The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book Three

This final book was tacked on later, after the initial publication (1580) and you can tell that Montaigne lets his hair down a bit, settles in and gets comfortable, lets fly with his last bits of wisdom before he wanders off into that good night, his final repose.

Helpful thoughts for the pandemic: “We get hardened to anything to which we are accustomed. And in wretched circumstances such as ours now it is a most kindly gift of Nature that we do grow accustomed to it, so that it deadens our sense of suffering many evils.” (3:9)

On old age: “If we were always progressing towards improvement, to be old would be a beautiful thing. But it is a drunkard’s progress, formless, staggering, like reeds which the wind shakes as it fancies, haphazardly.” (3:9)

On solitude: “Wretched the man (to my taste) who has nowhere in his house where he can be by himself, pay court to himself in private and hide away!” (3:3)

On laziness: “… my chief aim in life being to live it lazily and leisurely rather than busily…” (3:9) “For me nothing is expensive save toil and worry: all I want is to be indifferent and bovine.” (3:9)

On books: “… days and even months on end may pass without my using them. ‘I will read them soon,’ I say, ‘or tomorrow; or when I feel like it.’ Thus the time speeds by and is gone, but does me no harm; for it is impossible to describe what comfort and peace I derive from the thought that they are there beside me, to give me pleasure whenever I want it, or from recognizing how much succour they bring to my life. It is the best protection which I have found for our human journey and I deeply pity men of intelligence who lack it. I on the other hand can accept any sort of pastime, no matter how trifling, because I have this one which will never fail me.” (3:3)

Some Zen thoughts: “… there is in truth no greater silliness, none more enduring, than to be provoked and enraged by the silliness of the world—and there is none more bizarre. For it makes you principally irritated with yourself…” (3:8) “… we have to live among the living and let the stream flow under the bridge without worrying about it or, at the very least, without making ourselves ill over it.” (3:8)

On friendship: “Most of all I am able to make and keep exceptional and considered friendships, especially since I seize hungrily upon any acquaintanceship which corresponds to my tastes. I put myself forward and throw myself into them so eagerly that I can hardly fail to make attachments and to leave my mark wherever I go… In commonplace friendships I am rather barren and cold, for it is not natural to me to proceed except under full sail.” (3:3)

Odds & ends

There’s a reference to a great legal tale in Rabelais: “a chef complained that a poor man was savouring the smell of his roast beef: a fool, called in to judge, ordered the smell to be paid by the jangle of coins.” (3:5)

“You ask me, ‘What is the origin of our custom of saying Bless you when people sneeze?’ Well, we break three sorts of wind: the one which issues lower down is very dirty; the one which issues from the mouth comports an element of reproach for gluttony; and the third is sneezing, to which, since it issues from the head and is blameless, we give that honourable greeting.” (3:6)

Montaigne knew a dude who made you look at 8 days worth of poop in his chamberpots when you visited. (3:9)

Like all good Frenchmen, he mixed his wine with water. “I water my wine, sometimes half and half, sometimes one-third water… It is said that this custom of mixing wine and water was invented by Cranaus, King of Athens—I have heard arguments both for and against its usefulness.” (3:13)

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book Two

My reading of Europe’s “great bedside book” continued over the past month, sipping at Book 2 along with my morning coffee. One caveat with this entry is that I confess to having skipped chapter 12’s massive (nearly 200pp.) Apology to Raymond Sebond. I promise to go back and read it sometime as a separate project but couldn’t muster the dedication this month.

That said, there were plenty of other chapters to enjoy as a wormhole back to Renaissance times which itself contain wormholes back to ancient Greece & Rome. Continuing with favorite quotes:

“My business, my art, is to live my life.” (2:6)

“Nature has vouchsafed us a great talent for keeping ourselves occupied when alone and often summons us to do so in order to teach us that we do owe a part of ourselves to society but that the best part we owe to ourselves.” (2:18)

“I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” (2:10)

Quoting Ovid: “What is allowed has no charm: what is not allowed, we burn to do.” (2:15)

“Even if nobody reads me, have I wasted my time when I have entertained myself during so many idle hours with thoughts so useful and agreeable?” (2: 18)

“To help my defective and treacherous memory a little—and it is so extremely bad that I have more than once happened to pick up again, thinking it new and unknown to me, a book which I had carefully read several years earlier and scribbled all over with my notes—I have for some time now adopted the practice of adding at the end of each book (I mean of each book which I intend to read only once) the date when I finished reading it and the general judgement I drew from it, in order to show me again at least the general idea and impression I had conceived of its author when reading it.” (2:10)

“I have boundless love for [poetry]; I knew my way well through other men’s works; but when I set my own hand to it I am truly like a child: I find myself unbearable. You may play the fool anywhere else but not in poetry: ‘Poets are never allowed to be mediocre by the gods, by men or by publishers [quoting Horace, Ars poetica].’ Would to God that the following saying was written up above our printers’ workshops to forbid so many versifiers from getting in: ‘truly nothing is more self-assured than a bad poet. [quoting Martial, Epigrams]'” (2: 17)

“Evil fortune does have some use: it is a good thing to be born in a century which is deeply depraved, for by comparison with others you are reckoned virtuous on the cheap. Nowadays if you have merely murdered your father and committed sacrilege you are an honest honorable man.” (2:17)

“Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. … I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be  found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal—I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy.” (2: 1)

“Some forms of government have been concerned to decide when suicide may be legal and opportune. In our own city of Marseilles in former times they used to keep a supply of a poison based on hemlock always available at public expense to all those who wished to hasten their days; they first had to get their reasons approved by their Senate (called the Six Hundred); it was not permissible to lay hands on oneself, save by leave of the magistrate and for lawful reasons.” (2:3)


The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book One

My morning routine has been mindfulness, meditation, and Montaigne for the past several weeks as I finally picked up Europe’s “great bedside book” to begin the journey. The chapters are groupings of several ‘assays’ as Montaigne tries to stick a pin in his soul so that he may examine it more clearly. He wrote and distilled his thoughts from his retirement (1571, aged 38) up until his death in 1592.

Going on a Montaigne journey makes you laugh and wonder and be amazed; you have this simply eloquent bridge between pagan and Christian antiquity and our own time. He was raised speaking Latin as his first language, learning French later, and thus finds comfort in the ancient tomes he rips quotes from liberally. In a nod to his preference for quotes (he also had dozens of quotations carved or painted on the beams of his library ceiling), I pull out my own favorites of his:

“An abundance of children is a blessing for the greater, saner, part of mankind: I and a few others find blessings in a lack of them. When Thales was asked why he did not get married, he replied that he did not want to leave any descendants.” (1:14)

On punishing cowards: ‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.] (1:16)

“Always bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know the best.” (1:17)

“I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” (1:20)

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.” (1:21)

“When the Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” (1:23)

(What Plato taught about education:) “Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given.” (1:26)

Horace: “It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.” (1:39)

“I always write my letters at the gallop, with so headlong a dash that I prefer to write them by hand than to dictate them (despite my appalling writing) since I can never find anyone who can keep up with me… as soon as I flag, that is a sign that my heart is not in it. I prefer to begin without a plan, the first phrase leading on to the next.” (1:40)

Ancient customs he gives details about (in 1:49): the ancients watered their wine, took a gulp of breath when they drank, ate between meals, used snow to cool their wine, wiped their arses with a sponge on a stick, kept jars on the street corners to piss into.

Explaining his process of writing the essays: (1:50) “Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me;  I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”