Text included, primarily from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.
Text in circle:
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. Estienne de la Boetie, friend of Montaigne
There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is lacking, we therein employ experience. 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 those who have risen highest have often more honor than merit, for they got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one. Greatness of soul consists in knowing how to live. (From Chapter 8)
There is a certain voice accommodated to the hearing, not by its loudness, but by its propriety. Quintilian. Speaking is half his who speaks, and half his who hears; the latter ought to prepare himself to receive it, according to its bias. That long attention that I employ in considering myself, also fits rile to judge tolerably enough of others; and there are few things whereof I speak better and with better excuse. I happen very often more exactly to see and distinguish the qualities of my friends than they do. I let few things about me, whether countenances or discourses, escape me. I study all, both what I am to avoid and what I am to follow. Wisdom is a solid and entire building, or which every piece keeps its place and bears its mark. “Wisdom only is wholly within itself.” Cicero, De Fin.
Whoever goes in quest of knowledge, let them fish for it where it is to be found; there is nothing I so little profess. These are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself; they may, peradventure, one day be known to me, or have formerly been, according as fortune has been able to bring me in place where they have been explained; but I have forgotten it; and if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I now have has risen. Therefore, let none lay stress upon the matter I write, but upon my method in writing it. Let them observe, in what I borrow, if I have known how to choose what is proper to raise or help the invention, which is always my own. For I make others say for me, not before but after me, what, either for want of language or want of sense, I cannot myself so well express. I do not number my borrowings, I weigh them. In reasons, comparisons, and arguments, if I transplant any into my own soil, and confound them amongst my own, I purposely conceal the author, to awe the temerity of those precipitate censors who fall upon all sorts of writings, particularly the late ones, of people yet living. Knowledge and truth may be in us without judgment, and judgment also without them; but the confession of ignorance is one of the finest and surest testimonies of judgment that I know.
I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, ‘tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.
We are never present with, but always beyond ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, still push us on towards the future, depriving us, in the meantime, of the sense and consideration of that which is to amuse us with the thought of what shall be, even when we shall be no more. Calmaitosus est animus futuri auxius. The mind anxious about the future is unhappy. Seneca. We find this great precept often repeated in Plato, “Do thine own work, and know thyself.” Of which two parts, comprehend our whole duty, for who will do their own work aright will find that his first lesson is to know what he is, and that which is proper to himself; and who rightly understands himself will never mistake another person’s work for his own, but will love and improve himself above all other things. Cicero
As we see some grounds that have long lain idle and untilled, when grown rich and fertile by rest, to abound with and spend their virtue in the product of innumerable sorts of weeds and wild herbs that are unprofitable, and that to make them perform their true office, we are to cultivate and prepare them for such seeds as are proper for our service; even so it is with minds, which if not applied to some certain study that may fix and restrain them, run into a thousand extravagances, eternally roving here and there in the vague expanse of the imagination. I only desire to become more wise. Montaigne
That to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die. Because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world do in the end conclude in this point, to teach us not to fear to die. Death is the beginning of of another life. Long life, and short, are by death made all one; for there is no long nor short, to things that are no more. “Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil as you make it.’ And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity: Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a person may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.
Let the philosophers say what they will, the thing at which we all aim, even in virtue is pleasure.
As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And therefore to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago. Death is the beginning of another life. Long life, and short, are by death made all one; for there is no long, nor short, to things that are no more.
The most and the least, of ours, in comparison with eternity, or yet with the duration of mountains, rivers, stars, trees, and even of some animals, is no less ridiculous. Seneca. But nature compels us to it. “Go out of this world,” says she, “as you entered into it; the same pass you made from death to life, without passion or fear, the same, after the same manner, repeat from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe, ‘tis a part of the life of the world. Inter se mortales mutua vivunt, Et, quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt. Mortals, amongst themselves, live by turns, and like the runners in the games, give up the lamp when they have won the race to the next comer. Lucretius. Shall I exchange for you this beautiful contexture of things? ’Tis the condition of your creation; death is a part of you, and whilst you endeavor to evade it, you evade yourselves. This very being of yours that you now enjoy is equally divided betwixt life and death. The day of your birth is one day’s advance towards the grave. Prima qux vitam dedit utm hora carpsit. The first hour that gave us life took away also an hour. Seneca. Nascentes morimur finisque ab origine pendet. As we are born we die and the end commences with the beginning. Manilius. Why not depart from life as a sated guest from a feast? Lucretius. If you have not known how to make the best use of it, if it was unprofitable to you, what need you care to lose it to what end would you desire longer to keep it? Lucretius
In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes. I see that parents commonly, and with indiscretion enough, correct their children for little innocent faults, and torment them for wanton tricks, that have neither impression nor consequence; whereas, in my opinion, lying only, and, which is of something a lower form, obstinacy, are the faults which are to be severely whipped out of them, both in their infancy and in their progress, otherwise they grow up and increase with them; and after a tongue has once got the knack of lying, ‘tis not to be imagined how impossible it is to reclaim it whence it comes to pass that we see some, who are otherwise very honest people, so subject and enslaved to this vice. I have an honest lad to my tailor, whom I never knew guilty of one truth, no, not when it had been to his advantage. If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit. The Pythagoreans make good to be certain and finite, and evil, infinite and uncertain. There are a thousand ways to miss the white, there is only one to hit it. For my own part, I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie. A dog we know is better company than a person we do not understand.”
