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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Of Books
By Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
 
From the ‘Essays’: Translation of William Carew Hazlitt

I MAKE no doubt but that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade. You have here purely an essay of my natural parts, and not of those acquired: and whoever shall catch me tripping in ignorance, will not in any sort get the better of me; for I should be very unwilling to become responsible to another for my writings, who am not so to myself, nor satisfied with them. Whoever goes in quest of knowledge, let him fish for it where it is to be found; there is nothing I so little profess. These are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself; they may, peradventure, one day be known to me, or have formerly been, according as fortune has been able to bring me in place where they have been explained; but I have utterly forgotten it: and if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I now have has risen. Therefore, let none lay stress upon the matter I write, but upon my method in writing it. Let them observe, in what I borrow, if I have known how to choose what is proper to raise or help the invention, which is always my own. For I make others say for me, not before but after me, what, either for want of language or want of sense, I cannot myself so well express. I do not number my borrowings, I weigh them; and had I designed to raise their value by number, I had made them twice as many; they are all, or within a very few, so famed and ancient authors, that they seem, methinks, themselves sufficiently to tell who they are, without giving me the trouble. In reasons, comparisons, and arguments, if I transplant any into my own soil, and confound them amongst my own, I purposely conceal the author, to awe the temerity of those precipitate censors who fall upon all sorts of writings, particularly the late ones, of men yet living, and in the vulgar tongue which puts every one into a capacity of criticizing, and which seems to convict the conception and design as vulgar also. I will have them give Plutarch a fillip on my nose, and rail against Seneca when they think they rail at me….  1
  I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself, by an honest diversion; or if I study, ’tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.
  “Has meus ad metas sudet oportet equus.” 1
  2
  I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over. Should I insist upon them, I should both lose myself and time: for I have an impatient understanding, that must be satisfied at first; what I do not discern at once, is by persistence rendered more obscure. I do nothing without gayety; continuation and a too obstinate endeavor darkens, stupefies, and tires my judgment. My sight is confounded and dissipated with poring; I must withdraw it, and defer my discovery to a new attempt; just as to judge rightly of the lustre of scarlet, we are taught to pass the eye lightly over it, and again to run it over at several sudden and reiterated glances. If one book do not please me, I take another; and never meddle with any, but at such times as I am weary of doing nothing. I do not care for new ones, because the old seem fuller and stronger; neither do I converse much with Greek authors, because my judgment cannot do its work with imperfect intelligence of the material….  3
  But, to pursue the business of this essay, I have always thought that, in poesy, Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus, and Horace by many degrees excel the rest; and signally, Virgil in his Georgics, which I look upon as the most accomplished piece in poetry….  4
  As to what concerns my other reading, that mixes a little more profit with the pleasure; and whence I learn how to marshal my opinions and conditions, the books that serve me to this purpose are Plutarch (since he has been translated into French) and Seneca. Both of these have this notable convenience suited to my humor, that the knowledge I there seek is discoursed in loose pieces, that do not require from me any trouble of reading long, of which I am incapable. Such are the minor works of the first and the epistles of the latter, which are the best and most profiting of all their writings. ’Tis no great attempt to take one of them in hand, and I give over at pleasure; for they have no sequence or dependence upon one another. These authors, for the most part, concur in useful and true opinions: and there is this parallel betwixt them, that fortune brought them into the world about the same century; they were both tutors to two Roman emperors; both sought out from foreign countries; both rich and both great men. Their instruction is the cream of philosophy, and delivered after a plain and pertinent manner. Plutarch is more uniform and constant; Seneca more various and waving: the last toiled and bent his whole strength to fortify virtue against weakness, fear, and vicious appetites; the other seems more to slight their power, and to disdain to alter his pace and to stand upon his guard. Plutarch’s opinions are Platonic, gentle, and accommodated to civil society; those of the other are Stoical and Epicurean, more remote from the common use, but in my opinion more individually commodious and more firm. Seneca seems to lean a little to the tyranny of the emperors of his time, and only seems; for I take it for certain that he speaks against his judgment when he condemns the action of the generous murderers of Cæsar. Plutarch is frank throughout; Seneca abounds with brisk touches and sallies, Plutarch with things that heat and move you more: this contents and pays you better; he guides us, the other pushes us on.  5
  As to Cicero, those of his works that are most useful to my design are they that treat of philosophy, especially moral. But boldly to confess the truth (for since one has passed the barriers of impudence, off with the bridle), his way of writing, and that of all other long-winded authors, appears to me very tedious: for his prefaces, definitions, divisions, and etymologies take up the greatest part of his work; whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation. When I have spent an hour in reading him,—which is a great deal for me,—and try to recollect what I have thence extracted of juice and substance, for the most part I find nothing but wind; for he is not yet come to the arguments that serve to his purpose, and to the reasons that properly help to form the knot I seek. For me, who only desire to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent, these logical and Aristotelian dispositions of parts are of no use. I would have a man begin with the main proposition. I know well enough what death and pleasure are: let no man give himself the trouble to anatomize them for me. I look for good and solid reasons, at the first dash, to instruct me how to stand their shock; for which purpose neither grammatical subtleties nor the quaint contexture of words are argumentations of any use at all. I am for discourses that give the first charge into the heart of the redoubt: his languish about the subject; they are proper for the schools, for the bar, and for the pulpit, where we have leisure to nod, and may awake a quarter of an hour after,—time enough to find again the thread of the discourse. It is necessary to speak after this manner to judges, whom a man has a design to gain over, right or wrong; to children and common people, to whom a man must say all, and see what will come of it. I would not have an author make it his business to render me attentive…. I come already fully prepared from my chamber. I need no allurement, no invitation, no sauce; I eat the meat raw, so that instead of whetting my appetite by these preparatives, they tire and pall it. Will the license of the time excuse my sacrilegious boldness if I censure the dialogism of Plato himself as also dull and heavy, too much stifling the matter, and lament so much time lost by a man who had so many better things to say, in so many long and needless preliminary interlocutions? My ignorance will better excuse me, in that I understand not Greek so well as to discern the beauty of his language. I generally choose books that use sciences, not such as only lead to them….  6
  The historians are my right ball: for they are pleasant and easy, and where man in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else: the variety and truth of his internal qualities in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within than upon what happens without, are the most proper for my reading; and therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me…. Cæsar, in my opinion, particularly deserves to be studied, not for the knowledge of the history only, but for himself, so great an excellence and perfection he has above all the rest, though Sallust be one of the number. In earnest I read this author with more reverence and respect than is usually allowed to human writings: one while considering him in his person, by his actions and miraculous greatness, and another in the purity and inimitable polish of his language, wherein he not only excels all other historians, as Cicero confesses, but peradventure even Cicero himself; speaking of his enemies with so much sincerity in his judgment, that (the false colors with which he strives to palliate his evil cause, and the ordure of his pestilent ambition, excepted) I think there is no fault to be objected against him, saving this, that he speaks too sparingly of himself,—seeing so many great things could not have been performed under his conduct, but that his own personal acts must necessarily have had a greater share in them than he attributes to them.  7
 
Note 1. “Unto that goal my steed must needs make haste.” [back]
 
 
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