Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 8

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



In an Essay written some seven years later (“Of the affection of fathers for their children,” Book II, chapter 8), Montaigne thus refers to his state of mind at this time: “It was a melancholy mood, and consequently one much opposed to my natural disposition, brought about by weariness of the solitude in which a few years ago I buried myself, which first put into my head this idle thought of writing.”

It is not physical but mental idleness that Montaigne has in mind, and he declares that, if the mind is not occupied with a definite subject, which guides it and restrains it, it wanders hither and thither in the vague field of dreams. It is of his own experience he is thinking. He here tells us that he had lately withdrawn from public affairs, and had sought solitude, thinking thus to benefit his mind by allowing it to follow its own course. But no, he found that now, aimlessly wandering, it created such chimerical and fantastic imaginations, disorderly and meaningless, that he had begun to write them down, so that he might in time shame his own intelligence.

I cannot believe that these “chimères et monstres fantasques” which he thought well to “mettre en rolle” are to be found in any of the Essays. His contemplation of them would seem to have led him to their exact opposite, the simple statement of facts and comment upon them, which marks the character of his first “manner.” The Essays show no trace of ineptie and étangeté. They are not the records that he says he made of these qualities.

AS we find fields that lie fallow, if they are rich and fertile, continue to abound in a hundred thousand kinds of wild and useless plants, and that, to keep them serviceable, we must bring them under subjection, and make them produce certain crops for our profit; and as we see that women, quite by themselves, produce shapeless masses and lumps of flesh, but that, to assure a sound and natural birth, we must fertilize them with other seed,[1] so it is with our minds: if we do not keep them occupied with a distinct subject, which curbs and restrains them, they run aimlessly to and fro, in the undefined field of imagination, —

(b) Sicut aquæ tremulum labris ubi lumen ahenis
Sole repercussum, aut radiantis imagine Lunæ,
Omnia percolitat late loca, jamque sub auras
Erigitur, summique ferit laquearia tecti.[2]

(a) And there is no folly or fantasy to which they do not give birth in this agitation.

        Velut ægri somnia, vanæ
Finguntur species.[3]

The mind that has no fixed goal loses itself; for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.

(b) Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat.[4]

(a) When, not long ago, I withdrew into my own house, determined, so far as it was in my power, to take no thought of any thing except to pass in peace and by myself the little of life that remains for me, it seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater service than to leave it in complete and idle liberty to commune with itself and to give itself pause and steady itself; which I hoped that it could do thenceforth the more easily, having become with time far more solid and more mature; but I find, —

variam semper dant otia mentem,[5]

that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it is a hundred times more active for itself than it ever was for another, and presents me with so many chimeras and fanciful monsters, one after another, irregular and unmeaning, that, in order to consider at leisure their absurdity and strangeness, I have begun to put them on paper, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

  1. See Plutarch, Marriage Precepts.
  2. Like a dancing light from water within brazen vats, reflected from the sun or from the form of the radiant moon, that flits afar in every direction, and now rises in air and strikes the lofty fretted ceilings. — Virgil, Æneid, VIII, 22.
  3. Unreal monsters are imagined, like a sick man’s dreams. — Horace, Ars Poetica, 7.
  4. He who dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere. — Martial, VII, 73.
  5. Leisure ever breeds an inconstant mind. — Lucan, IV, 704.