Montaigne's Essays/Book I/Chapter XXVI

Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio
The Six and Twentieth Chapter: It is follie to referre Truth or Falsehood to our sufficiencie

It is not peradventure without reason, that we ascribe the facilitie of beleeving and easines of perswasion us to simplicitie and ignorance: For me seemeth to have learnt heretofore, that beliefe was, as it were an impression conceived in our minde, and according as the same was found either more soft, or of lesse resistance, it was easier to imprint anything therein. Ut necesse est lancem in libra ponderibus impositis deprimi: sic animum perspicuis cedereAcad. Qu. iv.). 'As it is necessarie a scale must go down the ballance when weights are put into it, so must a minde yeeld to things that are manifest.' (Cic. Forasmuch, therefore, as the minde being most emptie and without counterpoize, so much the more easily doth it yeeld under the burden of the first perswasion. And that's the reason why children, those of the common sort, women, and sickefolks, are so subject to be mis-led, and so easie to swallow gudgeons. On the other side it is a sottish presumption to disdaine and condemne that for false, which unto us seemeth to beare no show of likelihood or truth which is an ordinarie fault in those who perswade themselves to be of more sufficiency than the vulgar sort. So was I sometimes wont to doe, and if I heard any body speake, either of ghosts walking, of foretelling future things, of enchantments, of witchcrafts, or any other thing reported, which I could not well conceive, or that was beyond my reach.

   Somnia, terrores magicos, miracula, sagas,
   Nocturnos lemures, portentaque Thessali -- Hor. ii. Ep. ii. 208.
   Dreames, magic terrors, witches, uncouth-wonders.
   Night-walking sprites, Thessalian conjur'd-thunders.
 I could not but feele a kinde of compassion to see the poore and seely people abused with such follies. And now I perceive that I was as much to be moaned myselfe: Not that experience hath since made me to discerne any thing beyond my former opinions: yet was not my curiositie the cause of it, but reason hath taught me, that so resolutely to condemne a thing for false and impossible, is to assume unto himselfe the advantage, to have the bounds and limits of Gods will, and of the power of our common mother Nature tied to his sleeve: And that there is no greater folly in the world than to reduce them to the measure of our capacitie and bounds of our sufficiencie. If we terme those things monsters or miracles to which our reason cannot attaine, how many such doe daily present themselves unto our sight? Let us consider through what clouds, and how blinde-fold we are led to the knowledge of most things that pass our hands: verily we shall finde, it is rather custome than science that removeth the strangenesse of them from us:
   ----- jam nemo fessus saturusque videndi,
   Suspicere in coeli dignatur lucida templa.-- Lucr. ii.
   Now no man tir'd with glut of contemplation,
   Deignes to have heav'ns bright Church in admiration.
 And that those things, were they newly presented unto us, wee should doubtlesse deeme them as much or more unlikely and incredible than any other.

si nunc primum mortalibus adsint

Ex improviso, ceu sint objecta repente, Nil magis his rebus paterat mirabile dici, Aut minus ante quod auderent fore credere gentes. -- 1042.

If now first on a sudden they were here Mongst mortall men, object to eie or eare, Nothing than these things would more wondrous bee, Or that, men durst lesse thinke, ever to see.

