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Michel De Montaigne Essays Quotes About Death

Every French schoolchild learns the date: February 28, 1571, the day a well-regarded and uncommonly educated nobleman named Michel de Montaigne retired from “the slavery of the court and of public duties,” moved a chair, a table, and a thousand books into the tower of his family castle, near Bordeaux, shut the door, and began to write. It was his thirty-eighth birthday, and, by way of commemoration, he had the first two sentences he wrote that morning painted on the wall of a study opening onto his new library—announcing, if mainly to himself, that having been “long weary” of those public duties (and, presumably, of his wife, at home in the castle, a few steps across the courtyard) Michel de Montaigne had taken up residence in “the bosom of the learned Virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, already more than half expired.” His plan, he said, was to use the second half looking at himself, or, as he put it, drawing his portrait with a pen. He had his books for company, his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and, to support it all, the income from a large estate, not to mention a fortune built on the salt-herring and wine trades, which, in the last century, had turned his family into landed gentry. (His full name, as most oenophiles can tell you, was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.)

Montaigne’s pursuit of the character he called Myself—“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”—lasted for twenty years and produced more than a thousand pages of observation and revision that he called “essais,” taking that ordinary word and turning it into a literary occupation. When he died, at fifty-nine, he was still revising and, apparently, not at all surprised, since Myself was a protean creature, impossible to anticipate but also, being always at hand, impossible to ignore. I like to think of the essays as a kind of thriller, with Myself, the elusive prey, and Montaigne, the sleuth, locked in a battle of equals who were too close for dissimulation and too smart for satisfaction. And it may be that Montaigne did, too, because he often warned his readers that nothing he wrote about himself was likely to apply for much longer than it took the ink he used, writing it, to dry. “I am myself the matter of my book,” he said, when the first two books of essays appeared, in 1580. “You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

He was wrong. By the time he finished a third book, eight years later, everyone in France with a philosophic bent and a decent classical education had read the first two—lured, perhaps, by the writer’s promise that “my defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed”—and, given that some ninety per cent of the French were illiterate, that probably means that everyone who could read the essays did. By sixteenth-century standards, Montaigne had produced a best-seller, although he maintained the pretense that he wrote only for himself or, at most, “for a few men and a few years.” (“The public favor has given me a little more confidence than I expected” is how he described the effect on him.) News of the essays travelled fast. The first known English translation, by an exuberantly prolific language tutor named John Florio, went on sale in London at the turn of the seventeenth century, in time for Shakespeare to buy a copy. It was followed, in 1685, by the poet Charles Cotton’s lovely version—the one that most Englishmen and Americans read until 1957, when Donald Frame, a Columbia professor who went on to become Montaigne’s preëminent American biographer, produced his own translation. Thirty years later, the Oxford professor M. A. Screech did the same for Britain. I have used all three, along with, in French, my old, dog-eared Flammarion copy of the essays and the seriously intimidating new Pléiade edition, which came out in Paris in 2007, doubled in size by nearly a thousand pages of endnotes and annotations incorporating four hundred years of Montaigne research. (I admit to tweaking a few of the English quotes, in the spirit of competition and interpretation.)

However you read them, Montaigne’s books were utterly, if inexplicably, original. They were not confessional, like Augustine’s, nor were they autobiographical. You could call them the autobiography of a mind, but they made no claim to composing the narrative of a life, only of the shifting preoccupations of their protagonist in an ongoing conversation with the Greek and Roman writers on his library shelves—and, of course, with himself. His belief that the self, far from settling the question “Who am I?,” kept leaping ahead of its last convictions was in fact so radical that for centuries people looking for precedents had to resort to a few fragments of Heraclitus on the nature of time and change—or, eventually, to give up and simply describe Montaigne as “the first modern man.” It didn’t matter if he was quoting Seneca in an essay called “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” or, a few pages later, in an essay about imagination, musing on the vagaries of penises: “We are right to note the licence and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both of the mind and hand.” He followed himself wherever his attention settled, and his regard was always the same—intent, amused, compassionate, contrarian, and irresistibly eclectic. (He could jump from Plato’s discourse on the divinatory power of dreams to dinner at the castle—“a confusion of meats and a clutter of dishes displease me as much as any other confusion”—and do justice to them both.) One of his favorite philosophers, starting out, was the skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who had famously cautioned his followers to “suspend judgment” on everything but the experience of their own senses. Voltaire called Montaigne one of history’s wise men, but when it came to the big philosophical questions that absorbed him—the nature of justice, say, or morality—he seemed to be saying, like Sextus, that there may be no truths, only moments of clarity, passing for answers.

The best way to read Montaigne is to keep watching him, the way he watched himself, because the retired, reclusive, and pointedly cranky Michel de Montaigne is in many ways a fiction—a mind so absorbingly stated that by now it can easily pass for the totality of Montaigne’s “second” life. In fact, he went to the best parties in the neighborhood. He attended all the important weddings—and never mind that, by his admission, he’d practically been dragged to his own; the bride was a suitable Bordeaux girl named Françoise de la Chassaigne and the alliance more or less arranged. (His view of marriage, he wrote in the essay “On Some Verses of Virgil,” was that he was “not so fit for it” but had acquiesced for “posterity,” and he held to the common wisdom that the secret of a peaceful, companionable marriage was to keep one’s wife permanently unaroused, the better to fix her thoughts on the details of hospitality and “sound housekeeping.”) He had everybody’s ear. He corresponded with beautiful, educated women who read his drafts. He dined at the castle with wellborn men who had learned to value his advice and, more to the point, his tact during his years of “public duties,” both as a local emissary to the court of Charles IX, in Paris, and as a magistrate at the law court known at the time as the Parlement de Bordeaux.

He claimed to have forsworn his youth, which was apparently so unruly that eight years of it are missing from the public record; “I burned myself at [lust] in my youth, and suffered all the furies that the poets say come upon all those who let themselves go after women without restraint and without judgment” was how he described those years, when he was in his fifties. But he never forswore women or, for that matter, the thrill of watching a good battle, or any of the other indulgences of his class. (“For the intimate companionship of my table I choose the agreeable not the wise; in my bed, beauty comes before virtue,” he once said.) He left his tower in 1580 for a year of travelling. He left it again in 1581 to become the mayor of Bordeaux—at the time the country’s third-largest city and its richest port. Two years later, he agreed to a second term. And, while an avowed Catholic royalist (whether by conviction or, as a few of the essays suggest, because of a suspicion that taking a leap of faith on the big loyalties of his time was the best way to clear his mind for more enticing subjects), he was also a close friend and confidant of the Protestant Henri de Navarre, and was Navarre’s emissary to the Catholic court of Charles’s brother and successor, Henri III. His lifetime encompassed the spread of Calvinism through France, and the eight Catholic-Protestant wars provoked by conversions like Navarre’s within the royal family. And if Montaigne did not take sides in those wars, it may be that he thought of them as a family matter, which in a way they were. The Henris were both directly descended from Louis IX—the paterfamilias of three hundred years of French kings—and by 1584, with the death of Henri III’s brother, Navarre was himself first in line to the French throne. “My house, being always open, easily approached and ever ready to welcome all men (since I have never let myself be persuaded to turn it into a tool for a war in which I play my part most willingly when it is farthest from my neighborhood), has earned quite a lot of popular affection,” Montaigne wrote, about a year later, in the essay he called “On Vanity.”

