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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ferdinand Bôcher (1832–1902)
MONTAIGNE tells us: “If I am talked of, I wish that it should be truthfully and accurately. I should willingly return from the other world to contradict him who should represent me other than I was, even were it to do me honor.” And in his own writings he has left a more truthful portrait of himself than any other hand could paint.  1
  Were he to return to the world he might well be dissatisfied; for he would find himself variously pictured—untruthfully and inaccurately—as the type of the egotist, of the skeptic, of the epicurean. But with his keen eyes he would soon see that he himself was the originator of these false impressions. The truth is, his sincerity has been misunderstood. He has been taken at his word by a too literal world, that has transformed his absence of ambition into a desire for inaction, his independence of thought into the denial of received truths, his intelligent analysis of his own nature into a disrespect for human nature, and the humorous sketches of his conditions into commonplace vanity.  2
  We need not read a biography of Montaigne to know him. He is all in his Essays. The more important events of his life are told or suggested in them. His inmost thoughts, his feelings, the good and bad of his character, its strength and its weaknesses, are all revealed in these pages. “I am myself the subject of my book,” he says truly. No other writer has ever so made himself the center from which radiates, and to which converges, all that he touches upon. His book, in his own phrase again, is “consubstantial” with himself.  3
  Yet he never paints a carefully studied full-length portrait of himself. We learn to know him only by becoming his companion,—by becoming intimate with him. All he tells us comes by the way, not in any formal sequence, but as occasion presents itself. At one moment he speaks of his great-grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, he who bought the Château de Montaigne, whence the name. Elsewhere he tells us not only the year of his birth, 1533, but the day and the precise hour. From his own conditions as mayor of Bordeaux, he passes to comments on his father’s attitude in the same office. Some of the tenderest pages in the Essays are devoted to this “kind father,” “the best father that ever was,” who, carrying out peculiar ideas of his own, had Michel pass his earliest years among peasants, made him learn Latin before he did French, and woke him in the morning by music. Many of these facts of his childhood are narrated to enforce Montaigne’s own ideas on education; which were far beyond those of his age, and all of which have not even yet been put into practice.  4
  The physical details of his existence he speaks of with a frequency and freedom to which nineteenth-century readers are not accustomed; nor is he less open regarding his personal habits and humors. He tells us with pleasant garrulity how he loved to talk and joke with his friends, what an indolent dreamer he was in his library, and yet what an eager traveler in foreign countries, even to the verge of old age. His love of books, even while he asserts that he was little of a reader, his special admiration for Plutarch, his thoughts about death, illness, and old age, his hatred of medicine, his detestation of deceit, his ignorances and awkwardnesses, his lack of memory, his dislike of ceremonious customs, his conservatism, his pride, his over-carefulness about money at one time and his over-carelessness at another, his dislike of “affairs,” of trouble of any kind, his more than dislike of restraint, his thoughtful hours in his solitary tower away from all the servitudes of life,—these topics, and such as these, are all touched upon incidentally, and often illustrated by a quotation from Horace or Seneca.  5
  But there are other passages which are illustrated—and could only be illustrated—by quotations from Plato. For the most part these were written in his later years, and this is one of the many proofs of the constant deepening and enriching of his thought. The serious interest he took in the complicated public affairs of his time turned his attention to questions regarding government, laws, beliefs, and crimes; which unquestionably concerned himself as a citizen and as a thinker, but which he considered from an admirably unprejudiced and impersonal point of view.  6
  Thus we find that when Montaigne tells us he studies only himself, we must not take him too literally. He smiles behind the words. His Gascon vivacity is far removed from all formality and precision, and he makes no effort to be consistent, knowing that what he thinks to-day he may condemn to-morrow; for “man is an animal unstable and varying.” But it is man, not himself alone, that he depicts, and the knowledge he seeks is of man in general. And he finds that knowledge is to be gained chiefly, but not only, by studying himself. “This long attention,” he said, “that I devote to considering myself, trains me to judge also tolerably well of others; it often happens to me to see and distinguish more exactly the conditions of my friends than they do themselves.” It is this blending of insight, whether about himself or about others, with the power of judging beyond all mere personality, that called forth Pascal’s saying: “It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find all I see in him.”  7
