Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 11

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



In writing of “prognostications” Montaigne foreruns Bacon in the belief that (in Bacon’s words), “They ought all to be despised, and ought to serve but for winter talk by the fireside.”

The story of the Marquis de Salluce was the occasion of this Essay, and was originally almost the whole of it; the page that precedes it only gives the reasons why it seemed to Montaigne remarkable; and the verses of Horace brought the Essay to a close in 1580.

In 1588 the next sentence (dropped in 1595) was: “I should much prefer to manage my affairs by the cast of dice than by such dreams”; and it was followed by the paragraph beginning: “I see some who annotate their almanacs.” After the sentence, “There would be more certainty …” came the remark (afterward somewhat changed): “I have seen sometimes to their hurt …” Then came immediately: “The Demon of Socrates,” and the Essay ended as now.

In 1595 the Latin quotations of the first page were, all but one, added; also two immediately following the Horace quotation, and the paragraph about the Tuscans and that about Plato. A line or two after, another Latin citation. Again a line or two, and the story of Diagoras and the saying of Cicero were inserted. Before “The demon of Socrates” pushed in the books of Joachim and Leon and the remarks that follow.

This sketch gives an idea of the sometimes unfortunate and often confusing changes the Essays underwent from the many additions at various times. They render them not simple growths, but complicated agglomerations.

AS to oracles, it is certain that a good while before the coming of Jesus Christ they had begun to be discredited; for we see Cicero trying to find out the cause of their failure. (c) And these are his words: Cur isto modo jam oracula Delphis non eduntur non modo nostra ætate sed jamdiu, ut modo nihil possit esse contemptius?[1] (a) But as for the other prognostics which were derived at sacrifices from the anatomy of animals, (c) to which Plato[2] ascribes in part the natural structure of their internal organs, (a) from the quick motions[3] of chickens, or the flight of birds, (c) aves quasdam rerum augurandarum causa natas esse putamus),[4] (a) from thunder and lightning, from the overflow of rivers; (c) multa cernunt aruspices, multa augures provident, multa oraculis declarantur, multa vaticinationibus, multa somniis, multa portentis;[5] (a) and other things upon which antiquity based most of its undertakings, both public and private — our religion has done away with them. And although there still remain among us certain methods of divination, by the stars, by spirits, by ghosts, by dreams, and otherwise, — a notable example of the senseless curiosity of our nature, occupying itself with future matters, as if it had not enough to do in digesting those at hand, —

(b) cur hanc tibi, rector Olympi,
Sollicitis visum mortalibus addere curam,
Noscant venturas ut dira per omina clades?

Sit subitum quodcunque paras, sit cæca futuri
Mens hominum fati; liceat sperare timenti,[6]

(c) Ne utile quidem est scire quid futurum sit; miserum est enim nihil proficientem angi,[7] (a) still, it[8] is of much less authority [than formerly]. This is why the instance of Francis, Marquis de Sallusse, has seemed to me worthy of note.[9] For while he was lieutenant of King Francis in his army on the other side of the mountains,[10] and was in highest favour at our court and indebted to the king for the marquisate, which had been confiscated from his brother, there being indeed no occasion for him to do this,[11] — his inclination even pointing the other way, — he allowed himself to be so terrified, so it has been asserted, by the fine prognostications that were then current on all sides to the advantage of the Emperor Charles the Fifth and to our disadvantage (even in Italy, where those absurd prophecies had gained so much credence that in Rome a large sum of money changed hands on account of the belief in our downfall) that, after frequently lamenting with his intimates the disasters which he saw to be inevitably in store for the crown of France and for his friends there, he rebelled and changed his allegiance — to his great harm, however, whatever constellation was in the sky. But he behaved like a man torn by conflicting passions; for, having both cities and troops under his command, and the hostile army, under Antonio de Leyva, being close at hand (and we unsuspicious of what he was about), he might have done much worse than he did; for by his treachery we lost neither man nor town, except Fossan, and that only after a long struggle.

Prudens futuri temporis exitum
Caliginosa nocte premit Deus
Ridetque, si mortalis ultra
Fas trepidat

Ille potens sui
Leetusque deget, cui licet in diem
Dixisse, vixi, cras vel atra
Nube polum pater occupato
Vel sole puro.[12]

Lætus in præsens animus quod ultra est,
Oderit curare.[13]

(c) And, on the other hand, they who believe the following statement, believe it mistakenly: Ista sic reciprocantur, ut et, si divinatio sit, dii sint; et, si dii sint, sit divinatio.[14] Much more wisely Pacuvius says:

Nam istis qui linguam avium intelligunt,
Plusque ex alieno jecore sapiunt quam ex suo,
Magis audiendum quam auscultandum censeo.[15]

The Tuscans’ celebrated art of divination originated thus: A ploughman, driving his plough deep, saw Tages rise out of the earth[16] — a demigod with the face of a child but an old man’s wisdom. Every one hastened to the place, and his words and his learning, embodying the principles and processes of this art, were collected and preserved for many centuries. An origin consonant with its growth. (b) I should much prefer to manage my affairs by the cast of the dice than by such dreams. (c) And, in truth, in all republics, a large share of authority has always been ascribed to the drawing of lots. Plato, in the laws of government which he makes as pleases him, entrusts to it the decision of numerous matters of importance,[17] and decrees, among other things, that marriages between the good shall be arranged by lot; and he attributes so much weight to this chance selection, that he decrees that children born from it shall be brought up within the country, and that those born from ill-assorted unions shall be sent away; but if one of those banished[18] should by any chance, as he grew up, manifest some hopeful indications of worth, let him be recalled; and also let any one of those originally retained be expelled who during his adolescence manifests little that is hopeful.

