Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 9

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



That Montaigne should enter on the subject of liars by a discourse on his own memory is humorously characteristic, and it is not so strange an opening as it may seem. It has been known from ancient days that a good memory is necessary if one would successfully tell lies, and Montaigne feels that it somewhat consoles him for lack of memory, to be thus hindered by Nature from lying. “In truth, lying is an accursed vice.” He declares his own memory to be singularly bad, so extraordinarily bad that he says, jestingly, it might really be a cause for renown.[1] This statement has been much commented on, and has been accused of being a falsehood and an affectation. There is no ground for such accusation; the Essays give no proof of either an accurate memory or a long one. Montaigne’s mind was too full of thoughts to make and retain records.

In this connection he notes a curious fact, that those of the country about him “do not perceive any difference between memory and understanding,” which his friend Charron in some sort, later confirmed, saying, “The common people, whose judgement is never sound, more greatly admire [fait plus de feste de] memory than imagination or understanding.”

Montaigne continues by remarking regretfully that the same words that describe a lack of memory imply ingratitude; and that it is said of him himself, — “qui ne scait rien si bien faire qu’estre amy," — “he has forgotten his promise … he has forgotten to do or say this or that … for me. Certainly,” he declares, “I can easily forget, but to be indifferent about the service my friend has asked of me, that I am not.”

He consoles himself for this deficiency by two results of it: the one, that he cannot tell long stories — so often too long! and the other, that he quickly forgets offences, and that places and books seen and read for a second time “always charm me with the freshness of novelty.”

This paragraph so stood in 1588; in 1595 his prime consolation was that this misère preserved him from ambition, and strengthened in him other more intellectual faculties.

He then starts off on considerations of the relations between memory and lying, and the dangers that ensue if the memory n’est bien assurée. In the earliest form of the Essay he went on immediately with the two stories the first of which is evidently the occasion of it. In 1588 he inserted the paragraph beginning: “Whereof I have often seen amusing proof,” and ending, “if there be the reputation there cannot be the effect”; and in 1595 the paragraph beginning “In truth,” and ending with “silence.”

These two added pages, interesting in themselves, are somewhat incoherent and confusing where they stand and do not well preface the stories.

In the passage regarding the education of children (chapter 26 of this Book) we have the first expression — there are many later ones — of Montaigne’s thoughtful study of education; a study of its principles which caused his precepts to rank among those that no change of beliefs or fashions can impair.

THERE is no man whom it becomes so ill to undertake to speak about memory as myself. For I recognize scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe that there can be another man in the world so horribly deficient in this respect. All my other faculties are mean and ordinary; but regarding this one, I think I am exceptional and most unusual, and worthy to win name and fame thereby. I could tell some wonderful stories about this, but for the present it is more worth while to pursue my subject.[2]

(b) In addition to the natural troublesome consequences that I suffer because of this,— (c) for surely, considering its indispensableness, Plato is justified in calling memory a great and powerful goddess,[3] — (b) if, in my part of the world they mean that a man is lacking in intelligence, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the failure of mine, they correct me and disbelieve me, as if I accused myself of being unintelligent; they see no distinction between memory and understanding. This makes my case much worse. But they wrong me, for, quite to the contrary, experience shows that excellent memories are frequently found in conjunction with feeble powers of judgement. They wrong me also in this, that the same words which indicate my malady[4] stand for ingratitude — for I can do nothing else so well as be a friend. They lay the blame on my heart instead of on my memory, and of an involuntary defect they make a wilful one. “He forgets,” they say, “this request or that promise; he does n’t remember his friends; he did not remember to do this, or to say that, or to hold his tongue about the other, for my sake.” Certainly, I can easily forget; but to be indifferent about the service my friend has asked of me, that I am not. Let them be content with my misfortune, without distorting it into a sort of ill-will, and of a kind so foreign to my disposition. I thus somewhat console myself: in the first place (c) because it is an evil from which I have mainly derived the argument for ridding myself of a worse evil that would easily have taken root in me — namely, ambition; for it[5] is an infirmity unendurable: for him who involves himself in public affairs; also, as many like examples of nature’s action show us, it has fairly strengthened other faculties in me in proportion to its own weakness; and I might otherwise readily let my intelligence follow indolently in another’s footsteps, as all the world does, without exerting its own power, if foreign ideas and opinions had presented themselves to me through the medium of the memory; also, (b) my speech is consequently the briefer, for the storehouse of memory is easily better supplied with matter than is that of invention. (c) If my memory had held good, I should have deafened all my friends with my chatter, as subjects that arouse the faculty, such as it is, that I have, of handling and making use of them, and warm me up and excite me in conversation. (b) This is lamentable. I have tested it by the case of some of my personal friends: as memory presents the thing to their minds completely and [as it were] before their eyes, they carry their tale so far back, and load it down with so many idle details, that, if the story be a good one, they stifle its goodness; if it be not so, you curse their good fortune in their memory or their ill-fortune in their judgement. (c) It is a difficult thing to stop in talk, and cut it short when one has got started; and there is nothing in which a horse’s strength is more manifest than in making a clean, quick stop. Even with pertinent talkers, I find some who would, but can not, stay their course: while they are seeking the effective way to conclude, they go trifling along and dragging the matter out, like men staggering from weakness. Above all, old men are in danger, who retain remembrance of past things and have lost remembrance of their twice-told stories. I have known some really amusing tales to become very tiresome in the mouth of a man of the world, every one present having heard them poured out a hundred times.

