‘Tis the fear of death and of pain, impatience of disease, and a violent and indiscreet desire of a present cure, that so blind us: ’tis pure cowardice that makes our belief so pliable and easy to be imposed upon: and yet most men do not so much believe as they acquiesce and permit; for I hear them find fault and complain as well as we; but they resolve at last, What should I do then? As if impatience were of itself a better remedy than patience.
Is there any one of those who have suffered themselves to be persuaded into this miserable subjection, who does not equally surrender himself to all sorts of impostures? who does not give up himself to the mercy of whoever has the impudence to promise him a cure? The Babylonians carried their sick into the public square; the physician was the people: every one who passed by being in humanity and civility obliged to inquire of their condition, gave some advice according to his own experience.
We do little better; there is not so simple a woman, whose gossips and drenches we do not make use of: and according to my humour, if I were to take physic, I would sooner choose to take theirs than any other, because at least, if they do no good, they will do no harm.
What Homer and Plato said of the Egyptians, that they were all physicians, may be said of all nations; there is not a man amongst any of them who does not boast of some rare recipe, and who will not venture it upon his neighbour, if he will let him.
I was the other day in a company where one, I know not who, of my fraternity brought us intelligence of a new sort of pills made up of a hundred and odd ingredients: it made us very merry, and was a singular consolation, for what rock could withstand so great a battery? And yet I hear from those who have made trial of it, that the least atom of gravel deigned not to stir fort. I cannot take my hand from the paper before I have added a word concerning the assurance they give us of the certainty of their drugs, from the experiments they have made. The greatest part, I should say above two-thirds of the medicinal virtues, consist in the quintessence or occult property of simples, of which we can have no other instruction than use and custom; for quintessence is no other than a quality of which we cannot by our reason find out the cause.
In such proofs, those they pretend to have acquired by the inspiration of some daemon, I am content to receive (for I meddle not with miracles); and also the proofs which are drawn from things that, upon some other account, often fall into use amongst us; as if in the wool, wherewith we are wont to clothe ourselves, there has accidentally some occult desiccative property been found out of curing kibed heels, or as if in the radish we eat for food there has been found out some aperitive operation.
Galen reports, that a man happened to be cured of a leprosy by drinking wine out of a vessel into which a viper had crept by chance.
In this example we find the means and a very likely guide and conduct to this experience, as we also do in those that physicians pretend to have been directed to by the example of some beasts.
But in most of their other experiments wherein they affirm they have been conducted by fortune, and to have had no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information incredible.
Suppose man looking round about him upon the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals; I do not know where he would begin his trial; and though his first fancy should fix him upon an elk’s horn, wherein there must be a very pliant and easy belief, he will yet find himself as perplexed in his second operation.
There are so many maladies and so many circumstances presented to him, that before he can attain the certainty of the point to which the perfection of his experience should arrive, human sense will be at the end of its lesson: and before he can, amongst this infinity of things, find out what this horn is; amongst so many diseases, what is epilepsy; the many complexions in a melancholy person; the many seasons in winter; the many nations in the French; the many ages in age; the many celestial mutations in the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; the many parts in man’s body, nay, in a finger; and being, in all this, directed neither by argument, conjecture, example, nor divine inspirations, but merely by the sole motion of fortune, it must be by a perfectly artificial, regular and methodical fortune.
And after the cure is performed, how can he assure himself that it was not because the disease had arrived at its period or an effect of chance? or the operation of something else that he had eaten, drunk, or touched that day? or by virtue of his grandmother’s prayers? And, moreover, had this experiment been perfect, how many times was it repeated, and this long bead-roll of haps, and concurrences strung anew by chance to conclude a certain rule? And when the rule is concluded, by whom, I pray you? Of so many millions, there are but three men who take upon them to record their experiments: must fortune needs just hit one of these? What if another, and a hundred others, have made contrary experiments? We might, peradventure, have some light in this, were all the judgments and arguments of men known to us; but that three witnesses, three doctors, should lord it over all mankind, is against reason: it were necessary that human nature should have deputed and chosen them out, and that they were declared our comptrollers by express procuration: TO MADAME DE DURAS. —[Marguerite de Grammont, widow of Jean de Durfort, Seigneur de Duras, who was killed near Leghorn, leaving no posterity.
