ESSAYS OF MONTAIGNE
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 He here tells us that he had lately withdrawn from public affairs, and had sought solitude, thinking thus to benefit his mind by allowing it to follow its own course.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, 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, —
- See Plutarch, Marriage Precepts.