(b) In the second place [I am consoled[6]] because I remember less the affronts I have received, as said an ancient writer.[7] (c) I should have to keep a register of them; as Darius, in order not to forget the affront he had received from the Athenians, arranged that a page, every time he sat down to table, should come and repeat thrice in his ear: “Sire, remember the Athenians”;[8] also, [I am consoled] (b) because the places and books that I see for a second time always charm me with the freshness of novelty.

(a) Not without reason is it said that he who does not know himself to be of sane memory should not meddle with lying. I am well aware that the grammarians[9] make a distinction between saying what is false and lying;[10] and they state that to say what is false is to say something which is untrue, but which one believes to be true, and that the definition in Latin of the word mentiri, from which our French word is derived, is equivalent to going against one’s knowledge, and that, consequently, the word applies only to those who speak contrary to what they know; and it is to these that I refer. Now, they either invent the whole thing, or disguise and alter an actual fact. When they disguise and alter it, if they often recur to this same tale, they are likely to be embarrassed; because, the thing as it really is having been the first to become fixed in the memory, and having stamped itself there by force of outward and inward knowledge, it is very difficult not to let it present itself to the imagination, supplanting the false version, which cannot have so firm and assured a footing there; and the circumstances that one first learned about the thing, always slipping back into the mind, drive out recollection of the false, or modified, added details. When they invent altogether, inasmuch as there is no contrary impression to oppose their falsification, they seem to have so much the less reason to be afraid of making a mistake. Yet, even then, because it is a vague, bodiless thing, not easily held, it readily escapes the memory, unless it be very reliable. (b) Whereof I have often seen amusing proof, at the expense of those who make it their business so to frame their speech as will best serve in their negotiations, and will be agreeable to those in high station with whom they are talking; for as these circumstances to which they choose to subordinate their faith and conscience are subject to frequent changes, their language must needs be changed likewise; from which it comes about that they call the same thing now grey and now yellow; say this to one man and that to another; and if, by chance, these men bring together as common booty their so inconsistent pieces of information, what becomes of that noble art? Besides, they too often imprudently embarrass themselves; for what memory could suffice to keep in mind the multitude of different forms they have given to a single subject? I have known many of my contemporaries to envy the reputation for this noble kind of prudence, who do not see that, if there be the reputation, there cannot be the effect.

(c) In truth, lying is an accursed vice.[11] We are men only by speech, and are only thereby bound to one another. If we understood the horribleness and the weight of it, we should drag it to the stake more justly than other crimes. I find that people ordinarily busy themselves most ill-advisedly with punishing children for harmless mistakes, and worry them about heedless acts which leave no trace or consequence. Lying alone, and in a less degree obstinacy, seem to me to be the faults whose birth and progress we should most insistently combat; they increase with the child’s growth, and when the tongue has been given this false direction, it is wonderful how impossible it is to turn it. Whence it comes about that we see those who are otherwise excellent men subject to this fault and enslaved by it. I have a nice fellow of a tailor whom I never hear tell the truth, not even when it would be useful to him. If falsehood, like truth, had but one face, we should be better off, for we should take for certain the contrary of what the liar said. But the opposite of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field. The Pythagoreans regard good as certain and definite, evil as indefinite and uncertain. A thousand roads lead away from the goal, one leads to it. Certainly I am not sure that I could induce myself to ward off an obvious and extreme danger by a brazen and deliberate lie.