Authors are, of course, sneaky. (Montaigne put it nicely: “All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth.”) They lead you exactly where they want to go, and no farther. By the end of the essays, you know a great deal about Montaigne’s mind and temperament, but, as for his promise that “my defects will here be read to the life,” you are still waiting for the details of that life and most of the people in it. His evasions are legendary. He writes a great deal about the tyranny of laws but nothing about his fourteen years as a magistrate or his four years as a mayor, or even about his response, as mayor, to the plague that struck Bordeaux toward the end of his second term, leaving a third of the population dead. (He fled.) He writes a great deal about wives but rarely refers to his own and never by name, though he claims to have made himself “fall in love” to marry, a task perhaps made briefly pleasant by the fact that Françoise is said to have been an exceptionally beautiful and lively girl. Montaigne, at the time, was thirty-two and, he says, ready to be a dutiful and respectful husband. But he was not much interested in Françoise—nor, it may be, she in him, since some scholars have thrown her into the arms of his younger brother Arnaud, a good-natured and sportif Army captain who died young, from a tennis ball to the ear. Montaigne himself rarely slept in his wife’s bed, except for purposes of procreation; she gave him six daughters in thirteen years, and only one of them, Léonor, lived past infancy—a fact he dismissed with the unnerving remark (Montaigne experts are still arguing about why he made it and what it meant) that he had “lost two or three.”

As for his mother, he alludes to her twice, but only in passing. Her name was Antoinette Louppes de Villeneuve. She came from a far-flung merchant clan, similar to the Montaignes in wealth and influence, but with the notable exception that, while the Montaignes were then solidly and safely Catholic, some of the Louppes were Protestant, and the family themselves were Sephardic conversos from Saragossa, where their name was Lopez de Villanueva. (Several had left Spain before the expulsions of 1492, and were thriving in Europe as properly minted Christians, or, as the new Pléiade edition chooses to put it, a Christian family “anciennement convertie.”) Antoinette grew up in Toulouse. She arrived at the castle a reluctant bride of sixteen, to marry Pierre Eyquem, an eccentric but apparently exemplary chatelain (and a future mayor of Bordeaux himself), and, once having settled her duty to her children by bearing them, she was attached mainly to herself. She claimed that Michel had exhausted her getting born—eleven months of pregnancy, by her calculations—and was furious to learn that, by her husband’s last will, he was not only heir to but steward of the estate she had expected to manage in her lifetime. Their relations were, by anyone’s standards, sour. The year after Pierre died, she threatened to sue Michel over the ownership of a family necklace; he discovered it in his wife’s jewel box and gave it back, hoping to avoid the scandal of a court case—after which she spent a long, bitter, and contentious widowhood in the company of a granddaughter who seems to have been the only relative she liked.

But Montaigne was not much interested in family histories of any sort, and his own was apparently untouched by not only the anti-Semitism that attached to the children of “new Christian” immigrants like the Louppes but also the Catholic-Protestant wars at home. Some of Montaigne’s siblings became Protestant, with no evident disruption to the family—even during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres of 1572, when thirty thousand French Calvinists died. He doesn’t mention those massacres in the essays, either. For him, the subject of Protestants and Jews (who had been barred from practicing their religion in France since the end of the fourteenth century) seems to have been, at most, food for his meditations on the absurdities of persecution and the fatal distractions of disharmony. He efficiently wrote off Martin Luther for leaving behind in Germany “as many—indeed more—discords and disagreements because of doubts about his opinions than he himself ever raised about Holy Scripture.” He quoted Josephus and admired the Maccabees. But, when it came to seeing an old Jew herded naked through the streets of Rome, he remained a reporter—curious, compassionate, but not particularly disturbed. He did not expect much better from the world. Relatives, to his mind, were accidents of birth, consideration, and proximity. The genealogy that interested him was the genealogy of thought. He was far more interested in thinking about religion with the Sophists and Skeptics in his library than he was in the part that religion, even his own Catholicism, played in him.

For all that, he was a passionate traveller. His search for the spa that would cure his kidney stones—the disease had killed his father and would eventually help kill him—took him to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. His love of the classics took him to Italy. In Rome, where his own copy of the essays had been seized by the Inquisition, he walked the streets of his dead mentors: “I like thinking about their faces, their bearing and their clothing,” he said. “I mutter their great names between my teeth and make them resound in my ears.” (Latin, by his father’s decree, was not only his first language but the only one he was allowed to speak for his first six years.) He prowled the ghetto, visiting a synagogue, watching a circumcision, and happily cross-examining the rabbi. (By the end of his visit he had met the Pope and was made an honorary Roman citizen.) Today, we would call him a gentleman ethnographer, more enchanted than alarmed by the bewildering variety of human practices. “Yes. I admit it,” he wrote in “On Vanity.” “Even in my wishes and dreams I can find nothing to which I can hold fast. The only things I find rewarding (if anything is) are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.” He was interested in all things unfamiliar and exotic, from immolations in India to cannibalism in the New World. In the essay he called “On the Cannibals,” he described “a very long talk” he had once had with a Tupi chief, brought to France from Brazil and, at the time, on display in Rouen for a royal visit. He admired the Indian’s gentleness and his evident perplexity at the pomp and the poverty and the cruelty displayed so indifferently and indiscriminately to him. “I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead,” he wrote, “more barbarity in tearing apart by rack and torture a body still sentient, in roasting him little by little and having him bruised and bitten by pigs and dogs (as we have not only read about but seen in recent memory, not among enemies in antiquity but among our fellow-citizens and neighbors—and what is worse, in the name of duty and religion) than in roasting him and eating him after his death.” No one has said it better.

“Anyone can see that I have set out on a road along which I shall travel without toil and without ceasing as long as the world has ink and paper,” Montaigne wrote at the beginning of “On Vanity,” his late and perhaps greatest essay. “I cannot give an account of my life by my actions: fortune has placed them too low for that; so I do so by my thoughts.” He compares himself to a nobleman he once knew who would keep his chamber pots for a week to display, seriatim, to his friends—“He thought about them, talked about them: for him any other topic stank”—saying, “Here (a little more decorously) you have the droppings of an old mind, sometimes hard, sometimes squittery, but always ill-digested.” He starts to extrapolate—“Scribbling seems to be one of the symptoms of an age of excess. When did we ever write so much as since the beginning of our Civil Wars? And whenever did the Romans do so as just before their collapse?”—and catches himself in time to add that “each individual one of us contributes to the corrupting of our time: some contribute treachery, others (since they are powerful) injustice, irreligion, tyranny, cupidity, cruelty: the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity, and idleness, and I am one of them.” He accuses himself, a little pridefully, of pride—in writing at all, with his country at war, and in the small, stubborn habits with which he flaunts his disregard, saying that “if one of my shoes is askew then I let my shirt and my cloak lie askew as well: I am too proud to amend my ways by halves. . . . The words I utter when wretched are words of defiance.”

Montaigne called “On Vanity” one of those essays which, being quite long and not at all confined by the titles he gave them, “require a decision to read them and time set aside.” It is a meditation on dying and, at the same time, on writing—or, you could say, on writing oneself to life in the face of death, on getting “lost” in words and in “the gait of poetry, all jumps and tumblings” and in the kind of space where “my pen and my mind both go a-roaming.” (“My mind does not always move straight ahead but backwards too,” he says. “I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.”) And it draws pretty much the whole cast of characters from his library into the conversation—the kings and philosophers and poets and historians and statesmen and assorted saints and scoundrels whom he introduced on the first pages of Book I, with the words “Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgment on him which is steady and uniform.” Since then, they have appeared and reappeared through the essays like characters in a novel, demolishing one another’s arguments. Now, in a way, he both honors and discards them, along with their cluttering truths, their most congenial wisdom, and the deceptive comfort they sometimes bring.

