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French Essayist Montaigne

French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.

Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.

Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.

The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.

He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.

But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.

This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.

Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.

As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle. [cartoon id="a20629"]

The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”

Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.

Desan scolds both Montaigne and his friend—there is a lot of scolding of subject by author in this book—for thereby recommending or even inventing “the cornerstone of modern liberalism: individual freedom detached from any political or social action.” To say this, though, is surely to underestimate the originality of the position, or its audacity in its time. The assertion of individual freedom is a form of political action. As subsequent generations of intellectuals caught in violent irrational wars or under repressive governments have also learned, learning not to think foolishly is the first step toward sanity. (Live not by the lie, Solzhenitsyn urged his countrymen. Montaigne’s is the same idea, in a warmer climate with better wine.) Your mind belongs to you. Recognizing that everything is customary was not customary. Your body and your allegiance may indeed be given, prudently, to the state. But no one can make your mind follow suit: only a fool fools himself. The first step in dealing with the madness of the political world is not to let it make you crazy. “God keep me from being an honest man, according to the description I daily see made of honor,” Montaigne wrote.

Desan also scolds Montaigne, vis-à-vis La Boétie, on a literary point, complaining that Montaigne, having first been inspired to literary effort by a friend, allows the idea of friendship to dissipate in his later essays, which entail no friend but the reader. The essay becomes an impersonal form of intimacy, betraying a fear of passionate commitment and political engagement. But each written form creates its own reader. A sonnet is addressed to an indifferent object of passion; even if the actual lover warms up, the sonneteer can’t become too easily complacent—a dark lady suddenly sunny produces no one’s idea of a poem. So, too, an essay is always addressed to an intimate unknown. E. B. White, a modern Montaigne, who got there through Thoreau, was deeply attached to his wife, Katharine. But she makes few if any appearances in his essays (though she’s there, hypochondriacally, all over his letters). He wasn’t neglecting her—it’s just that if the essays were even implicitly addressed to a particular intimate they would become too specific. The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers. By dramatizing an isolation that can be cured only by an unknown reader, the confidences come to belong to all.

Montaigne made several attempts at his essais—the French word means, simply, “tries,” in the sense of experimental effort, though the English word “sketches” comes closer—and the bulk of the work of writing was done in the seven years following La Boétie’s death. Far from being rendered in elegant isolation, we now know, the essays were written while Montaigne took part in Bordeaux politics, travelled to Italy (where the book was briefly confiscated by Church authorities, and he was subjected to a withering examination and a warning), and, eventually, became the mayor of Bordeaux. When Montaigne tells us that his library is where “I pass the greatest part of my live days and wear out most hours of the days,” he was being poetical. The pieces were, it now seems, far more often dictated on the run than written in that tower, dictation being the era’s more aristocratic, less artisanal method of composition. (They still occasionally bear dictation’s marks of run-on breathlessness.)

Montaigne’s “Essais,” in any of their stages—they went through three editions in his lifetime—are one of those classic books that benefit from being read irresponsibly. Sit down to read them thoroughly step by step, even in the great contemporary English translation, of 1603, by John Florio (whose renderings I’ve mostly been using), and you will be disappointed, since the “argument” of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies, the utterly modern sentences: “Super-celestial opinions and under-terrestrial manners are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord,” he writes, giving as an example a philosopher who always pisses as he runs.

Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.

By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained,

all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.

Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats. That beautiful and startlingly modern list of mixed emotions suggests a delectation of diversities—he likes not knowing what he feels or who he is, enjoys having “wise” and “ignorant,” insulated by nothing but a comma, anchored together in one soul’s harbor. They bang hulls inside our heads.

Although those epigrammatic sentences can be arresting—“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least”—Montaigne doesn’t think epigrammatically. What makes him astonishing is a sort of “show all work” ethic that forced thought as it really is, mixed in motive and meanings, onto the page. He seems wise, more than smart or shrewd—wise without being smart or shrewd. He can be embarrassing, as he was often thought to be in his time, in a way that recalls less a polished columnist than a great diarist, like James Boswell or Kenneth Tynan, incapable of being guarded, the way shrewder people are. When he writes about the joys of having sex with cripples, we feel uneasy, nervous, and then enlightened. Whatever he’s telling, he’s telling it, as Howard Cosell used to say, like it is.

Desan, writing only about the French Montaigne, avoids the question that, for an English speaker, is essential: the great question of Montaigne’s relationship to Shakespeare. Although Florio’s 1603 effort was the first English rendering of Montaigne’s essays to appear in book form, they had certainly been circulating in manuscript before that. In an introduction to a new edition of the Florio, Stephen Greenblatt tantalizes us with the suggestion that the relation exists, and shows how richly it can be teased out—and then responsibly retreats from too much assertion with too little positive evidence, willing to mark it down to the common spirit of the time.

[cartoon id="a20545"]

Well, essayists can go where scholars dare not tread—a key lesson to take from Montaigne—and this essayist finds it impossible to imagine that Shakespeare had not absorbed Montaigne fully, and decisively, right around 1600. It is evident not in the ideas alone but in a delighted placement of opposites in close relation, even more apparent in Shakespeare’s prose than in his verse. Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!

