He is not plucked out to become a false father; he is heard, long past his time, as a true friend. He is an emotional, not a contractual, liberal. He didn’t give a damn about democracy, or free speech, or even property rights. Equality before the law he saw as impossible—not even aristocrats could get it. But he had a rich foundational impulse toward the emotions that make a decent relation between man and state possible. Here was a far-reaching skepticism about authority (either the ancients’ or the actual), a compassion toward suffering, a hatred of cruelty that we now imagine as human instinct, though all experience shows us that it must be inculcated. Montaigne, having no access to the abstract concepts that were later laid on this foundation, gives us deeper access to them, because he was the one who laid it. The liberalism that came after humanism may be what keeps his memory alive and draws us to him. The humanism that has to exist before liberalism can even begin is what Montaigne is there to show us still. ♦
Michel de Montaigne
Of the inconstancy of our actions
Such as make it their business to oversee human actions, do not find themselves in anything so much perplexed as to reconcile them and bring them into the world’s eye with the same lustre and reputation; for they commonly so strangely contradict one another that it seems impossible they should proceed from one and the same person. We find the younger Marius one while a son of Mars and another a son of Venus. Pope Boniface VIII. entered, it is said, into his Papacy like a fox, behaved himself in it like a lion, and died like a dog; and who could believe it to be the same Nero, the perfect image of all cruelty, who, having the sentence of a condemned man brought to him to sign, as was the custom, cried out, “O that I had never been taught to write!” so much it went to his heart to condemn a man to death. All story is full of such examples, and every man is able to produce so many to himself, or out of his own practice or observation, that I sometimes wonder to see men of understanding give themselves the trouble of sorting these pieces, considering that irresolution appears to me to be the most common and manifest vice of our nature witness the famous verse of the player Publius:
Malum consilium est, quod mutari non potest.
[‘Tis evil counsel that will admit no change. —Pub. Mim., ex Aul. Gell., xvii. 14.]
There seems some reason in forming a judgment of a man from the most usual methods of his life; but, considering the natural instability of our manners and opinions, I have often thought even the best authors a little out in so obstinately endeavouring to make of us any constant and solid contexture; they choose a general air of a man, and according to that interpret all his actions, of which, if they cannot bend some to a uniformity with the rest, they are presently imputed to dissimulation. Augustus has escaped them, for there was in him so apparent, sudden, and continual variety of actions all the whole course of his life, that he has slipped away clear and undecided from the most daring critics. I can more hardly believe a man’s constancy than any other virtue, and believe nothing sooner than the contrary. He that would judge of a man in detail and distinctly, bit by bit, would oftener be able to speak the truth. It is a hard matter, from all antiquity, to pick out a dozen men who have formed their lives to one certain and constant course, which is the principal design of wisdom; for to comprise it all in one word, says one of the ancients, and to contract all the rules of human life into one, “it is to will, and not to will, always one and the same thing: I will not vouchsafe,” says he, “to add, provided the will be just, for if it be not just, it is impossible it should be always one.” I have indeed formerly learned that vice is nothing but irregularity, and want of measure, and therefore ‘tis impossible to fix constancy to it. ‘Tis a saying of. Demosthenes, “that the beginning oh all virtue is consultation and deliberation; the end and perfection, constancy.” If we would resolve on any certain course by reason, we should pitch upon the best, but nobody has thought on’t:
Quod petiit, spernit; repetit, quod nuper omisit; AEstuat, et vitae disconvenit ordine toto.
[That which he sought he despises; what he lately lost, he seeks again. He fluctuates, and is inconsistent in the whole order of life. —Horace, Ep., i. I, 98.]
Our ordinary practice is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, be it to the left or right, upwards or downwards, according as we are wafted by the breath of occasion. We never meditate what we would have till the instant we have a mind to have it; and change like that little creature which receives its colour from what it is laid upon. What we but just now proposed to ourselves we immediately alter, and presently return again to it; ‘tis nothing but shifting and inconsistency:
Ducimur, ut nervis alienis mobile lignum.
[We are turned about like the top with the thong of others. —Idem, Sat., ii. 7, 82.]
We do not go, we are driven; like things that float, now leisurely, then with violence, according to the gentleness or rapidity of the current:
Nonne videmus, Quid sibi quisque velit, nescire, et quaerere semper Commutare locum, quasi onus deponere possit?
[Do we not see them, uncertain what they want, and always asking for something new, as if they could get rid of the burthen. —Lucretius, iii. 1070.]
Every day a new whimsy, and our humours keep motion with the time.
