Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 2

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



Of this Essay the first sentence and the last are the most interesting. The first: “I am one of those least subject to this emotion”; and the last: “I am little subject to such violent emotions. My sensitiveness is naturally not keen, and I harden and deaden it every day intentionally.” It is to be observed that these sentences were not in the Essay as first published in 1580; they were added eight years later, like those of the same character we have noted in the first Essay. It was during the intervening years that Montaigne had discovered a purpose for his writing, an aim for his thoughts, in the description, the delineation of himself as an aid in the study of man — the most important study man can pursue. The sentences above quoted are among the first lines of his self-portraiture.

The Essay opens with narratives exhibiting the effects of successive sorrows on some souls; those that receive the first blow with rigid calmness and are overwhelmed by a later lighter one. The old account of the painting of the sacrifice of Iphigenia and the turning Niobe to stone are introduced as symbolising that extremity of grief that cannot be represented. It is Dryden’s thought (in the “Threnodia Augustalis”):—

Sure there’s a lethargy in mighty woe;
Tears stand congealed and cannot flow.
And the sad soul retires into her inmost room,
Tears for a stroke foreseen afford relief.
But unprovided for a sudden blow,
Like Niobe we marble grow
And petrify with grief.

The tearless and fatal grief of a “seigneur allemand” is depicted (an addition in 1595); and then the essayist passes, through the violent emotions of love, to those caused by pleasure; unlooked-for delight may kill, and of this he gives a list of examples. An extreme emotion of shame, of mortification, may be deadly, as proved by Diodorus the Dialectician. And with this the Essay cut itself short in 1580. In 1588 another sentence was added, which, as I have said, echoed the first sentence of the Essay and connects itself with the expression in the “Apologie” (Book II, chapter 12) when, speaking of the evil of excessive sensibility, he says: Il nous faut abestir pour nous assagir.

I AM one of those least subject to this emotion,[1] (c) and I neither like nor respect it, although the world has undertaken, as if by agreement, to favour it with special honour. They clothe with it wisdom and virtue and knowledge: an absurd and deforming garment. The Italians have more aptly baptised malignity with its name;[2] for it is a quality always harmful, always foolish; and as being always cowardly and vile, the Stoics forbid the feeling to their ideal wise man.[3] But (a) the story says that Psammenitus, King of Egypt, having been defeated and captured by Cambyses, King of Persia, seeing his daughter pass by, a prisoner, dressed as a servant sent to draw water, all his friends around him weeping and lamenting, stood motionless and silent, his eyes fixed on the ground; and soon after, seeing his son led to death, he maintained the same demeanour. But, having perceived one of his household among the captives, he beat his head and gave way to extreme lamentation.[4] This might be coupled with what we recently saw to be the case with one of our princes,[5] who, having heard at Trent, where he was, of the death of his eldest brother, — a brother upon whom, indeed, rested the support and honour of his family, — and very soon afterward of the death of a younger brother, its next hope; and having sustained these two assaults with exemplary firmness, when, some days later, one of his servants died, he allowed himself to be overcome by this last event, and, losing all his self-control, abandoned himself to mourning and regret, in such a way that it was argued by some that he had been touched to the quick only by the last blow; but the truth was that, being already full and over-full of sorrow, the slightest addition broke down the barriers of his endurance. The like might be thought, let me say, of our other tale, were it not that it adds that, when Cambyses asked Psammenitus why it was that, not being moved by the unhappy fate of his son and his daughter, he bore with so little patience that of his friend, “Because,” he replied, “only that last grief could be shewn by tears; the first two far surpassed all means of expression.” Perhaps, in this connection, we might recall the conceit of that ancient painter,[6] who, having to represent the mourning of those present at the sacrifice of Iphigenia according to the degree of each person’s interest in the death of that innocent fair maid, having exhausted the last resources of his art, when it came to the maiden’s father, he painted him with his face covered, as if no visage could evince that degree of grief. This is why poets describe that wretched mother Niobe, when she had lost, first, seven sons, and straightway as many daughters, over-burdened with her losses, as having at last been transformed to stone, —

Diriguisse malis,[7]

to express that sombre, dumb, and deaf torpor that paralyses us when events surpassing our capability overwhelm us. In truth, the effect of an affliction, if it be extreme, must wholly stun the mind and deprive it of freedom of action; as, on the startling alarm of some very ill news, it happens to us to feel dazed and deadened, and, as it were, completely paralysed, in such wise that the mind, upon giving way later to tears and lamentations, seems to relax and disperse itself, and take a wider sweep, more at its ease.

