Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



As we turn the pages of this volume of the Essays, more and more we slip into the mood of conversation. Montaigne is talking to us, and soon we are so interested that we find ourselves answering him, discussing with him, and perhaps not listening to him, because we are thinking of what he has said or what he may say.

The peculiar interest of these few pages is that Montaigne here treats not only in general of the subject in hand, but incidentally of his own nature in relation to it. The Essay opens with the remark that some men are always ready for eloquent speech while others need time and preparation. As it is chiefly preachers and lawyers who have need of eloquence, it seems to Montaigne that the slow-witted would make the best preachers, and the quick-witted the best lawyers; and he alleges reasons for this belief, and tells as comment on it a story of a famous lawyer of the day. In France, at least, there are more able lawyers than preachers, he thinks. But he who can say nothing without preparation, and he who speaks none the better for having plenty of time sont en pareil degré. Severus Cassius was said to speak best when suddenly called upon. Here our attention is caught by the words (printed in 1580): “I know by experience that inborn disposition which cannot sustain eager and laborious premeditation.”

He goes on to speak of works that “smell of the oil and the lamp,” and remarks that eagerness to do well hinders the outpouring of the soul, like water when pressing against too small an outlet. This is the effect of all strong passions; the soul must be “solicited,” not “shaken”; but it must be moved; “excitement is its life and is favourable to it.” He says gaily of himself that his talk is worth more than his writings, “if there can be a choice where there is nothing of value”; and the talk ends with a delightful laugh over his confession of those subtilités that he now and again loses so well, that he can never discover their meaning himself. It is self-evident that this last paragraph was one of the passages added in 1595.

Onc ne furent à tous toutes graces données.[1]

THUS we see that, in the gift of eloquence, some have facility and readiness, and, as they say, the tongue so well oiled,[2] that they are ready at every turn; others, less ready, never say any thing they have not thought out and elaborated. As rules are given to ladies for pursuing those games and bodily exercises which give advantage to their finest points, so, if I had to advise on similar lines in respect to these two different merits of eloquence, to which it would seem, in our time, that preachers and lawyers principally lay claim, the unready man would make the better preacher, it seems to me, and the other the better lawyer; for the reason that the profession of the former gives him as much leisure as he desires to prepare himself, and, moreover, his discourse[3] flows smoothly on, without interruption; whereas the exigencies of the advocate’s profession force him to enter the lists at any moment; and the unforeseen rejoinders of his opponent throw him out of his stride; so that he must needs take a new start on the instant. And yet, at the interview between Pope Clement and King Francis at Marseilles it happened, quite contrariwise, that Monsieur Poyet, a man who had passed his whole life at the bar and had a great reputation, having it in charge to make the harangue to the Pope, when he had long meditated upon it, — indeed, it was said that he had brought it from Paris all prepared, — the Pope, fearing lest something might be said to him which would offend the ambassadors of the other princes, who were in attendance upon him, sent to the king the argument which seemed to him most suited to the time and place. But it, by chance, was altogether different from that over which Monsieur Poyet had laboured; so that his harangue became useless, and it was necessary for him to compose another at once. But as he felt that he was incapable of doing this, Monsieur le Cardinal du Bellay had to undertake the duty.[4] (b) The lawer’s art is more difficult than the preacher’s, and yet we find, in my opinion, more passable lawyers than preachers, at least in France.

(a) It would seem that it is more a characteristic of the wit to be ready and quick in operation, and more a characteristic of the judgement to be slow and sedate. But he who remains altogether dumb if he has no leisure to prepare himself, and he to whom leisure is of no help to better speech, are equally singular. It is said of Severus Cassius that he discoursed better without preparation; that he owed more to good fortune than to diligence; that it was an advantage to him to be disturbed when speaking, and that his opponents were afraid to harass him, lest wrath should increase his eloquence twofold.[5] I know by experience that inborn disposition which cannot sustain eager and laborious premeditation; if it does not move joyously and freely, it does nothing that is worth while.[6] We say of some works that they smell of the oil and the lamp, because of a certain harshness and roughness which labour imparts to those in which it has a large share; but, in addition to that, the anxiety to do well, and the struggling of the mind too con- strained and too intent upon its undertaking, bewilder it, interrupt and impede it, (b) as happens to water, which, by force of pressure from its violence and abundance, cannot vent itself in an open sluice. (a) In this sort of nature of which I am speaking, there is also, at the same time, this peculiarity, that it demands not to be set in motion and spurred on by strong passions, like the anger of Cassius (for that impulsion would be too violent); it requires not to be shaken, but to be solicited; it requires to be kindled and aroused by outward circumstances, immediate and accidental. If it moves by itself, it does but drag along and hang fire. Excitement is its life and is favourable to it.

(b) I do not well hold myself in my own possession and at my own disposition; chance has more to say therein than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draws from my mind more than I find there when I sound it and use it when alone. Thus my spoken words are worth more than my written ones, if there can be a choice where there is nothing of value. (c) This also happens to me, that I do not find myself where I seek for myself, and I find myself more by chance than by my judgement’s investigation. I may have thrown off some subtle conceit in writing (I mean one that is pointless to others, but in my eyes well-sharpened; let us be permitted such sincerities; every one says such things according as he can); I have lost it so completely that I do not know what I meant to say; and sometimes an outsider has discovered the meaning before I have. If I should erase every thing where this happens to me, I should destroy all. Chance, at another time, will throw a light on it for me clearer than that of noon-day, and will make me wonder at my hesitation.

  1. Never were all graces given to any man. — La Boëtie.
  2. Le boute-hors si aisé.
  3. Carrière.
  4. See du Bellay, IV.
  5. See Seneca (the Rhetorician), Controversiæ, III, Pref.
  6. In the editions previous to 1588 this sentence read thus: Je cognois bien privement et par ordinaire experience, ceste condition de nature qui ne peut soustenir une vehemente premeditation, tant pour le defaut de la memoire et difficulté du chois des choses et de leur disposition, que pour le trouble qu’une attention vehemente luy apporte d’ailleurs.