It’s not merely in the steady (and modern) use of exclamation points but in the sudden turns and reversals, without the mucilage of extended argument—the turn-on-a-dime movements, the interjections, the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back. The alteration in the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters around 1600, as evident in “As You Like It” as in “Hamlet,” bears his mark—as in Jaques’s speech on the seven ages of man, which very much resembles Montaigne’s insistence that life-living is role-playing. (“We must play our parts duly, but as the part of a borrowed personage.”)

Indeed, the Frenchman Jaques, even more than Hamlet, and from the same year, is Montaignean man. In this case, a specific relation seems to exist between Montaigne’s great essay “On Cruelty” and the scene in “As You Like It” where Jaques is reported brooding on the death of a deer. Montaigne’s point is that when it comes to cruelty we should subordinate all other “reasoning”—stoic, of degree and dependency—to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can reason our way past another creature’s pain, but, as we do so, such “reason” becomes the indicted evil. Jaques feels the same way. “We are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse / To fright the animals and kill them up,” he says, while “weeping and commenting upon the sobbing deer.” We are meant to find Jaques’s double occupation of weeping and commenting, feeling and keeping track of his feelings, mildly comic—Shakespeare being always convinced, in his English way, that the French are hypersensitive and overintellectual. But Jaques is not a ridiculous figure. He is conscience speaking through contradiction.

It was in the midst of all this that Montaigne was elevated to mayor of Bordeaux—an achievement, Desan shows, that was rather like getting appointed police commissioner under Tammany Hall. He wasn’t much of a mayor, although it was under his administration that the first protection and “control” of Bordeaux’s cru bourgeois was attempted, wine having crept up to become the city’s most important export, more important even than the salt fish that the family fortune had been built on. (It was a sign of the middle-class affluence that sped along in spite of the wars of faith.) His one attempted intervention in the religious conflict led to his being arrested and held in the Bastille, for a few hours, by extremist Catholics in Paris. He was released only after convincing the jailers of his Catholic bona fides. Fanaticism always seems foolish until it locks you up.

After his mayoralty, combining, as it did, the trivial and the terrifying, Montaigne moved away from political action, and Desan, in the end, is hard on his politics. “Montaigne’s humanism, as it was conceptualized starting in 1585, implies a renunciation of politics,” he declares, and elsewhere he sees in Montaigne a sort of false dawn of liberalism. Montaigne’s retreat was only a rich man’s way of getting off the highway before history ran him over. “Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of . . . the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought,” Desan writes. “Modern liberal thought discerns in Montaigne the starting point of its history . . . but let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form of (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its purely historical and political dimension.”

This view is deaf to the overtones of Montaigne’s self-removal. To be against violence, frightened of fanaticism, acutely conscious of the customary nature of our most devout attachments—without this foundation in realism, political action always pivots toward puritanical self-righteousness. It is not that Montaigne is placed on a pedestal; it’s that we look up at him only to find that he is already down here with us. His houses are built on sand, rock being too hard for people, who are bound to fall. His moral heroism lies in his resilience in retreat, which allows him to remind us of our capacity to persevere. His essays insist that an honest relation to experience is the first principle of action. As a practical matter, this has been most actively inspirational at times of greatest stress. The German author Stefan Zweig, in flight from Nazism, turned first of all to Montaigne, writing, “Montaigne helps us answer this one question: ‘How to stay free? How to preserve our inborn clear-mindedness in front of all the threats and dangers of fanaticism, how to preserve the humanity of our hearts among the upsurge of bestiality?’ ”

Montaigne is present now in the things he feels and the way he sounds, and that is like a complete human being. He’s funny, he’s touching, he’s strange, he’s inconclusive. Ironic self-mockery, muted egotism, a knowledge of one’s own absurdity that doesn’t diminish the importance of one’s witness, a determinedly anti-heroic stance that remains clearly ethical—all these effects and sounds of the essayist are first heard here. We imitate the sound without even knowing its source. Good critics and scholars can teach us how to listen. Only writers show us how to speak—even when they tell us that it is best to whisper.

Montaigne’s writing has not been taken out of his time. It exists outside of his time. He is not plucked out to become a false father; he is heard, long past his time, as a true friend. He is an emotional, not a contractual, liberal. He didn’t give a damn about democracy, or free speech, or even property rights. Equality before the law he saw as impossible—not even aristocrats could get it. But he had a rich foundational impulse toward the emotions that make a decent relation between man and state possible. Here was a far-reaching skepticism about authority (either the ancients’ or the actual), a compassion toward suffering, a hatred of cruelty that we now imagine as human instinct, though all experience shows us that it must be inculcated. Montaigne, having no access to the abstract concepts that were later laid on this foundation, gives us deeper access to them, because he was the one who laid it. The liberalism that came after humanism may be what keeps his memory alive and draws us to him. The humanism that has to exist before liberalism can even begin is what Montaigne is there to show us still. ♦

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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