ESSAYS OF MONTAIGNE
M. Villey remarks that the many compilers of the sixteenth century took evident pleasure, as Montaigne did, in collecting examples of strange customs; and other contemporary writers, who do not give examples, insist on the force of custom. (See La Boëtie in Le Contr’un.) Many, like Montaigne, hold to the necessity of keeping exactly to the usages of one’s native land. In the Italian authors this is especially a law of social intercourse. In others, particularly in the political writers, it is a rule of intellectual prudence and of political conversation. These two points of view are both found in this Essay.
M. Villey’s résumé of the Essay presents its main outlines in a manner greatly to assist the reader:
“This Essay may be divided into two parts: (1) setting forth the power of custom and the strangeness of its effects; (2) declaring the necessity, in spite of the inanity of our usages, of following them and of avoiding all novelty. On one side, as on the other, Montaigne expresses ideas familiar to his contemporaries, and in 1580 he does so by means of examples that are frequently met with in the writings of the time. He only adds to these some facts borrowed from Plutarch’s Lives, which was then his habitual reading. He is here seen to be penetrated by the feeling of relativity, and beginning to formulate his political and religious conservatism. In 1588 both parts have been considerably developed, the first by a great number of illustrations borrowed from Lopez de Gomara, the second extended by very personal developments that would seem to be inspired by the civil troubles. In 1595 both parts receive again numerous and very important additions, which prove how great Montaigne’s interest continued to be in the questions he had here treated of. Herodotus, and works on the expeditions of the Portuguese to the Indies, furnished him with new customs; but especially Montaigne adds some very rich developments, many of which are directly derived from his personal experiences, while others come from abundant reading of ancient authors, as Pliny, Livy, etc., but principally from Cicero, whose conservatism singularly charmed Montaigne.”
THAT man seems to me to have had a just conception of the power of habit who first invented this tale: that a village woman, having been wont to fondle a calf and carry him in her arms from the moment of his birth, continuing always to do so, gained such power by habit, that she still carried him when he was a full-grown ox. For habit is truly a violent and deceitful school-mistress. Little by little, and stealthily, she establishes within us the footing of her authority; but having, by this mild and humble beginning, stayed and rooted it with the
- It can be found in Stobæus, Sermon 29; in Quintilian, I, 9; and in the Adages of Erasmus, I, ii, 51.