Tales sunt hominum mentes, quali pater ipse Juppiter auctificas lustravit lumine terras.
[Such are the minds of men, that they change as the light with which father Jupiter himself has illumined the increasing earth. —Cicero, Frag. Poet, lib. x.]
We fluctuate betwixt various inclinations; we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly. In any one who had prescribed and established determinate laws and rules in his head for his own conduct, we should perceive an equality of manners, an order and an infallible relation of one thing or action to another, shine through his whole life; Empedocles observed this discrepancy in the Agrigentines, that they gave themselves up to delights, as if every day was their last, and built as if they had been to live for ever. The judgment would not be hard to make, as is very evident in the younger Cato; he who therein has found one step, it will lead him to all the rest; ‘tis a harmony of very according sounds, that cannot jar. But with us ‘t is quite contrary; every particular action requires a particular judgment. The surest way to steer, in my opinion, would be to take our measures from the nearest allied circumstances, without engaging in a longer inquisition, or without concluding any other consequence. I was told, during the civil disorders of our poor kingdom, that a maid, hard by the place where I then was, had thrown herself out of a window to avoid being forced by a common soldier who was quartered in the house; she was not killed by the fall, and therefore, repeating her attempt would have cut her own throat, had she not been prevented; but having, nevertheless, wounded herself to some show of danger, she voluntarily confessed that the soldier had not as yet importuned her otherwise; than by courtship, earnest solicitation, and presents; but that she was afraid that in the end he would have proceeded to violence, all which she delivered with such a countenance and accent, and withal embrued in her own blood, the highest testimony of her virtue, that she appeared another Lucretia; and yet I have since been very well assured that both before and after she was not so difficult a piece. And, according to my host’s tale in Ariosto, be as handsome a man and as worthy a gentleman as you will, do not conclude too much upon your mistress’s inviolable chastity for having been repulsed; you do not know but she may have a better stomach to your muleteer.
Antigonus, having taken one of his soldiers into a great degree of favour and esteem for his valour, gave his physicians strict charge to cure him of a long and inward disease under which he had a great while languished, and observing that, after his cure, he went much more coldly to work than before, he asked him what had so altered and cowed him: “Yourself, sir,” replied the other, “by having eased me of the pains that made me weary of my life.” Lucullus’s soldier having been rifled by the enemy, performed upon them in revenge a brave exploit, by which having made himself a gainer, Lucullus, who had conceived a good opinion of him from that action, went about to engage him in some enterprise of very great danger, with all the plausible persuasions and promises he could think of;
Verbis, quae timido quoque possent addere mentem
[Words which might add courage to any timid man. —Horace, Ep., ii. 2, 1, 2.]
“Pray employ,” answered he, “some miserable plundered soldier in that affair”:
Quantumvis rusticus, ibit, Ibit eo, quo vis, qui zonam perdidit, inquit;
[Some poor fellow, who has lost his purse, will go whither you wish, said he. —Horace, Ep., ii. 2, 39.]
and flatly refused to go. When we read that Mahomet having furiously rated Chasan, Bassa of the Janissaries, because he had seen the Hungarians break into his squadrons, and himself behave very ill in the business, and that Chasan, instead of any other answer, rushed furiously alone, scimitar in hand, into the first body of the enemy, where he was presently cut to pieces, we are not to look upon that action, peradventure, so much as vindication as a turn of mind, not so much natural valour as a sudden despite. The man you saw yesterday so adventurous and brave, you must not think it strange to see him as great a poltroon the next: anger, necessity, company, wine, or the sound of the trumpet had roused his spirits; this is no valour formed and established by reason, but accidentally created by such circumstances, and therefore it is no wonder if by contrary circumstances it appear quite another thing.
These supple variations and contradictions so manifest in us, have given occasion to some to believe that man has two souls; other two distinct powers that always accompany and incline us, the one towards good and the other towards ill, according to their own nature and propension; so abrupt a variety not being imaginable to flow from one and the same source.
For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. ‘Distinguo’ is the most universal member of my logic. Though I always intend to speak well of good things, and rather to interpret such things as fall out in the best sense than otherwise, yet such is the strangeness of our condition, that we are often pushed on to do well even by vice itself, if well-doing were not judged by the intention only. One gallant action, therefore, ought not to conclude a man valiant; if a man were brave indeed, he would be always so, and upon all occasions. If it were a habit of valour and not a sally, it would render a man equally resolute in all accidents; the same alone as in company; the same in lists as in a battle: for, let them say what they will, there is not one valour for the pavement and another for the field; he would bear a sickness in his bed as bravely as a wound in the field, and no more fear death in his own house than at an assault. We should not then see the same man charge into a breach with a brave assurance, and afterwards torment himself like a woman for the loss of a trial at law or the death of a child; when, being an infamous coward, he is firm in the necessities of poverty; when he shrinks at the sight of a barber’s razor, and rushes fearless upon the swords of the enemy, the action is commendable, not the man.