Montaigne seems to have been on terms of considerable intimacy with her, and to have tendered her some very wholesome and frank advice in regard to her relations with Henry IV.]— MADAME,—The last time you honoured me with a visit, you found me at work upon this chapter, and as these trifles may one day fall into your hands, I would also that they testify in how great honour the author will take any favour you shall please to show them.
You will there find the same air and mien you have observed in his conversation; and though I could have borrowed some better or more favourable garb than my own, I would not have done it: for I require nothing more of these writings, but to present me to your memory such as I naturally am.
The same conditions and faculties you have been pleased to frequent and receive with much more honour and courtesy than they deserve, I would put together (but without alteration or change) in one solid body, that may peradventure continue some years, or some days, after I am gone; where you may find them again when you shall please to refresh your memory, without putting you to any greater trouble; neither are they worth it.
I desire you should continue the favour of your friendship to me, by the same qualities by which it was acquired. I am not at all ambitious that any one should love and esteem me more dead than living.
The humour of Tiberius is ridiculous, but yet common, who was more solicitous to extend his renown to posterity than to render himself acceptable to men of his own time.
If I were one of those to whom the world could owe commendation, I would give out of it one-half to have the other in hand; let their praises come quick and crowding about me, more thick than long, more full than durable; and let them cease, in God’s name, with my own knowledge of them, and when the sweet sound can no longer pierce my ears.
It were an idle humour to essay, now that I am about to forsake the commerce of men, to offer myself to them by a new recommendation.
I make no account of the goods I could not employ in the service of my life.
Such as I am, I will be elsewhere than in paper: my art and industry have been ever directed to render myself good for something; my studies, to teach me to do, and not to write.
I have made it my whole business to frame my life: this has been my trade and my work; I am less a writer of books than anything else.
I have coveted understanding for the service of my present and real conveniences, and not to lay up a stock for my posterity.
He who has anything of value in him, let him make it appear in his conduct, in his ordinary discourses, in his courtships, and his quarrels: in play, in bed, at table, in the management of his affairs, in his economics.
Those whom I see make good books in ill breeches, should first have mended their breeches, if they would have been ruled by me.
Ask a Spartan whether he had rather be a good orator or a good soldier: and if I was asked the same question, I would rather choose to be a good cook, had I not one already to serve me.
My God! Madame, how should I hate such a recommendation of being a clever fellow at writing, and an ass and an inanity in everything else! Yet I had rather be a fool both here and there than to have made so ill a choice wherein to employ my talent.
And I am so far from expecting to gain any new reputation by these follies, that I shall think I come off pretty well if I lose nothing by them of that little I had before.
For besides that this dead and mute painting will take from my natural being, it has no resemblance to my better condition, but is much lapsed from my former vigour and cheerfulness, growing faded and withered: I am towards the bottom of the barrel, which begins to taste of the lees. As to the rest, Madame, I should not have dared to make so bold with the mysteries of physic, considering the esteem that you and so many others have of it, had I not had encouragement from their own authors.
I think there are of these among the old Latin writers but two, Pliny and Celsus if these ever fall into your hands, you will find that they speak much more rudely of their art than I do; I but pinch it, they cut its throat.
Pliny, amongst other things, twits them with this, that when they are at the end of their rope, they have a pretty device to save themselves, by recommending their patients, whom they have teased and tormented with their drugs and diets to no purpose, some to vows and miracles, others to the hot baths. (Be not angry, Madame; he speaks not of those in our parts, which are under the protection of your house, and all Gramontins.) They have a third way of saving their own credit, of ridding their hands of us and securing themselves from the reproaches we might cast in their teeth of our little amendment, when they have had us so long in their hands that they have not one more invention left wherewith to amuse us, which is to send us to the better air of some other country.
This, Madame, is enough; I hope you will give me leave to return to my discourse, from which I have so far digressed, the better to divert you. It was, I think, Pericles, who being asked how he did: You may judge, says he, by these, showing some little scrolls of parchment he had tied about his neck and arms.
By which he would infer that he must needs be very sick when he was reduced to a necessity of having recourse to such idle and vain fopperies, and of suffering himself to be so equipped.
I dare not promise but that I may one day be so much a fool as to commit my life and death to the mercy and government of physicians; I may fall into such a frenzy; I dare not be responsible for my future constancy: but then, if any one ask me how I do, I may also answer, as Pericles did, You may judge by this, shewing my hand clutching six drachms of opium.
