Essais de Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne (1533-1592), says Mr. Hallam, is the first French classic—the first writer of whose works an educated man is ashamed to be entirely ignorant. It is scarcely necessary to give any minute account of a book which is so familiar to almost every reader as Montaigne's Essays. Most people have dipped into it more or less extensively; though it may be doubted whether any one, in the absence of some special motive or special sympathy with the author, ever read it through.
Its proper use is to be treated as its author treated other books. 'Je ne cherche aux livres,' he says, 'qu'a m'y donner du plaisir par un honneste amusement.' 'Si ce livre me fasche, j'en prends un autre, et ne m'y addonne qu'aux heures ou 1'ennuy de rien faire commence a me saisir.' The Essays are just the sort of book which may be taken up at odd times, opened anywhere, and laid aside at any moment; and this, no doubt, is the manner in which they are, and ought to be generally read. For, after all that has been said in their praise, it must be owned that they are long-winded to a degree, full of repetitions of the same thought under a variety of very similar forms, and as garrulous, vain, and egotistical as the letters of a newspaper correspondent in the middle of the long vacation.
Montaigne's delight in spilling himself over reams of paper was a peculiarity in his own day, and the undeniable vein of genius which runs through his writings combined with the novelty of the process to give it extraordinary interest. Since his time we have been deluged with confessions and self-revelations. Novelists and journalists have vied with each other in beating out their own and their neighbours' experiences, feelings, and loose thoughts upon things in general into sheets of literary tinfoil; and Montaigne stands at the head of an immensely large and by no means respectable literary family. It would, however, be foolish to allow this to blind us either to Montaigne's real merits, or to the peculiar position which he undoubtedly fills in literary history.
Times have changed since he wrote, and his critics ought to remember that Bohemianism, as we call it, was far more excusable in his day than in our own. Irregularity, unsystematic shrewdness, gay audacity in speculation have their place and their use as well as more solemn qualities; and if ever there was an age in which an emphatic expression of such a turn of mind was needed, it was the age of fierce war and passionate controversy in which Montaigne lived.
It ought also to be said of Montaigne that his eternal babble and wandering were unaffected. He was not himself a penny-a-liner, though he was the father of the whole brood. He actually was what the modern gossip wishes to be, and he lived at a time when intelligent gossip was greatly required as a counterpoise to fierce, ignorant, and overbearing dogmatism.
The babble of the present day is bad because it indisposes people to serious thought on serious subjects, on which materials for serious thought are available in any quantity. We live in an age of real science, authentic history, and fruitful inquiry, upon which men both can and ought to exercise their faculties steadily and in earnest. Hence the levity of style which so many modern writers choose to assume in discussion and description is for the most part mere idleness and self-indulgence; for it is seldom graceful enough to have an independent artistic value. In Montaigne's time it was nearly the only available weapon of offence against a harsh tyranny which had so darkened counsel by words without knowledge, that the first and most pressing of all intellectual necessities was to get rid of the burdens which it had laid on the minds of men.
The best thing to be said of Montaigne is that his essays are a protest on behalf of human nature and common sense against mock science, and that in his days there was hardly any true knowledge to be disrespectful to. 'Science,' he says, 'treats matters too finely, in an artificial way, different from that which is common and natural. My page makes love and understands it. Read him Leon the Jew or Ficinus; it is about him, his thoughts and his actions, yet he understands nothing. I do not know my own common movements when I read about them in Aristotle. They have been covered and dressed up in different clothes to suit the schools, God prosper them! If I was in the trade I would naturalise art as they artificialise nature.' ('Je naturaliserois 1'art autant comme ils artialisent la nature.') This appears to us to be the true view, and the justification of his scepticism, which, in our own days, would no doubt have been far less thoroughgoing than he makes it.