MAKE USE OF TIME WHILE IT IS PRESENT WITH YOU
I am solicited to write the affairs of my own time by some, who fancy I look upon them with an eye less blinded with passion than another, and have a clearer insight into them by reason of the free access fortune has given me to the heads of various factions; but they do not consider, that to purchase the glory of Sallust, I would not give myself the trouble, sworn enemy as I am to obligation, assiduity, or perseverance: that there is nothing so contrary to my style, as a continued narrative, I so often interrupt and cut myself short in my writing for want of breath; I have neither composition nor explanation worth anything, and am ignorant, beyond a child, of the phrases and even the very words proper to express the most common things; and for that reason it is, that I have undertaken to say only what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my strength. XX These strange examples will not appear so strange if we consider what we have ordinary experience of, how much custom stupefies our senses. We need not go to what is reported of the people about the cataracts of the Nile; and what philosophers believe of the music of the spheres, that the bodies of those circles being solid and smooth, and coming to touch and rub upon one another, cannot fail of creating a marvellous harmony, the changes and cadences of which cause the revolutions and dances of the stars; but that the hearing sense of all creatures here below, being universally deafened, and stupefied with the continual noise, cannot, how great soever, perceive it. The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received amongst his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine; from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably for the most part, God knows. ‘The year is ever turning around in the same footsteps.’ Virgil. Atque in se sua per vestigia volvitur annus.
BEAUTY IN FORMS OF CIVILITY
Not every country only, but every city and every society has its particular forms of civility. There was care enough to this taken in my education, and I have lived in good company enough to know the formalities of our own nation, and am able to give lessons in it. I love to follow them, but not to be so servilely tied to their observation that my whole life should be enslaved to ceremonies, of which there are some so troublesome that, provided a person omits them out of discretion, and not for want of breeding, it will be every whit as handsome. I have seen some people rude, by being over civil and troublesome in their courtesy.
Still, these excesses excepted, the knowledge of courtesy and good manners is a very necessary study. It is, like grace and beauty, that which begets liking and an inclination to love one another at the first sight, and in the very beginning of acquaintance; and, consequently, that which first opens the door and invites us to instruct ourselves by the example of others, and to give examples ourselves, if we have any worth taking notice of and communicating.
This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.
I am not possessed with this common error, to judge of others according to what I am my selfe. I am easie to believe things differing from my selfe. though I be engaged to one forme, I do not tie the world unto it, as every man doth. And I believe and conceive a thousand manners of life, contrary to the common sorte. Florio. I very much desire that we may be judged every man by himself, and would not be drawn into the consequence of common examples.
We have far more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry; it is easier to write it than to understand it. There is, indeed, a certain low and moderate sort of poetry, that a man may well enough judge by certain rules of art; but the true, supreme, and divine poesy is above all rules and reason. And whoever discerns the beauty of it with the most assured and most steady sight, sees no more than the quick reflection of a flash of lightning: it does not exercise, but ravishes and overwhelms our judgment. The fury that possesses him who is able to penetrate into it wounds yet a third man by hearing him repeat it; like a loadstone that not only attracts the needle, but also infuses into it the virtue to attract others. And it is more evidently manifest in our theatres, that the sacred inspiration of the Muses, having first stirred up the poet to anger, sorrow, hatred, and out of himself, to whatever they will, does moreover by the poet possess the actor, and by the actor consecutively all the spectators. So much do our passions hang and depend upon one another. Poetry has ever had that power over me from a child to transpierce and transport me; but this vivid sentiment that is natural to me has been variously handled by variety of forms, not so much higher or lower (for they were ever the highest of every kind), as differing in colour. First, a gay and sprightly fluency; afterwards, a lofty and penetrating subtlety; and lastly, a mature and constant vigour. Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil as you make it.’ And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity. Montaigne
Quotations lettered on beams in Montaigne’s library:
I determine in nothing. (Sextus Empiricus)
HOMO SVM HVMANI A ME NIHIL ALIENVM PVTO
I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me. (Terence)
EX TOT DEI OPERIBVS NIHILO MAGIS QVIDQVAM HOMINI COGNITVM QVAM VENTI VESTIGIVM. ECCL.11.
