The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XVIII

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Chapter XVIII. Of giving the lie.[edit]

Well, but some one will say to me, this design of making a man's self the
subject of his writing, were indeed excusable in rare and famous men, who
by their reputation had given others a curiosity to be fully informed of
them. It is most true, I confess and know very well, that a mechanic
will scarce lift his eyes from his work to look at an ordinary man,
whereas a man will forsake his business and his shop to stare at an
eminent person when he comes into a town. It misbecomes any other to
give his own character, but him who has qualities worthy of imitation,
and whose life and opinions may serve for example: Caesar and Xenophon
had a just and solid foundation whereon to found their narrations, the
greatness of their own performances; and were to be wished that we had
the journals of Alexander the Great, the commentaries that Augustus,
Cato, Sylla, Brutus, and others left of their actions; of such persons
men love and contemplate the very statues even in copper and marble.
This remonstrance is very true; but it very little concerns me:

         "Non recito cuiquam, nisi amicis, idque coactus;
          Non ubivis, coramve quibuslibet, in medio qui
          Scripta foro recitant, sunt multi, quique lavantes."

     ["I repeat my poems only to my friends, and when bound to do so;
     not before every one and everywhere; there are plenty of reciters
     in the open market-place and at the baths."—Horace, sat. i. 4, 73.]

I do not here form a statue to erect in the great square of a city, in a
church, or any public place:

         "Non equidem hoc studeo, bullatis ut mihi nugis,
          Pagina turgescat......
          Secreti loquimur:"

     ["I study not to make my pages swell with empty trifles;
     you and I are talking in private."—Persius, Sat., v. 19.]

'tis for some corner of a library, or to entertain a neighbour,
a kinsman, a friend, who has a mind to renew his acquaintance and
familiarity with me in this image of myself. Others have been encouraged
to speak of themselves, because they found the subject worthy and rich;
I, on the contrary, am the bolder, by reason the subject is so poor and
sterile that I cannot be suspected of ostentation. I judge freely of the
actions of others; I give little of my own to judge of, because they are
nothing: I do not find so much good in myself, that I cannot tell it
without blushing.

What contentment would it not be to me to hear any one thus relate to me
the manners, faces, countenances, the ordinary words and fortunes of my
ancestors? how attentively should I listen to it! In earnest, it would
be evil nature to despise so much as the pictures of our friends and
predecessors, the fashion of their clothes and arms. I preserve their
writing, seal, and a particular sword they wore, and have not thrown the
long staves my father used to carry in his hand, out of my closet.

          "Paterna vestis, et annulus, tanto charior est
          posteris, quanto erga parentes major affectus."

     ["A father's garment and ring is by so much dearer to his posterity,
     as there is the greater affection towards parents."
     —St. Aug., De Civat. Dei, i. 13.]

If my posterity, nevertheless, shall be of another mind, I shall be
avenged on them; for they cannot care less for me than I shall then do
for them. All the traffic that I have in this with the public is, that I
borrow their utensils of writing, which are more easy and most at hand;
and in recompense shall, peradventure, keep a pound of butter in the
market from melting in the sun:—[Montaigne semi-seriously speculates on
the possibility of his MS. being used to wrap up butter.]

              "Ne toga cordyllis, ne penula desit olivis;
               Et laxas scombris saepe dabo tunicas;"

     ["Let not wrappers be wanting to tunny-fish, nor olives;
     and I shall supply loose coverings to mackerel."
     —Martial, xiii. I, I.]

And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining
myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? In
moulding this figure upon myself, I have been so often constrained to
temper and compose myself in a right posture, that the copy is truly
taken, and has in some sort formed itself; painting myself for others,
I represent myself in a better colouring than my own natural complexion.
I have no more made my book than my book has made me: 'tis a book
consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my
life, and whose business is not designed for others, as that of all other
books is. In giving myself so continual and so exact an account of
myself, have I lost my time? For they who sometimes cursorily survey
themselves only, do not so strictly examine themselves, nor penetrate so
deep, as he who makes it his business, his study, and his employment, who
intends a lasting record, with all his fidelity, and with all his force:
The most delicious pleasures digested within, avoid leaving any trace of
themselves, and avoid the sight not only of the people, but of any other
person. How often has this work diverted me from troublesome thoughts?
and all that are frivolous should be reputed so. Nature has presented us
with a large faculty of entertaining ourselves alone; and often calls us
to it, to teach us that we owe ourselves in part to society, but chiefly
and mostly to ourselves. That I may habituate my fancy even to meditate
in some method and to some end, and to keep it from losing itself and
roving at random, 'tis but to give to body and to record all the little
thoughts that present themselves to it. I give ear to my whimsies,
because I am to record them. It often falls out, that being displeased
at some action that civility and reason will not permit me openly to
reprove, I here disgorge myself, not without design of public
instruction: and also these poetical lashes,