  Many of Montaigne’s best years he passed in active life, singularly open to all social pleasures, with ardent affections that found a response from his friend La Boëtie; who, dying only four years after they had met, was constantly present to Montaigne’s thought, and was often nobly spoken of by him, during the thirty years that he survived him.  8
  It was only at the age of thirty-eight that Montaigne retired, as it were, within himself; and closing “the great book of the world” he had been reading, gave himself up deliberately to companionship with the ancient authors familiar to him in youth, and always loved, and to that self-analysis, never morbid or declamatory, which gradually led him to the serene acceptance of things as they are, that manifests itself more and more as we advance in the Essays.  9
  This is not the mood of a skeptic—taking the word, as it is now generally understood, to imply an absence of faith. Used in its primitive sense, it may be applied to Montaigne. He was essentially an examiner. He could see many sides in any matter he was considering, and they were all so vivid to him that the result was the question, “Que sçais-je?” which might be paraphrased, Who knows? Of every form of dogmatism he was the enemy—the skeptical enemy. But a man with such a high faith in human nature, and its possible development, as Montaigne shows himself to possess whenever he touches on education, friendship, virtue, the true use of knowledge and the true objects of life,—a man who admires the heroic side of humanity as profoundly as he does,—is no skeptic. The terrible effects in his own day of religious and political intolerance, had forced home on him the danger that lies in the imperative assertion of general philosophical or moral conceptions; and it might perhaps be said of him that for his age he was an agnostic, for he is almost dogmatic about one thing alone, namely that on many points we must accept the uncertainty of ignorance. His latent and sincere Catholicism removed him far from what the term “agnostic” denotes to-day; but to be “knowingly ignorant” is the state of mind he would have us acquire. Complete ignorance—“A B C ignorance”—is not wholly bad; to think that one knows is much worse; but it is excellent to have reached “the willing ignorance of those who know.” Let us not try to climb impossible heights, but abide on the level of attainable good. Such are the lessons he would have taught could he have become didactic. Moderation in all things, but a moderation that accepts all heroisms as possible. If there seems to be an apparent contradiction in this, it finds its corrective in his modest precept, “Do thy deed and know thyself.” The “deed,” the “doing,” of each of us according to his powers is the highest point we can ever reach. The three “most excellent” men in his eyes were Homer and Alexander the Great and Epaminondas: but his Psalm of Life would not bid us “make our lives sublime,” but make them wise and happy, contented and resigned; wise with sobriety, happy with discretion, contented and resigned, but not passive and idle. Thus this sage of the Renaissance, this humanist full of pagan reminiscences, reaches conclusions which he himself phrases in the words of St. Paul: “Gloria nostra est testimonium conscientiæ nostræ.”  10
  Serenity, toleration in its broadest sense, not indifference,—that is the lesson we learn from the Essays. But even this vague definition of their value is too narrow. The adopted daughter of Montaigne, Mademoiselle de Gournay, said of him excellently, “Il désenseigne la sottise” (he unteaches foolishness). We do not merely learn, but we unlearn from him,—perhaps the greatest of benefits. We unlearn the unwisdom of the foolish world.  11
  It is scarcely more easy to put a label on the style in which the Essays are written than on their contents. Its great charm lies in its characteristic freedom, expressiveness, and clearness. Sometimes eloquent, sometimes poetic and picturesque, it is always familiar. But praise is checked by remembrance of Montaigne’s saying that he cared so much more for the meaning than the words, that when he heard any one dwelling on the language of the Essays he would rather they should be silent.  12
  He did not aim at the distinction of being a great writer, still less of being a great man. Yet he unquestionably takes a high place among the representative men of humanity. But it is not as Montaigne the Skeptic that he should be known, nor Montaigne the Egotist, nor Montaigne the Epicurean; but as Montaigne the Sincere.  13
  BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE.—Two books of his Essays were first published in 1580; a third book was added in 1588. The first posthumous edition, with additions by the author, appeared in 1595; most of the modern editions follow this. The Journal of his travels was published in 1774. The Essays were translated into English early in the seventeenth century by John Florio; later by Charles Cotton. The best and latest translation, that by William Carew Hazlitt, is based on these.  14

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