Thus his ruminations on vanity move quickly from disreputable shoes (and the way that the “forlorn state of France” mirrors his “forlorn age”) to Petronius, Horace, and Lucretius, each discoursing, in Latin, on the metaphysics of droughts, storms, crop failures—the deaths of nature. But he isn’t interested. He interrupts them to complain about the burden of managing his own land, and the difficulty of economizing, in lean years, for someone “used as I am to travel not merely with an adequate retinue but an honorable one.” He says that, unlike Crates, who “jumped into the freedom of poverty . . . I loathe poverty on a par with pain.” He prefers the freedom that money gives him to go away. “I feel death all the time, jabbing at my throat and loins. But I am made otherwise: death is the same for me anywhere. If I were allowed to choose I would, I think, prefer to die in the saddle rather than in my bed, away from home and far from my own folk. There is more heartbreak than comfort in taking leave of those we love. . . . I would willingly therefore neglect to bid that great and everlasting farewell.” He considers the case of Socrates, who, preferring death to banishment, took the hemlock—and then nails him with praise as one of those “heaven-blessed” men whose qualities are “so soaring and inordinate that . . . I am quite unable to conceive them.”

At the same time, he worries, or pretends to, about his inattention at home. He agrees with Diogenes, who said that the wine he liked best was always the wine somebody else had made, but then, typically, berates himself. He describes the good husbandry of his father: “I wish that, in lieu of some other part of his inheritance, my father had bequeathed me that passionate love for the running of his estates. If only I can acquire the taste for it as he did, then political philosophy can, if it will, condemn me for the lowliness and barrenness of my occupation.” (Pierre, he said, was “the best father that ever was”; he had studied law to please him, and once spent more than a year translating Raymond Sebond’s enormous treatise “Theologia Naturalis” from Latin to French so that his father, who rued the lack of Latin in his own education, could read it.) A few lines later, he remembers that he is a father himself—and he turns to the problem of finding “a son-in-law who would fill my beak, comfort my final years and lull them to sleep, into whose hands I could resign the control and use of my goods . . . provided that he brought to it a truly grateful and loving affection.” But he doesn’t mention Léonor, or, for that matter, his dead children. When he thinks about loss now, at fifty-three, it is his father he mourns and, more than anyone, his “soul’s” friend Étienne de la Boétie, a Bordeaux poet who was arguably the love of his life and whose early death, he once said, drove him to marriage in the hope of solace and then into his tower for escape. They are the absent interlocutors of “On Vanity”: the people he talks to about death, talking to himself; the only ones he describes with what could be called a deep sense of relationship.

How to describe the dazzling ramble of “On Vanity”? For nearly all of its sixty pages, it has no arguments, personal or philosophical, to expound, no revelations on the nature of man to offer, no path to salvation to propose. What we get, instead, is the gift he has given himself: “scope and freedom” of interpretation; language that is “blunt” and “raw”; and, most of all, the experience of Montaigne thinking. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a classic essay on Montaigne, wrote that the “marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. . . . Cut these words, and they would bleed.”) He can move in a few paragraphs from the admonitions in I Corinthians 3:20—“Those exquisite subtleties are only good for sermons: they are themes which seek to drive us into the next world like donkeys. But life is material motion in the body, an activity, by its very essence, imperfect and unruly: I work to serve it on its own terms”—to a riff on the corruption of judges, the hypocrisy of moralists and diet doctors, and the secret sex lives of Greek philosophers, as described by an exceptionally expensive fourth-century-B.C. courtesan named Lais, who said, “I know nothing of their books . . . but those fellows come knocking at my door as often as anyone.”

You could call this intellectual free association, but it is far too sterile a term for the mind of Michel de Montaigne running after itself, arguing against argument, reading his thoughts and his aging body at least as carefully as he reads his books. (His copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, at the Cambridge University Library, is filled with enough Latin and French margin notes to make a book themselves.) But he thinks of himself as a browser, and in a way he is, because, by his account, a couple of interesting thoughts or stories in one book will always remind him of something smarter, or more interesting—or, better still, contradictory—in another book, and he opens that. By the time he begins “On Vanity,” most of his favorite quotes have been carved into the beams and woodwork of the tower—for inspiration, fast access, and, perhaps, distraction. (He would have loved Google.) Those words are the preferred company of his old age, however spurious their counsel. He wants to “die, grinding [his] teeth, among strangers,” and what more accommodating strangers than dead ones, speaking across millennia from his rafters—the kind of strangers who, like paid companions to the old and frail, “will leave you alone as much as you like, showing you an unconcerned face and letting you think and moan in your own way.” Death, he says, “is not one of our social engagements: it is a scene with one character.”

But the truth is that writing about death—surrounded by the books that he says “console me and counsel me to regulate my life and my death”—has put him off dying. The world intrudes on his gloom, battles for his attention, and almost always wins. He longs to revisit Rome. His wife must have been against this, because he says, “Truly, if any wife can lay down for her husband how many paces make ‘far’ and how many paces make ‘near,’ my counsel is to make him stop half-way…and let those wives dare to call Philosophy to their aid.” Like the clueless Professor Higgins, he wishes that women were more like men. “In a truly loving relationship—which I have experienced—rather than drawing the one I love to me I give myself to him,” he says, remembering La Boétie. “Not merely do I prefer to do him good than to have him do good to me, I would even prefer that he did good to himself rather than to me: it is when he does good to himself that he does most good to me. If his absence is either pleasant or useful to him, then it delights me far more than his presence.” The question, of course, is what the absence called death means.

The penultimate pages of “On Vanity” are an homage to Rome (and perhaps to himself, since he quotes in full the papal bull that made him a Roman citizen). But he ends the essay in the oracular heart of Greece, with the Delphic admonition to “know thyself,” and in a few pages turns the idea of vanity on its head, defending his pursuit of himself, however fractured, transitory, or imperfect, as the only knowledge he, or anyone, can hope to gain. It is the one argument for a “truth” he makes in a hundred and seven essays: “Nature has very conveniently cast the action of our sight outwards. We are swept on downstream, but to struggle back towards our self against the current is a painful movement; thus does the sea, when driven against itself, swirl back in confusion. Everyone says: ‘Look at the motions of the heavens, look at society, at this man’s quarrel, that man’s pulse, this other man’s will and testament’—in other words always look upwards or downwards or sideways, or before or behind you. Thus, the commandment given us in ancient times by the god at Delphi was contrary to all expectations: ‘Look back into your self; get to know your self; hold on to your self.’ . . . Can you not see that this world of ours keeps its gaze bent ever inwards and its eyes ever open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity in your case, within and without, but a vanity which is less, the less it extends. Except you alone, O Man, said that god, each creature first studies its own self, and, according to its needs, has limits to his labors and desires. Not one is as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the seeker with no knowledge, the judge with no jurisdiction and, when all is done, the jester of the farce.”