Many of the Greeks, says Cicero,—[Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., ii. 27.]— cannot endure the sight of an enemy, and yet are courageous in sickness; the Cimbrians and Celtiberians quite contrary;
Nihil enim potest esse aequabile, quod non a certa ratione proficiscatur.
[Nothing can be regular that does not proceed from a fixed ground of reason. —Idem, ibid., c. 26.]
No valour can be more extreme in its kind than that of Alexander: but it is of but one kind, nor full enough throughout, nor universal. Incomparable as it is, it has yet some blemishes; of which his being so often at his wits’ end upon every light suspicion of his captains conspiring against his life, and the carrying himself in that inquisition with so much vehemence and indiscreet injustice, and with a fear that subverted his natural reason, is one pregnant instance. The superstition, also, with which he was so much tainted, carries along with it some image of pusillanimity; and the excess of his penitence for the murder of Clytus is also a testimony of the unevenness of his courage. All we perform is no other than a cento, as a man may say, of several pieces, and we would acquire honour by a false title. Virtue cannot be followed but for herself, and if one sometimes borrows her mask to some other purpose, she presently pulls it away again. ‘Tis a vivid and strong tincture which, when the soul has once thoroughly imbibed it, will not out but with the piece. And, therefore, to make a right judgment of a man, we are long and very observingly to follow his trace: if constancy does not there stand firm upon her own proper base,
Cui vivendi via considerata atque provisa est,
[If the way of his life is thoroughly considered and traced out. —Cicero, Paradox, v. 1.]
if the variety of occurrences makes him alter his pace (his path, I mean, for the pace may be faster or slower) let him go; such an one runs before the wind, “Avau le dent,” as the motto of our Talebot has it.
’Tis no wonder, says one of the ancients, that chance has so great a dominion over us, since it is by chance we live. It is not possible for any one who has not designed his life for some certain end, it is impossible for any one to arrange the pieces, who has not the whole form already contrived in his imagination. Of what use are colours to him that knows not what he is to paint? No one lays down a certain design for his life, and we only deliberate thereof by pieces. The archer ought first to know at what he is to aim, and then accommodate his arm, bow, string, shaft, and motion to it; our counsels deviate and wander, because not levelled to any determinate end. No wind serves him who addresses his voyage to no certain, port. I cannot acquiesce in the judgment given by one in the behalf of Sophocles, who concluded him capable of the management of domestic affairs, against the accusation of his son, from having read one of his tragedies.
Neither do I allow of the conjecture of the Parians, sent to regulate the Milesians sufficient for such a consequence as they from thence derived coming to visit the island, they took notice of such grounds as were best husbanded, and such country-houses as were best governed; and having taken the names of the owners, when they had assembled the citizens, they appointed these farmers for new governors and magistrates; concluding that they, who had been so provident in their own private concerns, would be so of the public too. We are all lumps, and of so various and inform a contexture, that every piece plays, every moment, its own game, and there is as much difference betwixt us and ourselves as betwixt us and others:
Magnam rem puta, unum hominem agere.
[Esteem it a great thing always to act as one and the same man. —Seneca, Ep., 150.]
Since ambition can teach man valour, temperance, and liberality, and even justice too; seeing that avarice can inspire the courage of a shop-boy, bred and nursed up in obscurity and ease, with the assurance to expose himself so far from the fireside to the mercy of the waves and angry Neptune in a frail boat; that she further teaches discretion and prudence; and that even Venus can inflate boys under the discipline of the rod with boldness and resolution, and infuse masculine courage into the heart of tender virgins in their mothers’ arms:
Hac duce, custodes furtim transgressa jacentes, Ad juvenem tenebris sola puella venit:
[She leading, the maiden, furtively passing by the recumbent guards, goes alone in the darkness to the youth. —Tibullus, ii. 2, 75.]
’tis not all the understanding has to do, simply to judge us by our outward actions; it must penetrate the very soul, and there discover by what springs the motion is guided. But that being a high and hazardous undertaking, I could wish that fewer would attempt it.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the inconstancy of our actions.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 16 Sep 2006. 13 Mar 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/inconstancy_of_our_actions/>.