It is difficult to choose particular specimens as illustrations of Montaigne's way of thinking, because characteristic sentences and illustrative points occur in every part of the essays in a manner which baffles all calculation, and without any apparent connection with the matter ostensibly in hand. To take one illustration amongst a thousand. Near the end of the book (Book iii. chap, vi.), Montaigne gives a striking sketch of the magnificence and luxury of the old Roman spectacles, and, passing from it, repeats the reflection which every one makes, but which can never be worn out, as to the indefinitely small proportion which our knowledge of past times bears to our ignorance of them.
He justifies his general tone by the example of the English. He says:
'Depuis que je suis nay, j'ay veu trois et quatre fois rechanger celles des Anglois, nos voisins; non seulement en subject politique qui est celuy qu'ou veult dispenser de constance, mais au plus important subject que puisse estre, a sçavoir de la religion, de quoy j'ay honte et despit, d'autant plus que c'est une nation a laquelle ceulx de mon quartier ont eut aultresfois une si privée accointance qu'il reste encores en ma maison aulcunes traces de notre ancien cousinage, et chez nous icy j'ay veu telle chose qui nous estoit capitale, devenir légitime; et nous, qui en tenant d'aultres, sommes a mesme, selon 1'incertitude de la fortune guerrière, d'estre un jour criminels de leze majesté humaine et divine, nostre justice tumbant a la mercy de 1'injustice et en 1'espace de peu d'années de possession prenant une essence contraire. Comment pouvait ce dieu ancien plus clairement accuser en 1'humaine cognoissance 1'ignorance de 1'estre divin, et apprendre aux hommes que leur religion n'estoit qu'une piece de leur invention propre a lier leur société.’Thence he diverges into a really beautiful set of reflections on the discovery of America, full of that delicate sense of humour which has become rare amongst French writers.
'Our world has just found another (and who can say whether it is the last of the family, since the daemons, the sibyls, and we were ignorant of this one till the other day?), as large, as full, and as well limbed (membru) as itself, and yet so new and so childish that we are still teaching it its a b c. It is not yet fifty years since it was ignorant of letters, weights and measures, dress, corn, and vines; it was still naked, and lived only on the supplies of its nursing mother. ... It was a baby world; we have not whipped it and forced it into our manners by our valour and natural force, nor have we won it by our justice and goodness, nor subdued it by our magnanimity.'
He goes on to show how great were the natural gifts of the Mexicans and other natives of America, and how little they had got except injury from the superior knowledge of their conquerors. After several pages about Cortes, Pizarro, and Montezuma, he finishes the digression by returning to the subject of the essay in which it occurs.
What was that subject?— Coaches. The connection is as follows: the essay begins about sea-sickness, to which Montaigne says he was very subject, though he thought it was not caused, as Plutarch supposed, by fear. He adds, that he hated travelling by coach, litter, or boat, or in any other way than on horseback. This reminds him that Mark Antony was the first person who had a coach at Rome, that Heliogabalus had his coach drawn by tigers, stags, dogs, etc., and that Firmus preferred ostriches. 'The strangeness of these inventions puts into my head the fancy that it is a sort of pusillanimity in monarchs, and a proof that they do not sufficiently understand their position, when they labour to set themselves off and make a show by excessive expenses.' This introduces the question, what expenses are excessive? This brings up the Roman shows. They introduce the passage which we have already referred to, and after many pages of that comes the conclusion: '"Retumbons a nos coches"; instead of them, and of any other sort of carriage, they' (the Peruvians) 'were carried on the shoulders of men, and the last King of Peru, on the day when he was taken, was carried thus on a golden frame sitting in a chair of gold, in the midst of his troops.' As his bearers were killed, others took their places till the King himself was killed. With this the essay abruptly concludes. This essay is as good a specimen of the way in which Montaigne put down upon paper whatever came into his head as any one of scores of others which might be chosen instead of it.
There is indeed one essay, and only one, which is rather more systematic, and which may be considered as the nearest approach to be found in Montaigne's writings to a definite exposition of his views on the subjects to which he attached real interest and importance. It is the Apology of Raymond of Sebonde. It fills 112 octavo pages, very closely printed in small type, and sets forth—not, it is true, systematically nor even consecutively, but at all events fully—the views which have specially associated with the author's name the reputation of universal scepticism.