 He who had never seene a river before, the first he saw be thought it to be the Ocean: and things that are the greatest in our knowledge, we judge them to be the extremest that nature worketh in that kinde.
   Scilicet et fluvius qui non est maximum, ei est
   Qui non ante aliquem majorem vidit, ei ingens
   Arbor homoque videtur, et omnia de qenere omni
   Maxima quæ vi dit quisque, hæc ingentia fingit. -- vi. 671.
   A streame none of the greatest, may so seeme
   To him, that never saw a greater streame.
   Trees, men, seeme huge, and all things of all sorts,
   The greatest one hath seene, he huge reports.
 Consuetudine oculorum assuescunt animi neque admirantur, neque requirunt rationes earum rerum, quas semper vident (Cic. Nat. De. ii.). 'Mindes are acquainted by custome of their eies, nor do they admire or enquire the reason of those things which they continually behold.' The novelty of things doth more incite us to search out the causes, than their greatnesse: we must judge of this infinite power of nature, with more reverence, and with more acknowledgement of our owne ignorance and weaknesse. How many things of small likelihood are there, witnessed by men, worthie of credit, whereof if we cannot be perswaded, we should at least leave them in suspence? For to deeme them impossible, is by rash presumption to presume and know how farre possibilitie reacheth. If a man did well understand, what difference there is betweene impossibilitie, and that which is unwonted, and betweene that which is against the course of nature and the common opinion of men, in not beleeving rashly, and in not dis-beleeving easily; the rule of Nothing too-much, commanded by Chilon, should be observed. When we finde in Froisard, that the Earle of Foix (being in Bearne) had knowledge of the defeature at Inberoth of King John of Castile, the morrow next it hapned, and the meanes he alleageth for it, a man may well laugh at it: And of that which our Annales report, that Pope Honorius, the very same day that King Philip AugustusMantes, caused his publike funerals to be solemnized, and commanded them to be celebrated throughout all Italie. For, the authoritie of the witnesses hath peradventure no sufficient warrant to restraine us. But what if Plutarke, besides divers examples which he alleageth of antiquitie, saith to have certainly knowne, that in Domitians time the newes of the battle lost by Antonius in Germany many daies journeies thence, was published in Rome, and divulged through the world the very same day it succeeded: And if Cæsar holds that it hath many time happened, that report hath foregone the accident: Shall we not say that those simple people have suffered themselves to be cousened and seduced by the vulgar sort, because they were not as clear-sighted as he? Is there any thing more daintie, more unspotted, and more lively than Plinies judgement, whensoever it pleaseth him to make shew of it? Is there any farther from vanitie? I omit the excellencie of his learning and knowledge, whereof I make but small reckoning: in which of those two parts doe we exceed him? Yet there is no scholler so meanely learned but will convince him of lying, and read a lecture of contradiction against him upon the progresse of natures works. And when wee read in Bouchet the myracles wrought by the reliques of Saint Hillarie, his credit is not sufficient to barre us the libertie of contradicting him: yet at random to condemne all such like histories, seemeth to me a notable impudencie. That famous man, Saint Augustine, witnesseth to have seene a blinde child to recover his sight, over the reliques of Saint Gervase and Protaise, at Milane: and a woman at Carthage to have become cured of a canker by the sign of the holy Crosse, which a woman newly baptized made unto her: and Hesperius a familiar friend of his, to have expelled certain spirits that molested his house, with a little of the earth of our Saviours sepulcher; which earth being afterwards transported into a Church, a Paralitike man was immediately therewith cured: and a woman going in procession, having as she past by with a nose-gaie toucht the case wherein Saint Stevens bones were, and with the same afterward rubbed her eies, she r ecovered her sight, which long before she had utterly lost: and divers other examples, where he affirmeth to have beene an assistant himselfe. What shal we accuse him of, and two other holy Bishops, Aurelius and Maximmus, whom he calleth for his witnesses? Shal it be of ignorance, of simplicity, of malice, of facility, or of imposture? Is any man living so impudent, that thinks he may be compared to them, whether it be in vertue or piety, in knowledge or judgement, in wisdome or sufficiency? Qui ut rationem nulllam afferent, ipsa auctoritate me frangerent (Cic. Div. i.). 'Who though they alleaged no reason, yet might subdue me with their very authoritie.' It is a dangerous fond hardinesse, and of consequence, besides the absurd temerity it drawes with it, to despise what we conceive not. For, after that according to your best understanding, you have established the limits of truth and bounds of falsehood, and that it is found you must necessarily beleeve things wherein is more strangenesse, than in those you deny; you have alreadie bound your selfe to abandon them. Now that which me thinkes brings as much disorder in our consciences, namely in these troubles of religion wherein we are, is the dispensation Catholikes make of their beliefe. They suppose to shew themselves very moderate and skilfull, when they yeeld their adversaries any of those articles now in question. But besides that, they perceive not what an advantage it is for him that chargeth you, if you but once begin to yeeld and give them ground; and how much that encorageth him to pursue his point: those articles which they chuse for the lightest, are often times most important. Either a man must wholy submit himselfe to the authoritie of our Ecelesiasticall policie, or altogether dispence himselfe from it: It is not for us to determine what part of obedience we owe unto it. And moreover, I may say it, because I have made triall of it, having sometimes used this libertie of my choice, and particular election, not regarding certaine points of the observance of our Church, which seeme to beare a face either more vaine or more strange; comming to communicate them with wise men, I have found that those things have a most solid and steadie foundation, and that it is but foolishnesse and ignorance, makes us receive them with lesse respect and reverence than the rest. Why remember we not, what, and how many, contradictions we finde and feele even in our own judgement? How many things served us but yesterday as articles of faith, which to day we deeme but fables? Glory and curiositie are the scourges of our soules. The latter induceth us to have an oare in every ship, and the former forbids us to leave anything unresolved or undecided.