It will be a very evident sign of a violent sickness: my judgment will be very much out of order; if once fear and impatience get such an advantage over me, it may very well be concluded that there is a dreadful fever in my mind. I have taken the pains to plead this cause, which I understand indifferently, a little to back and support the natural aversion to drugs and the practice of physic I have derived from my ancestors, to the end it may not be a mere stupid and inconsiderate aversion, but have a little more form; and also, that they who shall see me so obstinate in my resolution against all exhortations and menaces that shall be given me, when my infirmity shall press hardest upon me, may not think ’tis mere obstinacy in me; or any one so ill-natured as to judge it to be any motive of glory: for it would be a strange ambition to seek to gain honour by an action my gardener or my groom can perform as well as I.
Certainly, I have not a heart so tumorous and windy, that I should exchange so solid a pleasure as health for an airy and imaginary pleasure: glory, even that of the Four Sons of Aymon, is too dear bought by a man of my humour, if it cost him three swinging fits of the stone.
Give me health, in God’s name! Such as love physic, may also have good, great, and convincing considerations; I do not hate opinions contrary to my own: I am so, far from being angry to see a discrepancy betwixt mine and other men’s judgments, and from rendering myself unfit for the society of men, from being of another sense and party than mine, that on the contrary (the most general way that nature has followed being variety, and more in souls than bodies, forasmuch as they are of a more supple substance, and more susceptible of forms) I find it much more rare to see our humours and designs jump and agree.
And there never were, in the world, two opinions alike, no more than two hairs, or two grains: their most universal quality is diversity. BOOK THE THIRD CHAPTER I——OF PROFIT AND HONESTY No man is free from speaking foolish things; but the worst on’t is, when a man labours to play the fool: Nae iste magno conatu magnas nugas dixerit. [ Truly he, with a great effort will shortly say a mighty trifle. —-Terence, Heaut., act iii., s. 4.] This does not concern me; mine slip from me with as little care as they are of little value, and ’tis the better for them.
I would presently part with them for what they are worth, and neither buy nor sell them, but as they weigh.
I speak on paper, as I do to the first person I meet; and that this is true, observe what follows. To whom ought not treachery to be hateful, when Tiberius refused it in a thing of so great importance to him? He had word sent him from Germany that if he thought fit, they would rid him of Arminius by poison: this was the most potent enemy the Romans had, who had defeated them so ignominiously under Varus, and who alone prevented their aggrandisement in those parts. He returned answer, that the people of Rome were wont to revenge themselves of their enemies by open ways, and with their swords in their hands, and not clandestinely and by fraud : wherein he quitted the profitable for the honest.
You will tell me that he was a braggadocio; I believe so too: and ’tis no great miracle in men of his profession.
But the acknowledgment of virtue is not less valid in the mouth of him who hates it, forasmuch as truth forces it from him, and if he will not inwardly receive it, he at least puts it on for a decoration. — Confusum est, quidquid usque in pulverem sectum est. [ Whatever is beaten into powder is undistinguishable (confused). —Seneca, Ep., 89.] As you see children trying to bring a mass of quicksilver to a certain number of parts, the more they press and work it and endeavour to reduce it to their own will, the more they irritate the liberty of this generous metal; it evades their endeavour and sprinkles itself into so many separate bodies as frustrate all reckoning; so is it here, for in subdividing these subtilties we teach men to increase their doubts; they put us into a way of extending and diversifying difficulties, and lengthen and disperse them.
In sowing and retailing questions they make the world fructify and increase in uncertainties and disputes, as the earth is made fertile by being crumbled and dug deep. Difficultatem facit doctrina. [ Learning (Doctrine) begets difficulty. —Quintilian, Insat.
Orat., x. 3.] We doubted of Ulpian, and are still now more perplexed with Bartolus and Baldus.
We should efface the trace of this innumerable diversity of opinions; not adorn ourselves with it, and fill posterity with crotchets.
I know not what to say to it; but experience makes it manifest, that so many interpretations dissipate truth and break it.
Aristotle wrote to be understood; if he could not do this, much less will another that is not so good at it; and a third than he, who expressed his own thoughts.
We open the matter, and spill it in pouring out: of one subject we make a thousand, and in multiplying and subdividing them, fall again into the infinity of atoms of Epicurus.
Never did two men make the same judgment of the same thing; and ’tis impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in several men, but in the same man, at diverse hours.