(b) I see some who study and annotate their almanacs, and hold them up to us as authority about things that are taking place. Saying so much, they must needs say what is truth and what falsehood. (c) Quis est enim, qui, totum diem jaculans, non aliquando collineet?[19] (b) I think no better of them because I see them sometimes make a lucky hit. There would be more certainty and truth if it were the rule always to lie.[20] (c) It may be added that no one keeps a record of their miscalculations,[21] as they are of common occurrence and endless; and every one ranks their true prognostics as remarkable, incredible, and prodigious. Witness the answer of Diagoras, to whom, when he was in Samothrace, some one pointed out in the temple many votive offerings and pictures of those who had been rescued from shipwreck, saying: “Look, you who believe that the gods are indifferent to human affairs — what say you to so many men saved by their mercy?” — “I say this,” he replied: “those who have been drowned, a far greater number, have not been painted.”[22] Cicero says that Xenophanes the Colophonian alone of all the philosophers who acknowledged the existence of the gods, tried to uproot every kind of divination.[23] It is in so much the less strange if we have seen sometimes, to their hurt, some of our princely personages dally with these vanities.

I should greatly like to have beheld with my own eyes those two marvels — the book of Joachim, the Calabrian abbot,[24] who predicted all the popes to come, their names and persons; and that of the Emperor Leo,[25] who predicted the emperors and patriarchs of Greece. This I have seen with my own eyes, that, in times of public confusion, men amazed by what happens to them fall back, as into other forms of superstition, into seeking in the heavens the causes and past threatenings of their ill-fortune; and they are so strangely lucky at it in my time that they have convinced me that, inasmuch as it is an occupation for keen and idle minds, those who are trained to this subtle art of knotting and unknotting these signs would be capable of finding in any writings whatever they sought therein. But what above all helps them in this game is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic language of the prophetical jargon, to which those who use it give no clear sense, so that posterity may ascribe to it any meaning it pleases.[26] (b) The Demon of Socrates was, perhaps, a certain impulse from the will, which moved him without awaiting the concurrence of his reason. In a mind so purified as his, and so prepared by the continuous practice of wisdom and virtue, it is probable that those impressions, although unexpected and formless, were always important and worthy of being followed. Every man feels within himself some likeness to such emotions, (c) of a quick, vehement, and haphazard judgement.[27] I can but give these some weight, who give so little weight to our sagacity; (b) and I have had some (c) equally weak in common sense and vehement in persuasion, — or in dissuasion, which were more usual in Socrates, — (b) by which I have allowed myself to be guided so profitably and fortunately, that they might be judged to contain something of divine inspiration.

  1. Why is it that oracles of such a sort not only are not uttered at Delphi in our time, but have not been given out for some time past, so that nothing could be more contemptible? — Cicero, De Divin., II, 57.
  2. In the Timæus.
  3. Trepignement.
  4. We hold that certain birds were purposely created to be used in the art of augury. — Cicero, De Nat. Deor., II, 64.
  5. Many things the soothsayers discern; many the augurs foresee; many are announced by oracles, many by prophecies, many by dreams, many by portents. — Ibid., II, 65.
  6. Why did it please thee, ruler of Olympus, to add another care to anxious mortals, that through boding omens they know the calamities that are to come? … Be it sudden, whatever thou dost prepare; let men’s minds be blind to the future; let the timid man still hope. — Lucan, II, 4-6, 14, 15.
  7. It is no advantage to know the future; for it is a wretched thing to suffer suspense all to no purpose. — Cicero, De Nat. Deor., III, 6.
  8. That is, divination.
  9. See du Bellay, VI; de Thou, I, 37.
  10. In Italy.
  11. That is, to rebel and change his allegiance. See below.
  12. A wise god conceals in thick darkness the outcome of the future, and laughs if some mortal is more alarmed than he should be. … He will be master of himself and happy, who can say each day, “I have lived; to-morrow let the father cover the heavens with a dark cloud or with pure sunshine.” — Horace, Odes, III, 29.29-32, 41-45.
  13. The mind happy in the present shuns all thought of the future. — Ibid., II, 16.25. The Essay ended here in the early editions.
  14. Thus the argument is converted: If there be an art of divination, there are gods; and if there be gods, there is an art of divination. — Cicero, De Divin., I, 6.
  15. As for those who understand the language of birds and learn more from the liver of a beast than from their own thought, they should be heard, I think, rather than heeded. — Ibid., I, 57.
  16. See Ibid., II, 23.
  17. See the Timæus, and the Republic, book V.
  18. See the Republic, book V. Plato does not say “banished,” but “secretly dispersed among the other citizens.”
  19. Who can shoot all day and not sometimes hit the mark? — Cicero, De Divin., II, 59.
  20. Ce seroit plus de certitude, s’il y avoit regle et verité a mentir tousjours.
  21. Those of the almanac students.
  22. See Cicero, De Nat. Deor., I, 37.
  23. De Divin., I, 3.
  24. a.d. 1130-1202.
  25. Leo VI, the Philosopher, a.d. 865-911. See Chalcondylas (tr. Vigenère), I, 8.
  26. On the intentional obscurity of the seers, see Cicero, De Divin., II, 54, 56.
  27. Opinion prompte, vehemente et fortuite.