The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter L

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter L. Of Democritus and Heraclitus.

Chapter L. Of Democritus and Heraclitus.[edit]

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar
in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of
all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well
understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too
deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a
man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of
those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous
subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to
prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one
that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can
scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on
every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in
such a case, 'tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems
best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the
best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she
first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go
through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who
so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces
that everything has, I take one, onewhile to look it over only, another
while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I
give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part
tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I
know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to
the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here
one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and
scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not
responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without
varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and
uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.

All motion discovers us: the very same soul of Caesar, that made itself
so conspicuous in marshalling and commanding the battle of Pharsalia, was
also seen as solicitous and busy in the softer affairs of love and
leisure. A man makes a judgment of a horse, not only by seeing him when
he is showing off his paces, but by his very walk, nay, and by seeing him
stand in the stable.

Amongst the functions of the soul, there are some of a lower and meaner
form; he who does not see her in those inferior offices as well as in
those of nobler note, never fully discovers her; and, peradventure, she
is best shown where she moves her simpler pace. The winds of passions
take most hold of her in her highest flights; and the rather by reason
that she wholly applies herself to, and exercises her whole virtue upon,
every particular subject, and never handles more than one thing at a
time, and that not according to it, but according to herself. Things in
respect to themselves have, peradventure, their weight, measures, and
conditions; but when we once take them into us, the soul forms them as
she pleases. Death is terrible to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent
to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty,
and their contraries, all strip themselves at their entering into us, and
receive a new robe, and of another fashion, from the soul; and of what
colour, brown, bright, green, dark, and of what quality, sharp, sweet,
deep, or superficial, as best pleases each of them, for they are not
agreed upon any common standard of forms, rules, or proceedings; every
one is a queen in her own dominions. Let us, therefore, no more excuse
ourselves upon the external qualities of things; it belongs to us to give
ourselves an account of them. Our good or ill has no other dependence
but on ourselves. 'Tis there that our offerings and our vows are due,
and not to fortune she has no power over our manners; on the contrary,
they draw and make her follow in their train, and cast her in their own
mould. Why should not I judge of Alexander at table, ranting and
drinking at the prodigious rate he sometimes used to do?

Or, if he played at chess? what string of his soul was not touched by
this idle and childish game? I hate and avoid it, because it is not play
enough, that it is too grave and serious a diversion, and I am ashamed to
lay out as much thought and study upon it as would serve to much better
uses. He did not more pump his brains about his glorious expedition into
the Indies, nor than another in unravelling a passage upon which depends
the safety of mankind. To what a degree does this ridiculous diversion
molest the soul, when all her faculties are summoned together upon this
trivial account! and how fair an opportunity she herein gives every one
to know and to make a right judgment of himself? I do not more
thoroughly sift myself in any other posture than this: what passion are
we exempted from in it? Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement
desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable
to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the
common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honour. What I
say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every
employment of man manifests him equally with any other.

Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first,
finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but
with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating
that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and
tears in his eyes:

               Ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum
               Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter."

     ["The one always, as often as he had stepped one pace from his
     threshold, laughed, the other always wept."—Juvenal, Sat., x. 28.]

          [Or, as Voltaire: "Life is a comedy to those who think;
          a tragedy to those who feel." D.W.]

I am clearly for the first humour; not because it is more pleasant to
laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and
condemnation than the other, and I think we can never be despised
according to our full desert. Compassion and bewailing seem to imply
some esteem of and value for the thing bemoaned; whereas the things we
laugh at are by that expressed to be of no moment. I do not think that
we are so unhappy as we are vain, or have in us so much malice as folly;
we are not so full of mischief as inanity; nor so miserable as we are
vile and mean. And therefore Diogenes, who passed away his time in
rolling himself in his tub, and made nothing of the great Alexander,
esteeming us no better than flies or bladders puffed up with wind, was a
sharper and more penetrating, and, consequently in my opinion, a juster
judge than Timon, surnamed the Man-hater; for what a man hates he lays to
heart. This last was an enemy to all mankind, who passionately desired
our ruin, and avoided our conversation as dangerous, proceeding from
wicked and depraved natures: the other valued us so little that we could
neither trouble nor infect him by our example; and left us to herd one
with another, not out of fear, but from contempt of our society:
concluding us as incapable of doing good as evil.

Of the same strain was Statilius' answer, when Brutus courted him into
the conspiracy against Caesar; he was satisfied that the enterprise was
just, but he did not think mankind worthy of a wise man's concern';
according to the doctrine of Hegesias, who said, that a wise man ought to
do nothing but for himself, forasmuch as he only was worthy of it: and to
the saying of Theodorus, that it was not reasonable a wise man should
hazard himself for his country, and endanger wisdom for a company of
fools. Our condition is as ridiculous as risible.