We will try to give a concise account of it. It begins by saying that Pierre Bunel, 'a man of much reputation for knowledge in history,' after staying at Montaigne with the essayist's father, gave him, on leaving, a book called Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum, Magistri Raimondi de Sebonde. It was written in bad Spanish with Latin terminations, and Bunel thought it would be very useful and appropriate to the time, 'for it was then that the novelties of Luther began to come into credit, and to shake our ancient faith in many places; in which he was quite right, foreseeing well, by the principles of reason, that this malady would rapidly degenerate into an execrable atheism.'
Old Montaigne laid the book aside, but a few days before his death told his son to translate it into French, which he accordingly did :—
'I thought the imagination of this author beautiful, the frame of his work well arranged, and his design full of piety. As many people amuse themselves by reading it, and especially the ladies, to whom we all owe service, I have often been able to help them in freeing the book from two principal objections which are made to it. Its object is bold and courageous. The author undertakes by human and natural reasons to establish and verify against atheists all the articles of the Christian religion; in which, to tell the truth, I find him so firm and so happy that I do not think it possible to argue that case more powerfully.'Of the author himself Montaigne says he knows nothing except that he was a Spanish physician at Toulouse who lived about two hundred years before his own age—i.e. in the fourteenth century; and that 'Adrianus Turnebus, who knew everything, told me that he thought the book must be some quintessence taken from Thomas Aquinas, for that that genius alone, full as it was of infinite erudition and wonderful subtlety, was capable of such thoughts.'
The 'two principal objections' which Montaigne undertakes to answer in his apology are, first, that Christians are wrong in wishing to support their faith by human arguments, as it is to be conceived only by faith, and by a particular inspiration of divine grace; and secondly, that the arguments of Raymond are weak and inconclusive. His answer to the first objection appears to be that the behaviour of Christians in general shows that they are Christians only by accident, and have little or no supernatural faith:—
'We find ourselves in a country where Christianity is professed; or we think of its antiquity, or the authority of those who have maintained it, or we fear its threats to unbelievers, or follow its promises. These considerations ought indeed to be employed upon our faith, but only as makeweights; a different religion, other witnesses, promises and threats of another kind, might impress on us in the same manner a different belief. We are Christians by the same title as we are natives of Perigord or Germany.'Hence we need all the arguments we can get, and may be prepared by a writer like Raymond to receive a supernatural faith. The answer to the second objection is, apparently, that Raymond's arguments are no weaker than any others, that we know nothing, or hardly anything, upon any subject, and that we are too poor creatures to have a right to doubt the truth of Christianity:—
'The method that I take to beat down this frenzy, and which appears to me the most proper, is to crush and tread under foot human pride and boldness; to make them feel the inanity, vanity, and nothingness of man; to snatch from their hands the weak arms of their reason, to make them bow the head and bite the earth under the authority and reverence of the divine majesty. . . . Down with Think ('abattons ce cuider') the foundation-stone of the tyranny of the evil spirit.'
The rest of his apology is an outpouring of scepticism which fits as awkwardly as possible to the highly orthodox preface by which it is introduced. Indeed, Montaigne's answers to the two objections with which he has to deal, appear to prove, when put together, that it is right to argue on religious matters, but wrong to require good arguments. We ought to be content with feeble and inconclusive ones, and to look only at those which are used on the orthodox side. To the ordinary human mind this method would probably appear to involve a good deal of waste of time. An argument is simply worthless unless it establishes what it asserts. Whatever may be the imperfections of arithmetic, it is difficult to imagine a greater waste of time than working sums wrong.
