The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXVI

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XXVI. That it is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity.

Chapter XXVI. That it is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity.[edit]

'Tis not, perhaps, without reason, that we attribute facility of belief
and easiness of persuasion to simplicity and ignorance: for I fancy I
have heard belief compared to the impression of a seal upon the soul,
which by how much softer and of less resistance it is, is the more easy
to be impressed upon.

         "Ut necesse est, lancem in Libra, ponderibus impositis,
          deprimi, sic animum perspicuis cedere."

     ["As the scale of the balance must give way to the weight that
     presses it down, so the mind yields to demonstration."
     --Cicero, Acad., ii. 12.]

By how much the soul is more empty and without counterpoise, with so much
greater facility it yields under the weight of the first persuasion. And
this is the reason that children, the common people, women, and sick
folks, are most apt to be led by the ears. But then, on the other hand,
'tis a foolish presumption to slight and condemn all things for false
that do not appear to us probable; which is the ordinary vice of such as
fancy themselves wiser than their neighbours. I was myself once one of
those; and if I heard talk of dead folks walking, of prophecies,
enchantments, witchcrafts, or any other story I had no mind to believe:

              "Somnia, terrores magicos, miracula, sagas,
               Nocturnos lemures, portentaque Thessala,"

     ["Dreams, magic terrors, marvels, sorceries, Thessalian prodigies."
     --Horace. Ep. ii. 3, 208.]

I presently pitied the poor people that were abused by these follies.
Whereas I now find, that I myself was to be pitied as much, at least,
as they; not that experience has taught me anything to alter my former
opinions, though my curiosity has endeavoured that way; but reason has
instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and
impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the
will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my
own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names
of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how
many are continually presented before our eyes? Let us but consider
through what clouds, and as it were groping in the dark, our teachers
lead us to the knowledge of most of the things about us; assuredly we
shall find that it is rather custom than knowledge that takes away their
strangeness--

                    "Jam nemo, fessus saturusque videndi,
               Suspicere in coeli dignatur lucida templa;"

     ["Weary of the sight, now no one deigns to look up to heaven's lucid
     temples."--Lucretius, ii. 1037. The text has 'statiate videnai']

and that if those things were now newly presented to us, we should think
them as incredible, if not more, than any others.

              "Si nunc primum mortalibus adsint
               Ex improviso, si sint objecta repente,
               Nil magis his rebus poterat mirabile dici,
               Aute minus ante quod auderent fore credere gentes."

     [Lucretius, ii. 1032. The sense of the passage is in the preceding
     sentence.]

He that had never seen a river, imagined the first he met with to be the
sea; and the greatest things that have fallen within our knowledge, we
conclude the extremes that nature makes of the kind.

              "Scilicet et fluvius qui non est maximus, ei'st
               Qui non ante aliquem majorem vidit; et ingens
               Arbor, homoque videtur, et omnia de genere omni
               Maxima quae vidit quisque, haec ingentia fingit."

     ["A little river seems to him, who has never seen a larger river, a
     mighty stream; and so with other things--a tree, a man--anything
     appears greatest to him that never knew a greater."--Idem, vi. 674.]

         "Consuetudine oculorum assuescunt animi, neque admirantur,
          neque requirunt rationes earum rerum, quas semper vident."

     ["Things grow familiar to men's minds by being often seen; so that
     they neither admire nor are they inquisitive about things they daily
     see."--Cicero, De Natura Deor., lib. ii. 38.]

The novelty, rather than the greatness of things, tempts us to inquire
into their causes. We are to judge with more reverence, and with greater
acknowledgment of our own ignorance and infirmity, of the infinite power
of nature. How many unlikely things are there testified by people worthy
of faith, which, if we cannot persuade ourselves absolutely to believe,
we ought at least to leave them in suspense; for, to condemn them as
impossible, is by a temerarious presumption to pretend to know the utmost
bounds of possibility. Did we rightly understand the difference betwixt
the impossible and the unusual, and betwixt that which is contrary to the
order and course of nature and contrary to the common opinion of men, in
not believing rashly, and on the other hand, in not being too
incredulous, we should observe the rule of 'Ne quid nimis' enjoined by
Chilo.