When Montaigne moved his books to the third floor of his tower, he moved a bed to the floor below. He would cross to the castle for dinner, after which he would say good night and leave. It is tempting to imagine him at his desk then, pen in hand, books scattered around him, and candle flickering, but in fact he never wrote or read after the sun set—a habit he recommended to his readers, saying that with books “the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, and grows weary and sad.” He was seven years into the essays when he suffered his first serious attack of kidney stones, writing that illness and sleep, like madness, “make things appear to us otherwise than they appear to healthy people, wise men, and waking people.” He lived in fear of the next attack, and, even more, of what he called “emptiness.” He was the man who (pace Roosevelt and Thoreau) first said, “The thing I fear most is fear . . . it exceeds all other disorders in intensity.”

Toward the end of his life, he claimed to have accepted emptiness. He had once called his essays “monstrous bodies, pieced together of diverse members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or proportion other than accidental,” and blamed the fact that “my ability does not go far enough for me to dare to undertake a rich, polished picture, formed according to art.” But there is every indication that, growing older, he missed the statesman’s life. When Navarre succeeded to the throne, in 1589, becoming Henri IV of France—and, after four more years of religious war, making a shrewd conversion to Catholicism with the words “Paris is well worth a Mass”—Montaigne wrote to volunteer his services again. Henri replied, delighted, and in January of 1590, when his letter arrived, Montaigne wrote back, saying that he had always wished for the succession, “even when I had to confess it to my curate,” and then offering the advice that “where conquests, because of their greatness and difficulty, could not be thoroughly completed by arms and by force, they have been completed by clemency and magnanimity, excellent lures to attract men, especially toward the just and legitimate side.” The passage is vintage Montaigne: a prescription for wise rule lurking in a few fine, flattering phrases about the fruits of victory; a strategic detour into the real world to say that “if rigor and punishment occur, they must be put off until after the possession of mastery”; and, finally, an appropriate classical example—in this case, Scipio the Elder. In July, Henri summoned Montaigne to Paris, but by September, when he had hoped to go, Montaigne was too sick to travel. ♦

Michel de Montaigne (Michel Eyquem, lord of the manor of Montaigne, Dordogne) (28 February1533 – 13 September1592) was an influential French Renaissance writer, generally considered to be the inventor of the personal essay.

Quotes[edit]

  • We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.

Essais (1595)[edit]

Written between 1571 and 1592, these were published in various editions between 1580 and 1595 · Full text of Charles Cotton translation online at the Gutenberg Project

Book I[edit]

  • Je veux qu'on me voit en ma façon simple, naturelle, et ordinaire, sans étude et artifice; car c'est moi que je peins...Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre.
    • I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray...I am myself the matter of my book.
      • Book I (1580), To the Reader
  • Certes, c'est un subject merveilleusement vain, divers, et ondoyant, que l'homme. Il est malaisé d'y fonder jugement constant et uniforme.
    • Truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgement on him.
  • [I]n my country, when they would say a man has no sense, they say, such an one has no memory; and when I complain of the defect of mine, they do not believe me, and reprove me, as though I accused myself for a fool: not discerning the difference betwixt memory and understanding, which is to make matters still worse for me. But they do me wrong; for experience, rather, daily shows us, on the contrary, that a strong memory is commonly coupled with infirm judgment.
  • As for extraordinary things, all the provision in the world would not suffice.
  • In my opinion, every rich man is a miser.
  • How many we know who have fled the sweetness of a tranquil life in their homes, among the friends, to seek the horror of uninhabitable deserts; who have flung themselves into humiliation, degradation, and the contempt of the world, and have enjoyed these and even sought them out.
  • Things are not bad in themselves, but our cowardice makes them so.
  • C'est de quoi j'ai le plus de peur que la peur.
    • The thing I fear most is fear.
    • Book I, ch, 18
  • Whatever can be done another day can be done today.
  • Je veux que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux.
    • I want death to find me planting my cabbages.
    • Book I, Ch. 20
  • All the opinions in the world point out that pleasure is our aim.
  • He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.
  • The day of your birth leads you to death as well as to life.
  • Live as long as you please, you will strike nothing off the time you will have to spend dead.
  • Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it. It lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you to have lived enough.
  • All of the days go toward death and the last one arrives there.
  • We must not attach knowledge to the mind, we have to incorporate it there.
  • Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
  • To call out for the hand of the enemy is a rather extreme measure, yet a better one, I think, than to remain in continual fever over an accident that has no remedy. But since all the precautions that a man can take are full of uneasiness and uncertainty, it is better to prepare with fine assurance for the worst that can happen, and derive some consolation from the fact that we are not sure that it will happen.
  • Un peu de chaque chose, et rien du tout, a la française.
    • A little of all things, but nothing of everything, after the French manner.
      • On the education of children; Book I, Chapter 26
  • Je ne dis les autres, sinon pour d'autant plus me dire.
    • I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better.
      • Variant: I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
    • Book I, Ch. 26
  • Since I would rather make of him an able man than a learned man, I would also urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head.
  • Combien de choses nous servoyent hier d’articles de foy, qui nous sont fables aujourd’huy?
    • How many things served us yesterday for articles of faith, which today are fables for us?
    • Book I, Ch. 27
  • Si on me presse, continue-t-il, de dire pourquoi je l'aimais, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer qu'en répondant: parce que c'était lui; parce que c'était moi.
    • If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.
      • Variants: If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself.
        If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.
    • Book I, Ch. 28
  • ... il n'est rien creu si fermement que ce qu'on sçait le moins, ...
    • Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.
      • Variant: Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known.
    • Book I, Ch. 31
  • L'homme d'entendement n'a rien perdu, s'il a soi-même.
    • A man of understanding has lost nothing, if he has himself.
    • Book I, Ch. 39
  • La plus grande chose du monde, c'est de savoir être à soi.
    • The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.
    • Book I, Ch. 39
  • He who does not give himself leisure to be thirsty cannot take pleasure in drinking.
  • God's justice and His power are inseparable; 'tis in vain we invoke His power in an unjust cause. We are to have our souls pure and clean, at that moment at least wherein we pray to Him, and purified from all vicious passions; otherwise we ourselves present Him the rods wherewith to chastise us; instead of repairing anything we have done amiss, we double the wickedness and the offence when we offer to Him, to whom we are to sue for pardon, an affection full of irreverence and hatred. Which makes me not very apt to applaud those whom I observe to be so frequent on their knees, if the actions nearest to the prayer do not give me some evidence of amendment and reformation
    • Book I, Ch. 56. Of Prayers
  • A true prayer and religious reconciling of ourselves to Almighty God cannot enter into an impure soul, subject at the very time to the dominion of Satan. He who calls God to his assistance whilst in a course of vice, does as if a cut-purse should call a magistrate to help him, or like those who introduce the name of God to the attestation of a lie.
    • Book I, Ch. 56. Of Prayers
  • There is nothing so easy, so sweet, and so favourable, as the divine law: it calls and invites us to her, guilty and abominable as we are; extends her arms and receives us into her bosom, foul and polluted as we at present are, and are for the future to be. But then, in return, we are to look upon her with a respectful eye; we are to receive this pardon with all gratitude and submission, and for that instant at least, wherein we address ourselves to her, to have the soul sensible of the ills we have committed, and at enmity with those passions that seduced us to offend her;

Book II[edit]