Having speedily got through the argumentative part of his undertaking, Montaigne proceeds to heap up, at an extraordinary and indeed tiresome length, illustrations of the sceptical view of things. He begins with a long sermon on the text that 'presumption is our natural and original malady,' in support of which he gives all sorts of instances of the superiority of beasts to men. Taken as a whole, it is tedious and commonplace, but it is full of shrewdness. It contains, for instance, the assertion which has been so often repeated and argued upon (by Coleridge amongst others) in later times, that when a dog comes to four cross roads he smells at two and runs down the third without smelling, arguing that as his master was not in road A up which he came, nor in B or C at which he smelt, he must have gone down D. Hence the dog is acquainted with what in these days is called the third law of thought—the law of the excluded middle. The difficulty is as to the fact. Beasts, he says, may speak, for all we can tell, for we can say what we have to say by signs :—
'Quoi des mains? nous requerons, nous promettons, appellons, congedions, menaceons, prions, supplions, nions, refusons, interrogeons, admirons, nombrons, confessons, repentons, craignons, vergoignons, doubtons, instruisons, commandons, absolvons, injurions, mesprisons, desfions, despitons, flattens, applaudissons, benissons, humilions, mocquons, reconcilions, recommendons, festoyons, rejouissons, complaignons, attristons, descomfortons, desesperons, estonnons, escrions, taisons, et quoi non?'And he goes on to tell the story of Agis, who, when asked by an ambassador after a long speech what answer he was to carry home, said, 'That I have let you speak as much and as long as you liked without saying a single word.' 'Voila pas,' says Montaigne, in French which it would be a shame to try to translate, 'un taire parlier et bien intelligible?' In his comparison between men and beasts, Montaigne shows perhaps rather too little than too much scepticism, for he receives as perfectly authentic the most wonderful fables about animals — as, for instance, that 'in Thrace above Amphipolis' the hunters and the wild hawks go halves in their prey, and that on the Palus Moeotis the wolves go and tear up the fishermen's nets unless they honestly leave them half the fish. He says, too, that 'storks give themselves clysters with salt water.'
It is characteristic of Montaigne that his scepticism never extends to matters of fact. He says, for instance, that sportsmen say that if you want to find out which is the best worth keeping of a litter of puppies, the way is to carry them away from the kennel and keep the one which the mother first brings back. It never occurs to him to ask how, when all the rest are drowned, you can possibly tell that the one so chosen was the best.
After running on at immense length about the inferiority of men to beasts, he gives several pages to a declamation about the advantage of ignorance, the whole of which merely shows that particular cases may be put in which particular pieces of knowledge have been injurious to particular persons. Ignorance in regard to religion, and above all in regard to the nature and attributes of God, is specifically praised as being the right and inevitable condition of man; such ignorance he regards as another form of faith, or at least as closely connected with it.
How the consciousness of hopeless ignorance can produce any other result than that of diverting the thoughts from the object of which we so know ourselves to be ignorant, he does not think of explaining. This, however, introduces the main subject of the whole apology :—
'If at last I am to inquire if it is in the power of man to find what he seeks, and if this search, on which he has been employed for so many centuries, has enriched him with any new force or solid truth; I think he will confess, if he speaks according to his conscience, that all that he has got by this long pursuit is to have learnt to know his weakness.'This is the text of an elaborate attack on the philosophy of his age, the effect of which is to assert that it was mostly a matter of chopping logic, and contained nothing solid. He begins with the natural theology of the ancient philosophers, by contrasting whose systems he is of course able to produce any amount of evidence of the interminable nature of the disputes which divided them, and of the slightness of the grounds on which their theories were built. Here and there striking passages occur. The following, for instance, is a neat expression of what may be described as the fundamental position of orthodox scepticism :—