(b) Et via vix tandem voci laxata dolore est.[8]

(c) In the war that King Ferdinand waged against the widow of King John of Hungary, near Buda, Raïsciac, a German lord, remarking the salvage of the body of a horse-trooper whom every one had noticed as having borne himself with exceeding gallantry, joined in the universal commiseration; but, sharing the general interest in seeing who he might be, after his armour was removed, he found that he was his own son. Amid the universal lamentation, he alone stood erect, without uttering a word or shedding a tear, his eyes fixed, gazing steadfastly upon him, until the violence of his grief congealed his vital powers, and felled him, stone dead, to the ground.[9]

(a) Chi può dir com’ egli arde è in picciol fuoco,[10]

say the lovers who would describe an unendurable passion.

Misero quod omnes
Eripit sensus mihi. Nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
Quod loquar amens.

Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
Flamma dimanat, sonitu suopte
Tinniunt aures, gemina teguntur
Lumina nocte.[11]

((b) It is not in the most poignant and penetrating heat of the attack that we are in a fitting state to set forth our lamentations and our persuasions: the mind is then overloaded by intense thought and the body prostrated and languishing with love. (a) Et de la s’engendre parfois la defaillance fortuite, qui surprent les amoureux si hors de saison, et ceste glace qui les saisit, par la force d’une ardeur extreme, au giron mesme de la joüyssance. All passions which suffer themselves to be understood and marshalled in order[12] are but lukewarm.

Curæ leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent.[13]

(b) The surprise of an unhoped-for joy stuns us equally.

Ut me conspexit venientem, et Troia circum
Arma amens vidit, magnis exterrita monstris,
Diriguit visu in medio; calor ossa reliquit;
Labitur, et longo vix tandem tempore fatur.[14]

(a) Besides the Roman woman who died of glad surprise on seeing her son return from the rout of Cannæ, Sophocles and Dionysius the Tyrant who died of joy, and Talva, who died in Corsica on reading the news of the honours which the Roman Senate had bestowed upon him,[15] we learn in our own day that Pope Leo X, having been informed of the taking of Milan, which he had most ardently desired, felt such transports of joy that he was attacked by a fever and died of it.[16] And for a more noteworthy testimony of human weakness, it has been observed that Diodorus the Dialectician died suddenly, seized by an overwhelming sense of shame, when, in his school and in public, he could not explain a proposition put before him.

(b) I am little subject to such violent emotions. My sensitiveness[17] is naturally not keen, and I harden and deaden it every day intentionally.[18]

  1. This line first appeared in 1588.
  2. Tristezza. This word is open to various shades of meaning: sadness, sorrow, melancholy — even a gloomy, melancholy moroseness.
  3. See especially St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XIV, 8.
  4. See Herodotus, III, 14.
  5. Un prince des nostres. Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine. This expression is to be distinguished from un de nos princes, which is used for members of French families, the houses of France and of Bourbon; the former is used for the house of Lorraine, which was foreign by origin. The cardinal was at the Council of Trent in 1563, at the time of the assassination of his brother François de Guise, and of the death also, after the battle of Dreux, of a younger brother, the Grand Prior.
  6. Timanthes, 4th century b.c. See Cicero, Orator, XXII; Pliny, Natural History, XXXV, 10; Valerius Maximus, VIII, 2, ext. 6; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, II, 13.
  7. As having been petrified by calamity.—Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, 304. Montaigne adapted the original form of the verb (diriguitque) to his context.
  8. And at last, with difficulty, a passage for words is opened by grief. —Virgil, Æneid, XI, 151.
  9. About 1556. See Paulus Jovius, Historiæ sui Temporis, XXXIX. In 1595, the phraseology of these last sentences was changed somewhat, without changing the sense.
  10. He who can say how he burns is in no hot fire. — Petrarch, Sonnet 137.
  11. Wretched man that I am, this [delight] deprives me of all my senses; as soon as I look upon thee, Lesbia, I can, in my delirium, utter nothing; my tongue is benumbed; a subtle flame spreads through my veins, my ears ring, darkness covers my eyes. — Catullus, LI, 5.
  12. Qui se laissent gouster et digerer.
  13. Light griefs can speak; great ones are dumb. — Seneca, Hippolytus, Act II, sc. 3, v. 607.
  14. When she beheld me approaching, and saw me surrounded by Trojan arms, she was terror-struck; aghast at the wonder, she fainted at the sight; warmth abandoned her limbs, and she fell; then, after a long time, she spoke with difficulty. — Virgil, Æneid, III, 306.
  15. These and similar examples of death caused by joy are found collected in many works in Latin of different periods. Montaigne did not take them from their original sources. The “Roman woman” and Dionysius and Diodorus (below) came from Pliny’s Natural History, VII, 54; Sophocles and Talva from Valerius Maximus, IX, 12, ext. 5.
  16. See Guicciardini, Storia d'Italia, XIV.
  17. Apprehension. Montaigne uses this word frequently in the sense of “the action of feeling anything emotionally” — an obsolete sense of the similar English word.
  18. Je l’encrouste et espessis … par discours.