When we find in Froissart, that the Comte de Foix knew in Bearn the
defeat of John, king of Castile, at Jubera the next day after it
happened, and the means by which he tells us he came to do so, we may be
allowed to be a little merry at it, as also at what our annals report,
that Pope Honorius, the same day that King Philip Augustus died at
Mantes, performed his public obsequies at Rome, and commanded the like
throughout Italy, the testimony of these authors not being, perhaps, of
authority enough to restrain us. But what if Plutarch, besides several
examples that he produces out of antiquity, tells us, he knows of certain
knowledge, that in the time of Domitian, the news of the battle lost by
Antony in Germany was published at Rome, many days' journey from thence,
and dispersed throughout the whole world, the same day it was fought;
and if Caesar was of opinion, that it has often happened, that the report
has preceded the incident, shall we not say, that these simple people
have suffered themselves to be deceived with the vulgar, for not having
been so clear-sighted as we? Is there anything more delicate, more
clear, more sprightly; than Pliny's judgment, when he is pleased to set
it to work? Anything more remote from vanity? Setting aside his
learning, of which I make less account, in which of these excellences do
any of us excel him? And yet there is scarce a young schoolboy that does
not convict him of untruth, and that pretends not to instruct him in the
progress of the works of nature. When we read in Bouchet the miracles of
St. Hilary's relics, away with them: his authority is not sufficient to
deprive us of the liberty of contradicting him; but generally and offhand
to condemn all suchlike stories, seems to me a singular impudence. That
great St. Augustin' testifies to have seen a blind child recover sight
upon the relics of St. Gervasius and St. Protasius at Milan; a woman at
Carthage cured of a cancer, by the sign of the cross made upon her by a
woman newly baptized; Hesperius, a familiar friend of his, to have driven
away the spirits that haunted his house, with a little earth of the
sepulchre of our Lord; which earth, being also transported thence into
the church, a paralytic to have there been suddenly cured by it; a woman
in a procession, having touched St. Stephen's shrine with a nosegay, and
rubbing her eyes with it, to have recovered her sight, lost many years
before; with several other miracles of which he professes himself to have
been an eyewitness: of what shall we excuse him and the two holy bishops,
Aurelius and Maximinus, both of whom he attests to the truth of these
things? Shall it be of ignorance, simplicity, and facility; or of malice
and imposture? Is any man now living so impudent as to think himself
comparable to them in virtue, piety, learning, judgment, or any kind of
perfection?

              "Qui, ut rationem nullam afferrent,
               ipsa auctoritate me frangerent."


     ["Who, though they should adduce no reason, would convince me with
     their authority alone."--Cicero, Tusc. Quaes, i. 21.]

'Tis a presumption of great danger and consequence, besides the absurd
temerity it draws after it, to contemn what we do not comprehend. For
after, according to your fine understanding, you have established the
limits of truth and error, and that, afterwards, there appears a
necessity upon you of believing stranger things than those you have
contradicted, you are already obliged to quit your limits. Now, that
which seems to me so much to disorder our consciences in the commotions
we are now in concerning religion, is the Catholics dispensing so much
with their belief. They fancy they appear moderate, and wise, when they
grant to their opponents some of the articles in question; but, besides
that they do not discern what advantage it is to those with whom we
contend, to begin to give ground and to retire, and how much this
animates our enemy to follow his blow: these articles which they select
as things indifferent, are sometimes of very great importance. We are
either wholly and absolutely to submit ourselves to the authority of our
ecclesiastical polity, or totally throw off all obedience to it: 'tis not
for us to determine what and how much obedience we owe to it. And this I
can say, as having myself made trial of it, that having formerly taken
the liberty of my own swing and fancy, and omitted or neglected certain
rules of the discipline of our Church, which seemed to me vain and
strange coming afterwards to discourse of it with learned men, I have
found those same things to be built upon very good and solid ground and
strong foundation; and that nothing but stupidity and ignorance makes us
receive them with less reverence than the rest. Why do we not consider
what contradictions we find in our own judgments; how many things were
yesterday articles of our faith, that to-day appear no other than fables?
Glory and curiosity are the scourges of the soul; the last prompts us to
thrust our noses into everything, the other forbids us to leave anything
doubtful and undecided.