'Pythagoras made a nearer guess at the truth in thinking that the knowledge of this first cause and being of beings must be indefinite, imprescriptible, and incapable of being declared; that it was nothing else than an extreme effort of our imagination towards perfection, each man amplifying the idea according to his capacity; that if Numa tried to model the devotion of his people on this plan, and to attach it to a purely mental religion, without any definite object and without any mixture of matter, he undertook what could not be done; the human mind cannot sustain itself floating about in this infinity of vague thoughts; it is obliged to confine them in some sort of image fitted to its capacity. The divine majesty has thus, for our sakes, after a fashion, allowed itself to be circumscribed within bodily limits; its supernatural and celestial sacraments bear signs of our earthly condition; it is worshipped by outward signs and ceremonies; for it is man who believes and prays.'Here, again, is a pointed statement of a thought which has been systematically worked out by others, and especially by Hobbes [See the chapter on Speech in the Leviathan (Works, iii. 25, pt. 1, ch. IV.)—'The errors of definitions multiply themselves according as the reckoning proceeds, and lead men into absurdities which at last they see, but cannot avoid without reckoning anew from the beginning in which is the foundation of their errors. From whence it happens that they which trust to books do as they that cast up many little sums into a greater, without considering whether those little sums were rightly cast up or not,—and at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves, but spend time in fluttering over their books; as birds that, entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window for want of wit to consider which way they came in;' and see the whole chapter.]:—
'Our language has its weaknesses and faults like the rest. Most of the occasions of the troubles of the world are grammatical. Our lawsuits arise out of debates on the interpretation of the laws; and most of our wars from the difficulty of clearly expressing the treaties and conventions between princes. How many and what important quarrels have been produced in the world by doubts as to the meaning of the one syllable Hoc' (i.e. 'hoc est corpus meum'). Another celebrated passage which occurs a little farther on is the one to which Bossuet alludes when he says that it is a pleasure to hear Montaigne make his goose talk. 'Why should not a goose say, Every part of the universe is made for me; the earth is for me to walk upon, the sun lights me, the stars shed their influences on me; I find such conveniences in the wind, such others in the water; the vault of heaven regards nothing so favourably as me. I am the darling of nature. Does not man keep me, lodge me, serve me; does not he sow and grind for me? And if he eats me, he eats his fellow-men as well, and I eat the worms which kill and eat him.'It was probably also in Pope's mind when he wrote his lines in the first book of the Essay on Man—
‘Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine?This attack on morals and natural theology is followed by an equally vehement attack on physical philosophy as understood in Montaigne's days, after which he sums up by telling his readers that they must maintain Raymond's arguments by all ordinary means in the first instance, and resort to the argument from general scepticism only in case of extreme necessity. 'This last fencing trick must be employed only as an extreme remedy; it is a desperate stroke in which you must throw away your own arms to make your adversary abandon his, and a secret thrust which you must use seldom and with reserve.'
Earth for whose use? Pride answers, ''Tis for mine.'
As for himself, the general result is that he adheres to his own religion because it is his:—
'As I am incapable of choosing, I let others choose for me' (as if this was not the idlest of all ways of choosing), 'and keep myself in the position in which God has placed me; otherwise I should be continually rolling. Thus have I by the grace of God preserved entire, without agitation or trouble of conscience, the ancient doctrines of our religion, in spite of all the sects and divisions which our age has produced.'There is a good deal more to the same purpose, but this is the essence of Montaigne's most elaborate discourse. The best answer to it, if it much requires one, is to be found in the immense steps made since his time in every kind of solid knowledge. Science has, in the course of the last three centuries, attained a position which makes general scepticism in good faith hardly possible.
It has taught us, no doubt, that our ignorance is unspeakably great, and that the languages in which we have to express ourselves are very imperfect instruments for describing the world in which we live; but it has also taught us, in a manner which cannot be gainsaid, that there is a fixed order in the world, and in our own thoughts, which we can contemplate, and to a considerable extent describe correctly in words.
To Montaigne's perpetual Que Scais-Je? it would be easy in these days to give a definite, though it would be a lengthy answer, which would consist of an enumeration of all the branches of science which since his time have been put on a sound basis, which have been proved, that is by reference to the testimony of the senses duly checked and corrected by repeated observation.
As for the religious application of his argument, it is enough to say that it makes as much against every form of belief as for it. It may, in fact, be reduced to this, that all religions being equally false, or at least equally uncertain, there is no reason for changing the one in which we happen to be brought up; and even this is incorrect, for the religion in which a man is brought up may be exceedingly inconvenient and irksome, though not more false than any other. If an enlightened sceptic had been brought up a worshipper of Bhówani it would be wise in him to consider whether Christianity was not at all events a more convenient creed, even if it were not more true.
