The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter I

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter I. Of the inconstancy of our actions.

Chapter I. Of the inconstancy of our actions.[edit]


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 petit, 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.