ESSAYS OF MONTAIGNE
The Essayist now contemplates the other ills of human life. “Very good,”” you will answer; “your precept is well enough for death: but what will you say of poverty? and what of pain?” He answers that with regard to pain, “Here it is not all imagination, … I grant that it is the worst mischance of our being,” and that poverty is to be dreaded — but dreaded only — because it throws us into the arms of pain, by hunger and cold, thirst and heat. He says that to himself the idea of pain is terrible, “there is no man on earth who shuns it as much as I.”
A striking example occurs in just these pages of the self-contradictions not infrequent in the Essays, and which are due to the different passages being written at different periods of Montaigne’s life and then joined together as if they were consecutive in thought as well as in position. He says, “I find by experience that it is chiefly the unendurableness [l’impatience] of the thought of death that makes pain unendurable to us.” In the next paragraph we read: “I have not had, thanks be to God, much familiarity with it [pain].” The first sentence was written after the second one. His sufferings from the stone (what he calls “the colic”) did not begin till 1573, and the greater part of the Essay we are considering was written somewhere about 1572. The sentence regarding his “experience” of pain did not appear till 1595, three years after his death, and during the last twenty years of his life he suffered greatly and frequently.
It is extremely interesting to remember in this connection that the daily records made by his secretary when travelling with him give proof that Montaigne’s endurance of pain was singularly heroic.
If we cannot annihilate pain, we can diminish it by patience. So he thought in 1580; so he proved in later years. Besides, if there were not pain to be defied, how should we give evidence of courage, strength, and resolution? Again, pain can not be at once violent and long.
(This strange assertion is a striking testimony to the increased power that medicine and surgery have acquired to preserve life even in conditions of great suffering. And Montaigne seems quite to forget the result of great natural strength of constitution. His contemporary Brantôme describes himself as stretched on his bed for four years in torture, in consequence of being crushed by his horse falling upon him.)
In a passage added in his last years he reaches the assurance that the soul cannot bring into harmony with herself “the perceptions of the body and all other external things”; and that it behoves us to “arouse her all-powerful springs.”
He combats in an obscure sentence an opinion thus expressed by Plato in the “Phaedo” (Jowett’s translation):
“The soul of the true philosopher abstains from pleasures and desires and pains and fears, as far as she is able; ... because each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body, and engrosses her and makes her believe that to be true which the body affirms to be true; and from agreeing with the body and having the same delights she is obliged to have the same habits and ways.” Montaigne says, No: in yielding to pain and pleasure we rather disunite the