  • There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.
  • It is the part of cowardice, not of courage, to go and crouch in a hole under a massive tomb, to avoid the blows of fortune.
  • C'est une épineuse entreprise, et plus qu'il ne semble, de suivre une allure si vagabonde que celle de nôtre esprit; de pénétrer les profondeurs opaques de ses replis internes; de choisir et arrêter tant de menus de ses agitations.
    • It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.
    • Book II, Ch. 6
  • Mon métier et mon art, c'est vivre.
    • My trade and my art is living.
    • Book II, Ch. 6
  • I am angry at the custom of forbidding children to call their father by the name of father, and to enjoin them another, as more full of respect and reverence, as if nature had not sufficiently provided for our authority. We call Almighty God Father, and disdain to have our children call us so. I have reformed this error in my family.—[As did Henry IV. of France]—And 'tis also folly and injustice to deprive children, when grown up, of familiarity with their father, and to carry a scornful and austere countenance toward them, thinking by that to keep them in awe and obedience; for it is a very idle farce that, instead of producing the effect designed, renders fathers distasteful, and, which is worse, ridiculous to their own children.
    • Book II, Ch. 8. On the affections of fathers to their children
  • Virtue refuses facility for her companion … the easy, gentle, and sloping path that guides the footsteps of a good natural disposition is not the path of true virtue. It demands a rough and thorny road.
  • For my own part, I cannot without grief see so much as an innocent beast pursued and killed that has no defence, and from which we have received no offence at all.
  • Que sais-je?
    • What know I? (or What do I know?)
    • The notion of skepticism is most clearly understood by asking this question.
  • Quand je me joue à ma chatte, qui sait si elle passe son temps de moi, plus que je ne fais d'elle.
    • When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?
    • Book II, Ch. 12
    • The 1595 edition adds: “We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.” As quoted in Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills, Fordham University Press, 2008.
  • The sage says that all that is under heaven incurs the same law and the same fate.
  • As far as fidelity is concerned, there is no animal in the world as treacherous as man.
  • The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mold...The same reason that makes us wrangle with a neighbor creates a war betwixt princes.
  • The plague of man is boasting of his knowledge.
  • The first law that ever God gave to man was a law of pure obedience; it was a commandment naked and simple, wherein man had nothing to inquire after, nor to dispute; forasmuch as to obey is the proper office of a rational soul, acknowledging a heavenly superior and benefactor.
  • The participation we have in the knowledge of truth, such as it is, is not acquired by our own force: God has sufficiently given us to understand that, by the witnesses he has chosen out of the common people, simple and ignorant men, that he has been pleased to employ to instruct us in his admirable secrets. Our faith is not of our own acquiring; 'tis purely the gift of another's bounty: 'tis not by meditation, or by virtue of our own understanding, that we have acquired our religion, but by foreign authority and command wherein the imbecility of our own judgment does more assist us than any force of it; and our blindness more than our clearness of sight: 'tis more by__ the mediation of our ignorance than of our knowledge that we know any thing of the divine wisdom. 'Tis no wonder if our natural and earthly parts cannot conceive that supernatural and heavenly knowledge: let us bring nothing of our own, but obedience and subjection; for, as it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."
  • Of all human and ancient opinions concerning religion, that seems to me the most likely and most excusable, that acknowledged God as an incomprehensible power, the original and preserver of all things, all goodness, all perfection, receiving and taking in good part the honour and reverence that man paid him, under what method, name, or ceremonies soever
  • Man is forming thousands of ridiculous relations between himself and God.
  • We are brought to a belief of God either by reason or by force. Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride, to be the authors of extraordinary and reforming opinions, and outwardly to affect the profession of them; who, if they are such fools, have, nevertheless, not the power to plant them in their own conscience. Yet will they not fail to lift up their hands towards heaven if you give them a good thrust with a sword in the breast, and when fear or sickness has abated and dulled the licentious fury of this giddy humour they will easily re-unite, and very discreetly suffer themselves to be reconciled to the public faith and examples.
  • To an atheist all writings tend to atheism: he corrupts the most innocent matter with his own venom.
  • L'homme est bien insensé. Il ne saurait forger un ciron, et forge des Dieux à douzaines.
    • Man is certainly crazy. He could not make a mite, and he makes gods by the dozen.
    • Book II, Ch. 12
  • Quelle vérité que ces montagnes bornent, qui est mensonge qui se tient au delà?
    • What of a truth that is bounded by these mountains and is falsehood to the world that lives beyond?
    • Book II, Ch. 12
  • Ceux qui ont apparié notre vie à un songe ont eu de la raison... Nous veillons dormants et veillants dormons.
    • Those who have compared our life to a dream were right... We are sleeping awake, and waking asleep.
    • Book II, Ch. 12
    • Variant translation: They who have compared our lives to a dream were, perhaps, more in the right than they were aware of. When we dream, the soul lives, works, and exercises all its faculties, neither more nor less than when awake; but more largely and obscurely, yet not so much, neither, that the difference should be as great as betwixt night and the meridian brightness of the sun, but as betwixt night and shade; there she sleeps, here she slumbers; but, whether more or less, ‘tis still dark, and Cimmerian darkness. We wake sleeping, and sleep waking.
  • There must then be something that is better, and that must be God. When you see a stately and stupendous edifice, though you do not know who is the owner of it, you would yet conclude it was not built for rats. And this divine structure, that we behold of the celestial palace, have we not reason to believe that it is the residence of some possessor, who is much greater than we?
  • We are no nearer heaven on the top of Mount Cenis than at the bottom of the sea; take the distance with your astrolabe. They debase God even to the carnal knowledge of women, to so many times, and so many generations.
  • It was truly very good reason that we should be beholden to God only, and to the favour of his grace, for the truth of so noble a belief, since from his sole bounty we receive the fruit of immortality, which consists in the enjoyment of eternal beatitude.... The more we give and confess to owe and render to God, we do it with the greater Christianity.
  • God might grant us riches, honours, life, and even health, to our own hurt; for every thing that is pleasing to us is not always good for us. If he sends us death, or an increase of sickness, instead of a cure, Vvrga tua et baculus, tuus ipsa me consolata sunt. "Thy rod and thy staff have comforted me," he does it by the rule of his providence, which better and more certainly discerns what is proper for us than we can do; and we ought to take it in good part, as coming from a wise and most friendly hand
  • Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute: we speak of all things by precepts and decisions. The style at Rome was that even that which a witness deposed to having seen with his own eyes, and what a judge determined with his most certain knowledge, was couched in this form of speaking: “it seems to me.” They make me hate things that are likely, when they would impose them upon me as infallible.
    • Book II, Ch. 12: Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • There is the name and the thing: the name is a voice which denotes and signifies the thing; the name is no part of the thing, nor of the substance; 'tis a foreign piece joined to the thing, and outside it. God, who is all fulness in Himself and the height of all perfection, cannot augment or add anything to Himself within; but His name may be augmented and increased by the blessing and praise we attribute to His exterior works: which praise, seeing we cannot incorporate it in Him, forasmuch as He can have no accession of good, we attribute to His name, which is the part out of Him that is nearest to us. Thus is it that to God alone glory and honour appertain; and there is nothing so remote from reason as that we should go in quest of it for ourselves; for, being indigent and necessitous within, our essence being imperfect, and having continual need of amelioration, 'tis to that we ought to employ all our endeavour.
  • How many valiant men we have seen to survive their own reputation!
  • A man may be humble through vainglory.
  • I find that the best goodness I have has some tincture of vice.
  • Saying is one thing and doing is another.
  • As far as physicians go, chance is more valuable than knowledge.
  • Physicians have this advantage: the sun lights their success and the earth covers their failures.
  • There were never in the world two opinions alike, any more than two hairs or two grains. Their most universal quality is diversity.

