The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter X

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Chapter X. Of quick or slow speech.[edit]


"Onc ne furent a touts toutes graces donnees."

     ["All graces were never yet given to any one man."--A verse
     in one of La Boétie' Sonnets.]

So we see in the gift of eloquence, wherein some have such a facility and
promptness, and that which we call a present wit so easy, that they are
ever ready upon all occasions, and never to be surprised; and others more
heavy and slow, never venture to utter anything but what they have long
premeditated, and taken great care and pains to fit and prepare.

Now, as we teach young ladies those sports and exercises which are most
proper to set out the grace and beauty of those parts wherein their
chiefest ornament and perfection lie, so it should be in these two
advantages of eloquence, to which the lawyers and preachers of our age
seem principally to pretend. If I were worthy to advise, the slow
speaker, methinks, should be more proper for the pulpit, and the other
for the bar: and that because the employment of the first does naturally
allow him all the leisure he can desire to prepare himself, and besides,
his career is performed in an even and unintermitted line, without stop
or interruption; whereas the pleader's business and interest compels him
to enter the lists upon all occasions, and the unexpected objections and
replies of his adverse party jostle him out of his course, and put him,
upon the instant, to pump for new and extempore answers and defences.
Yet, at the interview betwixt Pope Clement and King Francis at
Marseilles, it happened, quite contrary, that Monsieur Poyet, a man bred
up all his life at the bar, and in the highest repute for eloquence,
having the charge of making the harangue to the Pope committed to him,
and having so long meditated on it beforehand, as, so they said, to have
brought it ready made along with him from Paris; the very day it was to
have been pronounced, the Pope, fearing something might be said that
might give offence to the other princes' ambassadors who were there
attending on him, sent to acquaint the King with the argument which he
conceived most suiting to the time and place, but, by chance, quite
another thing to that Monsieur de Poyet had taken so much pains about: so
that the fine speech he had prepared was of no use, and he was upon the
instant to contrive another; which finding himself unable to do, Cardinal
du Bellay was constrained to perform that office. The pleader's part is,
doubtless, much harder than that of the preacher; and yet, in my opinion,
we see more passable lawyers than preachers, at all events in France.
It should seem that the nature of wit is to have its operation prompt and
sudden, and that of judgment to have it more deliberate and more slow.
But he who remains totally silent, for want of leisure to prepare himself
to speak well, and he also whom leisure does noways benefit to better
speaking, are equally unhappy.

'Tis said of Severus Cassius that he spoke best extempore, that he stood
more obliged to fortune than to his own diligence; that it was an
advantage to him to be interrupted in speaking, and that his adversaries
were afraid to nettle him, lest his anger should redouble his eloquence.
I know, experimentally, the disposition of nature so impatient of tedious
and elaborate premeditation, that if it do not go frankly and gaily to
work, it can perform nothing to purpose. We say of some compositions
that they stink of oil and of the lamp, by reason of a certain rough
harshness that laborious handling imprints upon those where it has been
employed. But besides this, the solicitude of doing well, and a certain
striving and contending of a mind too far strained and overbent upon its
undertaking, breaks and hinders itself like water, that by force of its
own pressing violence and abundance, cannot find a ready issue through
the neck of a bottle or a narrow sluice. In this condition of nature,
of which I am now speaking, there is this also, that it would not be
disordered and stimulated with such passions as the fury of Cassius (for
such a motion would be too violent and rude); it would not be jostled,
but solicited; it would be roused and heated by unexpected, sudden, and
accidental occasions. If it be left to itself, it flags and languishes;
agitation only gives it grace and vigour. I am always worst in my own
possession, and when wholly at my own disposition: accident has more
title to anything that comes from me than I; occasion, company, and even
the very rising and falling of my own voice, extract more from my fancy
than I can find, when I sound and employ it by myself. By which means,
the things I say are better than those I write, if either were to be
preferred, where neither is worth anything. This, also, befalls me, that
I do not find myself where I seek myself, and I light upon things more by
chance than by any inquisition of my own judgment. I perhaps sometimes
hit upon something when I write, that seems quaint and sprightly to me,
though it will appear dull and heavy to another.--But let us leave these
fine compliments; every one talks thus of himself according to his
talent. But when I come to speak, I am already so lost that I know not
what I was about to say, and in such cases a stranger often finds it out
before me. If I should make erasure so often as this inconvenience
befalls me, I should make clean work; occasion will, at some other time,
lay it as visible to me as the light, and make me wonder what I should
stick at.