I often find matter of doubt in things of which the commentary has disdained to take notice; I am most apt to stumble in an even country, like some horses that I have known, that make most trips in the smoothest way. Who will not say that glosses augment doubts and ignorance, since there’s no book to be found, either human or divine, which the world busies itself about, whereof the difficulties are cleared by interpretation.
The hundredth commentator passes it on to the next, still more knotty and perplexed than he found it.
When were we ever agreed amongst ourselves: This book has enough; there is now no more to be said about it ? This is most apparent in the law; we give the authority of law to infinite doctors, infinite decrees, and as many interpretations; yet do we find any end of the need of interpretating? is there, for all that, any progress or advancement towards peace, or do we stand in need of any fewer advocates and judges than when this great mass of law was yet in its first infancy? On the contrary, we darken and bury intelligence; we can no longer discover it, but at the mercy of so many fences and barriers.
Men do not know the natural disease of the mind; it does nothing but ferret and inquire, and is eternally wheeling, juggling, and perplexing itself like silkworms, and then suffocates itself in its work; Mus in pice. —[ A mouse in a pitch barrel. ]—It thinks it discovers at a great distance, I know not what glimpses of light and imaginary truth: but whilst running to it, so many difficulties, hindrances, and new inquisitions cross it, that it loses its way, and is made drunk with the motion: not much unlike AEsop’s dogs, that seeing something like a dead body floating in the sea, and not being able to approach it, set to work to drink the water and lay the passage dry, and so choked themselves.
To which what one Crates’ said of the writings of Heraclitus falls pat enough, that they required a reader who could swim well, so that the depth and weight of his learning might not overwhelm and stifle him. ‘Tis nothing but particular weakness that makes us content with what others or ourselves have found out in this chase after knowledge: one of better understanding will not rest so content; there is always room for one to follow, nay, even for ourselves; and another road; there is no end of our inquisitions; our end is in the other world. ‘Tis a sign either that the mind has grown shortsighted when it is satisfied, or that it has got weary.
No generous mind can stop in itself; it will still tend further and beyond its power; it has sallies beyond its effects; if it do not advance and press forward, and retire, and rush and wheel about, ’tis but half alive; its pursuits are without bound or method; its aliment is admiration, the chase, ambiguity, which Apollo sufficiently declared in always speaking to us in a double, obscure, and oblique sense: not feeding, but amusing and puzzling us. ‘Tis an irregular and perpetual motion, without model and without aim; its inventions heat, pursue, and interproduce one another: Estienne de la Boetie; thus translated by Cotton: So in a running stream one wave we see After another roll incessantly, And as they glide, each does successively Pursue the other, each the other fly By this that’s evermore pushed on, and this By that continually preceded is: The water still does into water swill, Still the same brook, but different water still. There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon any other subject; we do nothing but comment upon one another.
Every place swarms with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity.
Is it not the principal and most reputed knowledge of our later ages to understand the learned? Is it not the common and final end of all studies? Our opinions are grafted upon one another; the first serves as a stock to the second, the second to the third, and so forth; thus step by step we climb the ladder; whence it comes to pass that he who is mounted highest has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one. How often, and, peradventure, how foolishly, have I extended my book to make it speak of itself; foolishly, if for no other reason but this, that it should remind me of what I say of others who do the same: that the frequent amorous glances they cast upon their work witness that their hearts pant with self-love, and that even the disdainful severity wherewith they scourge them are but the dandlings and caressings of maternal love; as Aristotle, whose valuing and undervaluing himself often spring from the same air of arrogance.
My own excuse is, that I ought in this to have more liberty than others, forasmuch as I write specifically of myself and of my writings, as I do of my other actions; that my theme turns upon itself; but I know not whether others will accept this excuse. I observed in Germany that Luther has left as many divisions and disputes about the doubt of his opinions, and more, than he himself raised upon the Holy Scriptures.
Our contest is verbal: I ask what nature is, what pleasure, circle, and substitution are? the question is about words, and is answered accordingly.
A stone is a body; but if a man should further urge: And what is a body? — Substance ; And what is substance? and so on, he would drive the respondent to the end of his Calepin. [Calepin (Ambrogio da Calepio), a famous lexicographer of the fifteenth century.
His Polyglot Dictionary became so famous, that Calepin became a common appellation for a lexicon]
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