Book III[edit]

  • I will follow the good side right to the fire, but not into it if I can help it.
  • I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.
  • Few men have been admired by their own households.
  • Chaque homme porte la forme, entière de l'humaîne condition.
    • Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.
    • Book III, Ch. 2
  • For my own part, I may desire in general to be other than I am; I may condemn and dislike my whole form, and beg of Almighty God for an entire reformation, and that He will please to pardon my natural infirmity: but I ought not to call this repentance, methinks, no more than the being dissatisfied that I am not an angel or Cato. My actions are regular, and conformable to what I am and to my condition; I can do no better; and repentance does not properly touch things that are not in our power; sorrow does.. I imagine an infinite number of natures more elevated and regular than mine; and yet I do not for all that improve my faculties, no more than my arm or will grow more strong and vigorous for conceiving those of another to be so.
  • Malice sucks up the greatest part of its own venom, and poisons itself.
    • Of Repentance, Book III, Ch. 2[1]
  • Non pudeat dicere, quod non pudet sentire: "Let no man be ashamed to speak what he is not ashamed to think."
  • It (marriage) happens as with cages: the birds without despair to get in, and those within despair of getting out.
  • Not because Socrates said so, but because it is in truth my own disposition — and perchance to some excess — I look upon all men as my compatriots, and embrace a Pole as a Frenchman, making less account of the national than of the universal and common bond.
  • Il n'est si homme de bien, qu'il mette à l'examen des loix toutes ses actions et pensées, qui ne soit pendable dix fois en sa vie.
    • There is no man so good that if he placed all his actions and thoughts under the scrutiny of the laws, he would not deserve hanging ten times in his life.
    • Book III, Ch. 9
  • A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid.
  • At the very beginning of my fevers and sicknesses that cast me down, whilst still entire, and but little, disordered in health, I reconcile myself to Almighty God by the last Christian, offices, and find myself by so doing less oppressed and more easy, and have got, methinks, so much the better of my disease. And I have yet less need of a notary or counsellor than of a physician.
  • I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself.
  • J'ai seulement fait ici un amas de fleurs étrangères, n'y ayant fourni du mien que le filet à les lier.
    • I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.
    • Book III, Ch. 12 : Of Physiognomy
  • ‘Tis a good word and a profitable desire, but withal absurd; for to make the handle bigger than the hand, the cubic longer than the arm, and to hope to stride further than our legs can reach, is both impossible and monstrous; or that man should rise above himself and humanity; for he cannot see but with his eyes, nor seize but with his hold. He shall be exalted, if God will lend him an extraordinary hand; he shall exalt himself, by abandoning and renouncing his own proper means, and by suffering himself to be raised and elevated by means purely celestial. It belongs to our Christian faith, and not to the stoical virtue, to pretend to that divine and miraculous metamorphosis.
    • Book III, Ch. 12 : Of Physiognomy
  • God never sends evils
  • There is no wish more natural than the wish to know.
  • It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other.
  • For truth itself does not have the privilege to be employed at any time and in every way; its use, noble as it is, has its circumscriptions and limits.
  • He who remembers the evils he has undergone, and those that have threatened him, and the slight causes that have changed him from one state to another, prepares himself in that way for future changes and for recognizing his condition. The life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor's or an ordinary man's, it is still a life subject to all human accidents.
  • Si, avons nous beau monter sur des échasses, car sur des échasses encore faut-il marcher de nos jambes. Et au plus élevé trône du monde, si ne sommes assis que sur notre cul.
    • No matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs. And on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.
    • Book III, Ch. 13
  • Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.
  • In this present that God has made us, there is nothing unworthy our care; we stand accountable for it even to a hair; and is it not a commission to man, to conduct man according to his condition; 'tis express, plain, and the very principal one, and the Creator has seriously and strictly prescribed it to us. Authority has power only to work in regard to matters of common judgment, and is of more weight in a foreign language; therefore let us again charge at it in this place
  • Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.
    • Chapter X. Of Managing the Will. End of First Paragraph.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)[edit]