                   "Zon zur l'oeil, ion sur le groin,
                    Zon zur le dos du Sagoin,"

     ["A slap on his eye, a slap on his snout, a slap on Sagoin's
     back."—Marot. Fripelippes, Valet de Marot a Sagoin.]

imprint themselves better upon paper than upon the flesh. What if I
listen to books a little more attentively than ordinary, since I watch if
I can purloin anything that may adorn or support my own? I have not at
all studied to make a book; but I have in some sort studied because I had
made it; if it be studying to scratch and pinch now one author, and then
another, either by the head or foot, not with any design to form opinions
from them, but to assist, second, and fortify those I already have
embraced. But whom shall we believe in the report he makes of himself in
so corrupt an age? considering there are so few, if, any at all, whom we
can believe when speaking of others, where there is less interest to lie.
The first thing done in the corruption of manners is banishing truth;
for, as Pindar says, to be true is the beginning of a great virtue, and
the first article that Plato requires in the governor of his Republic.
The truth of these days is not that which really is, but what every man
persuades another man to believe; as we generally give the name of money
not only to pieces of the dust alloy, but even to the false also, if they
will pass. Our nation has long been reproached with this vice; for
Salvianus of Marseilles, who lived in the time of the Emperor
Valentinian, says that lying and forswearing themselves is with the
French not a vice, but a way of speaking. He who would enhance this
testimony, might say that it is now a virtue in them; men form and
fashion themselves to it as to an exercise of honour; for dissimulation
is one of the most notable qualities of this age.

I have often considered whence this custom that we so religiously observe
should spring, of being more highly offended with the reproach of a vice
so familiar to us than with any other, and that it should be the highest
insult that can in words be done us to reproach us with a lie. Upon
examination, I find that it is natural most to defend the defects with
which we are most tainted. It seems as if by resenting and being moved
at the accusation, we in some sort acquit ourselves of the fault; though
we have it in effect, we condemn it in outward appearance. May it not
also be that this reproach seems to imply cowardice and feebleness of
heart? of which can there be a more manifest sign than to eat a man's own
words—nay, to lie against a man's own knowledge? Lying is a base vice;
a vice that one of the ancients portrays in the most odious colours when
he says, "that it is to manifest a contempt of God, and withal a fear of
men." It is not possible more fully to represent the horror, baseness,
and irregularity of it; for what can a man imagine more hateful and
contemptible than to be a coward towards men, and valiant against his
Maker? Our intelligence being by no other way communicable to one
another but by a particular word, he who falsifies that betrays public
society. 'Tis the only way by which we communicate our thoughts and
wills; 'tis the interpreter of the soul, and if it deceive us, we no
longer know nor have further tie upon one another; if that deceive us, it
breaks all our correspondence, and dissolves all the ties of government.
Certain nations of the newly discovered Indies (I need not give them
names, seeing they are no more; for, by wonderful and unheardof example,
the desolation of that conquest has extended to the utter abolition of
names and the ancient knowledge of places) offered to their gods human
blood, but only such as was drawn from the tongue and ears, to expiate
for the sin of lying, as well heard as pronounced. That good fellow of
Greece—[Plutarch, Life of Lysander, c. 4.]—said that children are
amused with toys and men with words.

As to our diverse usages of giving the lie, and the laws of honour in
that case, and the alteration they have received, I defer saying what I
know of them to another time, and shall learn, if I can, in the
meanwhile, at what time the custom took beginning of so exactly weighing
and measuring words, and of making our honour interested in them; for it
is easy to judge that it was not anciently amongst the Romans and Greeks.
And it has often seemed to me strange to see them rail at and give one
another the lie without any quarrel. Their laws of duty steered some
other course than ours. Caesar is sometimes called thief, and sometimes
drunkard, to his teeth. We see the liberty of invective they practised
upon one another, I mean the greatest chiefs of war of both nations,
where words are only revenged with words, and do not proceed any farther.