Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 22

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



The extravagant statements here made by Montaigne show that he had not accepted that “general truth” of the Stoics that “whatever is profitable to any man is profitable also to other men” (as Marcus Aurelius phrases it) — a doctrine that in its largest sense is accepted by us today. And the sayings of this dreary page would seem to come more naturally from the cold heart of a La Rochefoucauld, or the unreasonable brain of a Rousseau, than from the genial, friendly, liberal soul of Montaigne. They do in fact come from the philosophic Seneca. This unimportant little chapter is only a reproduction of a passage in the De Beneficiis. It may be noted that the sentence about “the ministers of religion” is Montaigne’s own.

If we accept as true the statement of the last sentence that the birth of any thing causes the death of that from which it springs, it may be observed that it is precisely as true a way of stating the fact — and it sounds more cheerful! — to say that death creates life.

The quotation from Lucretius at the close is fantastically irrelevant, especially when traced to its original connection — a passage (about the colour of bodies of matter) too abstruse and abstract to give any account of here. Munro translates these lines: “For whenever a thing changes and quits its proper limits, at once this change of state is the death of that which was before.”

DEMADES the Athenian condemned a man of his city, whose trade was selling the things necessary for burials, on the ground that he demanded too large a profit, and that this profit could not accrue to him without the death of many people.[1] This judgement seems to be ill-advised, because no profit is made save at a loss to some one else, and by such reckoning we should have to condemn every sort of gain. The merchant succeeds in his business only by the unthriftiness of the youth; the farmer, by the high price of grains; the architect, by the falling to pieces of houses; the officers of the law, by men’s litigation and quarrels; the very honour and functions of the ministers of religion are derived from our deaths and from our vices. No physician takes pleasure in the good health even of his friends, said the old Greek comedy-writer,[2] nor any soldier in the peace of his city; and so with the rest. And, what is worse, let any man search his own heart, and he will find that our inmost desires are for the most part born and fed at another’s expense. Considering which, the fancy came to me that Nature does not herein belie her general policy; for physicists hold that the birth, nourishment, and increase of every thing is the change and decay of something else.

Nam quodcunque suis mutatum finibus exit,
Continuo hoc mors est illius, quod fuit ante.[3]

  1. See Seneca, De Beneficiis, VI, 38.
  2. See Stobæus, Sermon 100.
  3. For if a substance changed passes beyond its confines, at that moment occurs the death of that which it was before. — Lucretius, II, 753; III, 519. Both verses appear in both places.