Quotes reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Man in sooth is a marvellous, vain, fickle, and unstable subject.
    • Book I, Ch. 1. That Men by various Ways arrive at the same End
  • All passions that suffer themselves to be relished and digested are but moderate.
  • It is not without good reason said, that he who has not a good memory should never take upon him the trade of lying.
  • He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.
    • Book I, Ch. 18. That Men are not to judge of our Happiness till after Death
  • The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.
    • Book I, Ch. 22. Of Custom
  • Accustom him to everything, that he may not be a Sir Paris, a carpet-knight, 5 but a sinewy, hardy, and vigorous young man.
    • Book I, Ch. 15. Of the Education of Children
  • We were halves throughout, and to that degree that methinks by outliving him I defraud him of his part.
    • Book I, Ch. 27. Of Friendship
  • There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
    • Book I, Ch. 30. Of Cannibals
  • Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.
    • Book I, Ch. 31. Of Divine Ordinances
  • A wise man never loses anything, if he has himself.
    • Book I, Ch. 38. Of Solitude
  • Even opinion is of force enough to make itself to be espoused at the expense of life.
    • Book I, Ch. 40. Of Good and Evil
  • Plato says, "'T is to no purpose for a sober man to knock at the door of the Muses;" and Aristotle says "that no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of folly."
    • Book II, Ch. 2. Of Drunkenness
  • For a desperate disease a desperate cure.
    • Book II, Ch. 3. The Custom of the Isle of Cea
  • And not to serve for a table-talk.
    • Book II, Ch. 3. The Custom of the Isle of Cea
  • To which we may add this other Aristotelian consideration, that he who confers a benefit on any one loves him better than he is beloved by him again.
    • Book II, Ch. 8. Of the Affections of Fathers
  • The middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) spoil all; they will chew our meat for us.
    • Book II, Ch. 10. Of Books
  • The only good histories are those that have been written by the persons themselves who commanded in the affairs whereof they write.
    • Book II, Ch. 10. Of Books
  • She [virtue] requires a rough and stormy passage; she will have either outward difficulties to wrestle with, 11 … or internal difficulties.
    • Book II, Ch. 11. Of Cruelty
  • There is, nevertheless, a certain respect and a general duty of humanity that ties us, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants.
    • Book II, Ch. 11. Of Cruelty
  • Some impose upon the world that they believe that which they do not; others, more in number, make themselves believe that they believe, not being able to penetrate into what it is to believe.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • 'T is one and the same Nature that rolls on her course, and whoever has sufficiently considered the present state of things might certainly conclude as to both the future and the past.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mould…. The same reason that makes us wrangle with a neighbour causes a war betwixt princes.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • Why may not a goose say thus: "All the parts of the universe I have an interest in: the earth serves me to walk upon, the sun to light me; the stars have their influence upon me; I have such an advantage by the winds and such by the waters; there is nothing that yon heavenly roof looks upon so favourably as me. I am the darling of Nature! Is it not man that keeps and serves me?"
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • Arts and sciences are not cast in a mould, but are formed and perfected by degrees, by often handling and polishing, as bears leisurely lick their cubs into form.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • He that I am reading seems always to have the most force.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • Apollo said that every one's true worship was that which he found in use in the place where he chanced to be.
    • Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
  • How many worthy men have we seen survive their own reputation!
    • Book II, Ch. 16. Of Glory
  • The mariner of old said to Neptune in a great tempest, "O God! thou mayest save me if thou wilt, and if thou wilt thou mayest destroy me; but whether or no, I will steer my rudder true."
    • Book II, Ch. 16. Of Glory
  • One may be humble out of pride.
    • Book II, Ch. 17. Of Presumption
  • I find that the best virtue I have has in it some tincture of vice.
    • Book II, Ch. 20. That we taste nothing pure
  • Saying is one thing, doing another.
    • Book II, Ch. 31. Of Anger
  • Is it not a noble farce, wherein kings, republics, and emperors have for so many ages played their parts, and to which the whole vast universe serves for a theatre?
    • Book II, Ch. 36. Of the most Excellent Men
  • Nature forms us for ourselves, not for others; to be, not to seem.
    • Book II, Ch. 37. Of the Resemblance of Children to their Brothers
  • There never was in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity.
    • Book II, Ch. 37. Of the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers
  • The public weal requires that men should betray and lie and massacre.
    • Book III, Ch. 1. Of Profit and Honesty
  • Like rowers, who advance backward.
    • Book III, Ch. 1. Of Profit and Honesty
  • I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more as I grow older.
    • Book iii. Chap 2. Of Repentance
  • Few men have been admired by their own domestics.
    • Book iii. Chap 2. Of Repentance
  • It happens as with cages: the birds without despair to get in, and those within despair of getting out.
    • Book III, Ch. 5. Upon some Verses of Virgil
  • And to bring in a new word by the head and shoulders, they leave out the old one.
    • Book III, Ch. 5. Upon some Verses of Virgil
  • All the world knows me in my book, and my book in me.
    • Book III, Ch. 5. Upon some Verses of Virgil
  • 'T is so much to be a king, that he only is so by being so. The strange lustre that surrounds him conceals and shrouds him from us; our sight is there broken and dissipated, being stopped and filled by the prevailing light.
    • Book III, Ch. 7. Of the Inconveniences of Greatness
  • We are born to inquire after truth; it belongs to a greater power to possess it. It is not, as Democritus said, hid in the bottom of the deeps, but rather elevated to an infinite height in the divine knowledge.
    • Book III, Ch. 8. Of the Art of Conversation
  • I moreover affirm that our wisdom itself, and wisest consultations, for the most part commit themselves to the conduct of chance.
    • Book III, Ch. 8. Of the Art of Conversation
  • What if he has borrowed the matter and spoiled the form, as it oft falls out?
    • Book III, Ch. 8. Of the Art of Conversation
  • The oldest and best known evil was ever more supportable than one that was new and untried.
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • Not because Socrates said so,… I look upon all men as my compatriots.
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • My appetite comes to me while eating.
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • There is no man so good, who, were he to submit all his thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging ten times in his life.
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • Saturninus said, "Comrades, you have lost a good captain to make him an ill general."
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • A little folly is desirable in him that will not be guilty of stupidity.
    • Book III, Ch. 9. Of Vanity
  • Habit is a second nature.
  • We seek and offer ourselves to be gulled.
    • Book III, Ch. 11. Of Cripples
  • I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.
    • Book III, Ch. 11. Of Cripples
  • Men are most apt to believe what they least understand.
    • Book III, Ch. 11. Of Cripples
  • I have here only made a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them together.
    • Book III, Ch. 12. Of Physiognomy
  • Amongst so many borrowed things, I am glad if I can steal one, disguising and altering it for some new service.
    • Book III, Ch. 12. Of Physiognomy
  • I am further of opinion that it would be better for us to have [no laws] at all than to have them in so prodigious numbers as we have.
    • Book III, Ch. 13. Of Experience
  • For truth itself has not the privilege to be spoken at all times and in all sorts.
    • Book III, Ch. 13. Of Experience
  • The diversity of physical arguments and opinions embraces all sorts of methods.
    • Book III, Ch. 13. Of Experience
  • I have ever loved to repose myself, whether sitting or lying, with my heels as high or higher than my head.
    • Book III, Ch. 13. Of Experience
  • I, who have so much and so universally adored this [greek], "excellent mediocrity," 32 of ancient times, and who have concluded the most moderate measure the most perfect, shall I pretend to an unreasonable and prodigious old age?
    • Book III, Ch. 13. Of Experience

Attributed[edit]

Most quotations of Montaigne come from the Essais but the following have not yet been given definite citation.

  • A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.
  • A wise man sees as much as he ought, not as much as he can
  • Age imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face.
  • Ambition is not a vice of little people.
  • An untempted woman cannot boast of her chastity.
  • Confidence in another man's virtue is no light evidence of a man's own, and God willingly favors such a confidence.
    • Variant: Confidence in the goodness of another is good proof of one's own goodness.
    • Book I, Ch. 14
  • Courtesy is a science of the highest importance. It is, like grace and beauty in the body, which charm at first sight, and lead on to further intimacy and friendship, opening a door that we may derive instruction from the example of others, and at the same time enabling us to benefit them by our example, if there be anything in our character worthy of imitation.
  • Covetousness is both the beginning and the end of the devil's alphabet— the first vice in corrupt nature that moves, and the last which dies.
  • Death, they say, acquits us of all obligations.
  • Don't discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose; if you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.
  • Even from their infancy we frame them to the sports of love: their instruction, behavior, attire, grace, learning and all their words azimuth only at love, respects only affection. Their nurses and their keepers imprint no other thing in them.
  • Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.
  • Fashion is the science of appearances, and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be.
  • Fortune, seeing that she could not make fools wise, has made them lucky.
    • Book III, Ch. 8
    • This quote is a paraphrase of a lengthier statement, as follows: We ordinarily see, in the actions of the world, that Fortune, to shew us her power in all things, and who takes a pride in abating our presumption, seeing she could not make fools wise, has made them fortunate in emulation of virtue; and most favours those operations the web of which is most purely her own; whence it is that the simplest amongst us bring to pass great business, both public and private; and, as Seiramnes, the Persian, answered those who wondered that his affairs succeeded so ill, considering that his deliberations were so wise, ‘that he was sole master of his designs, but success was wholly in the power of fortune’; these may answer the same, but with a contrary turn.
    • From Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton (1877), Book the Third, Chapter VIII — Of The Art Of Conference. Note : this is the version found at Project Gutenberg.
  • Hath God obliged himself not to exceed the bounds of our knowledge?
  • He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.
  • He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.
  • He who is not sure of his memory, should not undertake the trade of lying.
    • Variant: He who is not very strong in memory should not meddle with lying.
    • Book I, Ch. 9
  • I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself. I will be rich by myself, and not by borrowing.
  • I do myself a greater injury in lying than I do him of whom I tell a lie.
  • I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.
  • I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.
  • If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it.
  • In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have any other tie upon another, but by our word.
  • In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk— they are all part of the curriculum.
    • The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne, Chapter III, pg. 24 (Translated by Marvin Lowenthal
  • It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.
  • It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.
  • It is the mind that maketh good or ill, That maketh wretch or happy, rich or poor.
  • It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity.
    • Variants: It should be noted that the games of children are not games, and must be considered as their most serious actions.
      For truly it is to be noted, that children's plays are not sports, and should be deemed as their most serious actions.
    • Book I, Ch. 23
  • Labour not after riches first, and think thou afterwards wilt enjoy them. He who neglecteth the present moment, throweth away all that he hath. As the arrow passeth through the heart, while the warrior knew not that it was coming; so shall his life be taken away before he knoweth that he hath it.
  • Love to his soul gave eyes; he knew things are not as they seem. The dream is his real life; the world around him is the dream.
  • Make your educational laws strict and your criminal ones can be gentle; but if you leave youth its liberty you will have to dig dungeons for ages.
  • Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.
  • Marriage, a market which has nothing free but the entrance.
  • My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.
  • No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately.
  • No wind serves him who addresses his voyage to no certain port.
  • Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.
  • Nothing prints more lively in our minds than something we wish to forget.
  • Observe, observe perpetually.
  • Of all our infirmities, the most savage is to despise our being.
    • Book III, Ch. 13
    • Variant: Of all the infirmities we have, 'tis the most savage to despise our being. (Charles Cotton translation)
  • Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul.
  • Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.
  • So it is with minds. Unless you keep them busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them, they throw themselves in disorder hither and yon in the vague field of imagination. ..And there is no mad or idle fancy that they do no bring forth in the agitation.
  • Book I, Ch. 8
  • The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure not a slight pleasure.
  • The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of death.
  • The entire lower world was created in the likeness of the higher world. All that exists in the higher world appears like an image in this lower world; yet all this is but One.
  • The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.
    • Variant: The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.
    • Book I, Ch. 26
  • The most profound joy has more of gravity than of gaiety in it.
  • The strangest, most generous, and proudest of all virtues is true courage.
  • The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them... Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.
  • The world is all a carcass and vanity, The shadow of a shadow, a play
    And in one word, just nothing.
  • The world is but a perpetual see-saw.
  • The worst of my actions or conditions seem not so ugly unto me as I find it both ugly and base not to dare to avouch for them.
  • There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
  • There is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something.
  • There is a sort of gratification in doing good which makes us rejoice in ourselves.
  • There is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom.
    • Variant: There is not much less vexation in the government of a private family than in the managing of an entire state.
    • Book I, Ch. 39
  • There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
  • There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.
  • There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.
  • There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.
  • Those that will combat use and custom by the strict rules of grammar do but jest.
  • 'Tis the sharpness of our mind that gives the edge to our pains and pleasures.
  • Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul.
  • We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men's wisdom.
  • We only labor to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void.
  • When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.
  • Who does not in some sort live to others, does not live much to himself.
  • Wonder is the foundation of all philosophy, research is the means of all learning, and ignorance is the end.
  • Writing does not cause misery. It is born of misery.