Of all the works of God nothing is more unknown to any man than the track of the wind. Ecclesiastes 11.
ΕΝΔΕΧΕΤΑΙ ΚΑΙ ΟΥΚ ΕΝΔΕΧΕΤΑΙ
It is possible and it is not possible. (Sextus Empiricus)
The good is admirable. (Plato, via Sextus Empiricus)
FRVERE IVCVNDE PRÆSENTIBVS CÆTERA EXTRA TE. ECCL.3.
Enjoy pleasantly present things, others are beyond thee. Ecclesiastes
QVANTVM EST IN REBVS INANE
How great is the worthlessness of things. (Persius, I.1)
PER OMNIA VANITAS. ECCL.1.
All is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1
MORES CVIQVE SVI FINGVNT FORTVNAM
Character is destiny. (Cornelius Nepos, from Erasmus- Adages)
NE PLVS SAPIAS QVAM NECESSE EST NE OBSTVPESCAS. ECCL.7.
Be not overwise lest you become senseless. Ecclesiastes 7
ΕΠΕΩΝ ΔΕ ΠΟΛΥΣ ΝΟΜΟΣ ΕΝΘΑ ΚΑΙ ΕΝΘΑ
Wide is the range of man’s speech, this way and that. (Homer–Iliad 20.249, from Diogenes Laertius
NE PLVS SAPITE QVAM OPORTET SED SAPITE AD SOBRIETATEM. AD ROM.12.
Be no wiser than is necessary, but be wise in moderation. Letter of Paul to the Romans, 12
OMNIVM QVÆ SVB SOLE SVNT FORTVNA ET LEX PAR EST. ECCL.9.
Everything under the sun follows the same law and the same destiny. Ecclesiastes 9
ΠΑΝΤΙ ΛΟΓΩ ΑΟΓΟΣ ΙΣΟΣ ΑΝΤΙΚΕΙΤΑΙ
To every opinion an opinion of equal weight is opposed. (Sextus Empiricus)
ΟΡΩ ΓΑΡ ΗΜΑΣ ΟΝΤΑΣ ΑΛΛΟ ΠΛΑΝ
ΕΙΔΩΛ ’ ΟΣΟΙΠΕΡ ΖΘΜΕΝ Η ΚΟΥΦΗΝ ΣΚΙΑΝ
For I see that we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows. (Sophocles)
[OMNIA CVM CÆLO TERRAQVE MARIQVE SVNT NIHIL AD SVMMAM SVMMAI TOTIVS]
All things, together with heaven and earth and sea, are nothing to the sum of the universal sum.
(Lucretius–De Natura Rerum,
ΑΛΛΑΟΙΣΙΝ ΑΛΛΟΣ ΘΕΩΝ ΤΕ Κ ’ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΩΝ ΜΕΛΕΙ
Each has his own tastes, Gods and men alike. (Euripides)
Cursivetext taken from Montaigne’s essays.
How to Live
Library shelves filled with books are a visual display of recorded stories, history and ideas. Library buildings are now also filled with computers. My small computer connects me to endless information, music and images. But what is gained and what is lost in this digital world? Computers allow vast investigation, analysis and instant communication, lost is the feel or paper and heft of a book, the relationship of audience and performers in a concert or theatre, a sense of scale and detail in a work of art.
A gallery with high ceilings prompted this scroll of cascading layers of words from Montaigne’s Essays. Born in 1533, Montaigne lived in an age of religious disputes, riots and plague yet still wanted to write his thoughts on how to live a good life. He read the classics and had inspirational quotes lettered on the beams of his library. He was curious about the world and he told readers not to worry about the future or dwell on the past but to live in the present. Montaigne speaks to us today.