An ancient father says that we are better off in the company of a dog we know than in that of a man whose language is unknown.[12] Ut externus alieno non sit hominis vice.[13] And how much less companionable is untruthful speech than silence! (a) King Francis the First boasted of having completely bewildered[14] by means of this sort of performance, Francisco Taverna, ambassador of Francisco Sforza, Duke of Milan — a man of great reputation in the art of speech-making. He had been despatched to carry his master’s excuses to His Majesty in regard to a very important matter, which was this. The king, in order to have always some sources of information in Italy, whence he had recently been driven, especially in the Duchy of Milan, had arranged to keep at the duke’s court a gentleman of his own, an ambassador in fact, but in appearance a private individual, who had the air of being there for his own affairs; all the more because the duke, who was much more bound to the emperor, — just then especially, when he was negotiating a marriage with his niece, the daughter of the King of Denmark, now Duchess Dowager of Lorraine, — could not openly have any relations or communication with us without prejudice to himself. For this office a Milanese gentleman was thought fit — one of the king’s equerries, named Merveille. He, being despatched with secret credentials and instructions as ambassador, and with letters of recommendation to the duke bearing upon his private concerns, — as a cloak and for show, — remained so long at the ducal court that the emperor somewhat resented it, which, we believe, was the cause of what happened afterward, which was this: that, on the pretext of some murder or other, lo and behold, the duke had Merveille’s head cut off one fine night, his trial having been carried through in two days. Messire Francisco,[15] having come all primed with a long, distorted version of this affair (for the king, demanding satisfaction, had addressed himself to all the princes of Christendom, and especially to the duke), was received in audience one morning; and having prepared and laid down as the basis of his plea several plausible versions of the facts: that his master had never regarded our man as anything more than a private individual and a subject of his own, who had come to Milan for his private affairs and had never lived there in any other character; [the duke] denying even that he had been aware that he was of the king’s household, or known to him — very far, indeed, from taking him to be an ambassador; the king, in his turn, pressing him[15] hard with objections and questions, and attacking him on all sides, cornered him at last on the point of the execution by night and in secret. To which the poor embarrassed man replied, to show courtesy, that out of respect for His Majesty, the duke would have been very sorry to have such an execution take place by day.[16] It can be imagined how he was brought to book, having so stupidly contradicted himself, and in presence of so keen a scent as King Francis had.

Pope Julius the Second having sent an ambassador to the King of England, to incite him against King Francis, when the ambassador had been heard concerning his mission, and the King of England in his reply had dwelt on the difficulties he should encounter in making the necessary preparations to go to war against so powerful a monarch, and had alleged certain reasons [for these conditions], the ambassador ill-advisedly rejoined that he too had considered them and had stated them to the Pope. From this remark, so far removed from the original proposal, which was to urge him forthwith into war, the King of England derived the first hint of what he afterwards found to be the fact — that this ambassador was privily inclined to the side of France; and having advised his master of that fact, his property was confiscated and he was very near losing his life.[17]

  1. In the first edition we read: “I could tell some marvellous stories about this, but for the present it is more worth while to pursue my subject.” This sentence was afterward dropped.
  2. See the note on p. 40.
  3. See Plato, Critias, near the beginning.
  4. That is, lack of memory.
  5. Lack of memory.
  6. Referring back to “I thus somewhat console myself: in the first place” (page 42).
  7. See Cicero, Oratio pro Ligurio, XII: Odlivisci nihil soles, nisi injurias.
  8. See Herodotus, V, 105.
  9. See Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, IV, 2; Nigidius, in Aulus Gellius, XI, 11, and in Nonius, V, 80.
  10. Entre dire mensonge et mentir.
  11. Cf. infra, Book II, chap. 18 (“Of Lying”): C'est un vilain vice que le mentir.
  12. See St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XIX, 7.
  13. So that those of different nations do not regard each other as men. — Pliny, Natural History, VII, 1.
  14. D’avoir mis au rouet.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Taverna.
  16. See du Bellay, IV (an. 1533).
  17. Probably taken by Montaigne from the Apologie pour Hérodate (XV, 24) of H. Estienne, who translated it from Erasmus, De Lingua.