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Michel de Montaigne




You have here an honest book; it does at the outset forewarn You that, in contriving the same, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end: I have had no consideration at all either to Your service or to my glory. My powers are not capable of any such design. I have dedicated it to the particular commodity of my kinsfolk and friends, so that, having lost me (which they must do shortly), they may therein recover some traits of my conditions and humours, and by that means preserve more whole, and more life-like, the knowledge they had of me. Had my intention been to seek the world's favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties: I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint. My defects are therein to be read to the life, and any imperfections and my natural form, so far as public reverence hath permitted me. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature's primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book: there's no reason You should employ Your leisure about so frivolous and vain a subject.

Therefore farewell.”




Such as accuse mankind of the folly of gaping after future things, and advise us to make our benefit of those which are present, and to set up our rest upon them, as having no grasp upon that which is to come, even less than that which we have upon what is past, have hit upon the most universal of human errors, if that may be called an error to which nature herself has disposed us, in order to the continuation of her own work, prepossessing us, amongst several others, with this deceiving imagination, as being more jealous of our action than afraid of our knowledge.

We are never present with, but always beyond ourselves: fear, desire, hope, still push us on towards the future, depriving us, in the meantime, of the sense and consideration of that which is to amuse us with the thought of what shall be, even when we shall be no more.--[Rousseau, Emile, livre ii.]

“Calamitosus est animus futuri auxius.”

[“The mind anxious about the future is unhappy.” --Seneca, Epist., 98.]

We find this great precept often repeated in Plato, “Do thine own work, and know thyself.” Of which two parts, both the one and the other generally, comprehend our whole duty, and do each of them in like manner involve the other; for who will do his own work aright will find that his first lesson is to know what he is, and that which is proper to himself; and who rightly understands himself will never mistake another man’s work for his own, but will love and improve himself above all other things, will refuse superfluous employments, and reject all unprofitable thoughts and propositions. As folly, on the one side, though it should enjoy all it desire, would notwithstanding never be content, so, on the other, wisdom, acquiescing in the present, is never dissatisfied with itself. --[Cicero, Tusc. Quae., 57, v. 18.]--Epicurus dispenses his sages from all foresight and care of the future.

Amongst those laws that relate to the dead, I look upon that to be very sound by which the actions of princes are to be examined after their decease.--[Diodorus Siculus, i. 6.]-- They are equals with, if not masters of the laws, and, therefore, what justice could not inflict upon their persons, ‘tis but reason should be executed upon their reputations and the estates of their successors--things that we often value above life itself. ‘Tis a custom of singular advantage to those countries where it is in use, and by all good princes to be desired, who have reason to take it ill, that the memories of the wicked should be used with the same reverence and respect with their own. We owe subjection and obedience to all our kings, whether good or bad, alike, for that has respect unto their office; but as to esteem and affection, these are only due to their virtue. Let us grant to political government to endure them with patience, however unworthy; to conceal their vices; and to assist them with our recommendation in their indifferent actions, whilst their authority stands in need of our support. But, the relation of prince and subject being once at an end, there is no reason we should deny the expression of our real opinions to our own liberty and common justice, and especially to interdict to good subjects the glory of having reverently and faithfully served a prince, whose imperfections were to them so well known; this were to deprive posterity of a useful example. And such as, out of respect to some private obligation, unjustly espouse and vindicate the memory of a faulty prince, do private right at the expense of public justice. Livy does very truly say,--[xxxv. 48.]-- “That the language of men bred up in courts is always full of vain ostentation and false testimony, every one indifferently magnifying his own master, and stretching his commendation to the utmost extent of virtue and sovereign grandeur.” Some may condemn the freedom of those two soldiers who so roundly answered Nero to his beard; the one being asked by him why he bore him ill-will? “I loved thee,” answered he, “whilst thou wert worthy of it, but since thou art become a parricide, an incendiary, a player, and a coachman, I hate thee as thou dost deserve.” And the other, why he should attempt to kill him? “Because,” said he, “I could think of no other remedy against thy perpetual mischiefs.” --[Tacitus, Annal., xv. 67.]--But the public and universal testimonies that were given of him after his death (and so will be to all posterity, both of him and all other wicked princes like him), of his tyrannies and abominable deportment, who, of a sound judgment, can reprove them?

I am scandalised, that in so sacred a government as that of the Lacedaemonians there should be mixed so hypocritical a ceremony at the interment of their kings; where all their confederates and neighbours, and all sorts and degrees of men and women, as well as their slaves, cut and slashed their foreheads in token of sorrow, repeating in their cries and lamentations that that king (let him have been as wicked as the devil) was the best that ever they had;--[Herodotus, vi. 68.]--by this means attributing to his quality the praise that only belongs to merit, and that of right is due to supreme desert, though lodged in the lowest and most inferior subject.

Aristotle, who will still have a hand in everything, makes a ‘quaere’ upon the saying of Solon, that none can be said to be happy until he is dead: “whether, then, he who has lived and died according to his heart’s desire, if he have left an ill repute behind him, and that his posterity be miserable, can be said to be happy?” Whilst we have life and motion, we convey ourselves by fancy and preoccupation, whither and to what we please; but once out of being, we have no more any manner of communication with that which is, and it had therefore been better said by Solon that man is never happy, because never so, till he is no more.


“If others were to look attentively into themselves as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of emptiness and tomfoolery. I cannot rid myself of them without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in them, each as much as the other; but those who realize this get off, as I know, a little more cheaply.

That commonly approved practice of looking elsewhere than at our own self has served our affairs well! Our self is an object full of dissatisfaction: we can see nothing there but wretchedness and vanity. So as not to dishearten us, Nature has very conveniently cast the action of our sight outwards. We are swept on downstream, but to struggle back towards our self against the current is a painful movement; thus does the sea, when driven against itself, swirl back in confusion. Everyone says: 'Look at the motions of the heavens, look at society, at this man's quarrel, that man's pulse, this other man's will and testament' - in other words always look upwards or downwards or sideways, or before or behind you. That commandment given us in ancient times by that god at Delphi was contrary to all expectation: 'Look back into your self; get to know your self; hold on to your self.' Bring back to your self your mind and your will which are being squandered elsewhere; you are draining and frittering your self away. Consolidate your self; rein your self back. They are cheating you, distracting you, robbing you of your self.

Can you not see that this world of ours keeps its gave bent ever inwards and its eyes ever open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity in your case, within and without, but a vanity which is less, the less it extends.

Except you alone, O Man, said that god, each creature first studies its own self, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labours and desires. Not one is as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the seeker with no knowledge, the judge with no jurisdiction and, when all is done, the jester of the farce.”


“There is an old Greek saying that men are tormented not by things themselves but by what they think about them. If that assertion could be proved to be always true everywhere it would be an important point gained of the comforting of our wretched human condition. For if ills can only enter us through our judgemente it would seem to be in our power either to despise them or to deflect them towards the good: if the things actually do trow themselves on our mercy why do we not act as their masters and accomodate them to our advantage? If what we call evil or torment are only evil or torment insofar as our mental apprehension endows them with those qualities when it lies within our power to change those qualities. And if we did have such a choice and were free from constraint we would be curiously mad to pull in the direction which hurst us most, endowing sickness, poverty or insolence with a bad and bitter taste when we could give them a pleasent one, Fortune simply furnishing us with the matter and leaving it to us to supply the form. Let us see whether a case can be made for what we call evil not being an evil in itself or (since it amounts to the same) whether at least it is up to us to endow it with a different savour and aspect.”