Montaigne was, like Bayle, a good deal less sceptical in practice than in theory. Indeed, it is pretty obvious that his scepticism was only a convenient mask beneath which he concealed a condemnation of all existing forms of philosophy and religion. His book is full of positive assertions of his own, especially upon moral subjects. The first chapter of the third book 'De Futile et de 1'honneste' abounds in instances of this. He says, for example:—
'There are false and effeminate rules in philosophy. You have been taken by robbers who have released you, having taken your oath for the payment of a certain sum. It is wrong to say that an honourable man will be released from his word, and need not pay when he is at liberty. It is not so. What fear has once made me will, I am bound to continue to will without fear; and if it has forced my tongue only without my will, I am still bound to make my words good.'
Perhaps the most engaging quality in Montaigne, at least to many readers, is his extreme humanity. It is a good deal like the humanity of Comines. Thus, for instance, in continuation of the passage just quoted, he enters into an elaborate panegyric upon Epaminondas praising in particular his humanity. He observes:
'There are false and effeminate rules in philosophy. You have been taken by robbers who have released you, having taken your oath for the payment of a certain sum. It is wrong to say that an honourable man will be released from his word, and need not pay when he is at liberty. It is not so. What fear has once made me will, I am bound to continue to will without fear; and if it has forced my tongue only without my will, I am still bound to make my words good.'He seems to have been revolted at the harshness which prevailed in his generation, and he never misses an opportunity of protesting against it. The following passages are pleasing illustrations of this:—
'I think ill of the custom of forbidding children to call their father, father, and of making them give him a strange name as being more reverential, when nature has provided sufficiently for this authority. We call God Almighty, Father, and do not allow our children to call us so. I have set this to rights in my family. If I could not make myself feared I would rather be loved; there are so many defects in old age, so much weakness, it is so open to contempt, that the best gain that old men can have is the affection and love of their family. Command and fear are their arms no longer.'These are fair illustrations of a tone which runs through the whole of the essay.
A point which ought not to be omitted in a notice of Montaigne, though it is not easy to examine it fully, is his indecency. He is undoubtedly an indecent author, and his indecency is much more than mere plainness of speech. He constantly goes out of his way, if he can be said to have any way to go out of, to bring in indecent stories. It is, however, difficult not to admit that his demerits in this particular are closely connected with the naturalism which is the main characteristic of all that he writes. His one rule of composition seems to have been to put down whatever came into his head, clean or unclean; and to have suppressed anything which he was minded to tell, from a sense of modesty, would have been opposed to his whole scheme. After all, there is more grotesqueness and humour than prurience in Montaigne's indecencies. He has none of the nastiness of Rabelais or Swift, and none of the brutal half-mad vanity of Rousseau.
Upon the whole, it may be said of him that no one ever succeeded so perfectly in the enterprise which many people have undertaken of painting a perfectly honest and complete portrait of oneself; but his success was rather a warning than an example. It was due to the fact that the age in which he lived was one in which a protest against bigotry and science, falsely so called, and an honest confession of ignorance, had accidental and exceptional importance.
His garrulity, personal vanity, and affectation of general scepticism were the arms by the use of which he was able to protest at once effectively and safely against the besetting sins of his generation. In a more humane and better instructed age such arts are not required, and if they are employed, not for the legitimate purpose for which Montaigne employed them, but because they suit the real taste of the author, they are generally contemptible and sometimes disgusting.
Except by way of protest against the temper of the sixteenth century, it would not have been worth while to make so much of the fact that Michel de Montaigne, who lived in an unfortified house with a gallery here and a study there, who liked Plutarch, who had an 'esprit prime saultier,' and had an attack of stone which he particularly disliked, who never pursued a subject which he found difficult, and who did, thought, and felt a thousand trivial things, did not know what to make of the world in which they happened. The really important point was, that his neighbours were quite as ignorant as himself, not nearly so honest or so kind, and quite ignorant of their own ignorance; and this Montaigne's peculiar style enabled him to assert very effectively.
Saturday Review, November 3, 1866.