Quotes about Montaigne[edit]

Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • Montaigne speak of an “Abecedarian” ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it. The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their A-B-C’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.
  • From now on, Montaigne would live for himself rather than for duty.
    • Sarah Bakewell, describing Montaigne’s retirement at age 38, How to Live (2010), p. 24
  • He felt ordinary, but knew that the very fact of realizing his ordinariness made him extraordinary.
    • Sarah Bakewell, How to Live (2010), p. 52
  • The hedonistic approach to education did make a difference to him. Having been guided early in life by his own curiosity alone, he grew up to be an independent-minded adult, following his own path in everything rather than deferring to duty and discipline.
  • The most offensive egotist is he that fears to say "I" and "me." "It will probably rain "—that is dogmatic. "I think it will rain"—that is natural and modest. Montaigne is the most delightful of essayists because so great is his humility that he does not think it important that we see not Montaigne. He so forgets himself that he employs no artifice to make us forget him.
  • Montaigne the I-sayer. “I” as space, not as position.
    • Elias Canetti, The Secret Heart of the Clock, J. Agee, trans. (1989), p. 54
  • Europeans had often thought that somewhere in the world must dwell a noble race, remnants of that golden age before man became corrupted by civilization. As reports of Indians filtered back to Europe... Michelle de Montaigne took the trouble to talk with explorers, to read the traveler's chronicles, and even to meet three Indians who had been brought as curiosities to the Court of Versailles. He concluded that the Noble Savage has at last been found, for the Indian "hath... no name of magistrate, nor of politics... no contracts... no apparel but natural... The very words that import a lie, falsehood, treason, covetousness, envy, detraction, were not heard among them." Montaigne presented an idealized notion about the aborigines ...that foreshadowed the Noble Savage of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
  • This great French writer deserves to be regarded as a classic, not only in the land of his birth, but in all countries and in all literatures. His Essays, which are at once the most celebrated and the most permanent of his productions, form a magazine out of which such minds as those of Bacon and Shakespeare did not disdain to help themselves; and, indeed, as Hallam observes, the Frenchman’s literary importance largely results from the share which his mind had in influencing other minds, coeval and subsequent. But, at the same time, estimating the value and rank of the essayist, we are not to leave out of the account the drawbacks and the circumstances of the period: the imperfect state of education, the comparative scarcity of books, and the limited opportunities of intellectual intercourse. Montaigne freely borrowed of others, and he has found men willing to borrow of him as freely. We need not wonder at the reputation which he with seeming facility achieved. He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences
  • Of all egotists, Montaigne, if not the greatest, was the most fascinating, because, perhaps, he was the least affected and most truthful. What he did, and what he had professed to do, was to dissect his mind, and show us, as best he could, how it was made, and what relation it bore to external objects. He investigated his mental structure as a schoolboy pulls his watch to pieces, to examine the mechanism of the works; and the result, accompanied by illustrations abounding with originality and force, he delivered to his fellow-men in a book.
    Eloquence, rhetorical effect, poetry, were alike remote from his design. He did not write from necessity, scarcely perhaps for fame. But he desired to leave France, nay, and the world, something to be remembered by, something which should tell what kind of a man he was — what he felt, thought, suffered — and he succeeded immeasurably, I apprehend, beyond his expectations.
    It was reasonable enough that Montaigne should expect for his work a certain share of celebrity in Gascony, and even, as time went on, throughout France; but it is scarcely probable that he foresaw how his renown was to become world-wide; how he was to occupy an almost unique position as a man of letters and a moralist; how the Essays would be read, in all the principal languages of Europe, by millions of intelligent human beings, who never heard of Perigord or the League, and who are in doubt, if they are questioned, whether the author lived in the sixteenth or the eighteenth century. This is true fame. A man of genius belongs to no period and no country. He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.
    • William Carew Hazlitt, in the Preface to his 1877 edition, based on the translations of Charles Cotton (November 1877)
  • Mr. Sensible learned only catchwords from them. He could talk like Epicurus of spare diet, but he was a glutton. He had from Montaigne the language of friendship, but no friend.
  • Montaigne [puts] not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.
  • The manner in which Epictetus, Montaigne, and Salomon de Tultie wrote, is the most usual, the most suggestive, the most remembered, and the oftener quoted; because it is entirely composed of thoughts born from the common talk of life.
    • Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 18 (1669); Note: Salomon de Tultie was a pseudonym adopted by Pascal as the author of the Provincial Letters.
  • What the earliest utopians — Montaigne, Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella — understood was that they fought not for a place but for a new set of ideas through which to recognize what would count as Real: Equality, not hierarchical authority. Individualdignity, not slavish subservience. Our preeminent problem is that we recognize the Real in what is most deadly: a culture of duty to legalities that are, finally, cruel and destructive. We need to work inventively — as Christ did, as Thoreau did — in the spirit of disobedience for the purpose of refusing the social order into which we happen to have been born and putting in its place a culture of life-giving things.
    • Curtis White, “The Spirit Of Disobedience: An Invitation to Resistance" in Harper’s Magazine (April 2006), p. 40

External links[edit]

I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.
I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better.

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