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AN old Greek proverb says that men are afflicted by their ideas of things, not by the things themselves.[1] There would be a great point gained for the solace of our miserable mortal state if some one could prove this proposition to be always true; for if the ills of life enter into us only through our judgement, it would seem to be in our power to despise them or to turn them to good. If things are surrendered to us, why should we not make use of them, or adapt them to our benefit? If that which we call evil and affliction is neither evil nor affliction in itself, but our imagination alone gives it that character, it is in our power to change it; and having the choice, if nothing compels us, we are strangely unwise to exert ourselves for the side which is most painful for us,[2] and to give to disease, poverty, and contumely a bitter and bad taste if we can give them a good one, and if, fortune simply supplying matter, it is for us to give it shape. Now, that what we call evil is not so in itself, or, at least, whatever it may be, that it depends on us to give it another savour and another aspect, — for it all comes to the same thing, — let us see if this can be maintained.

If the primal nature of these things that we dread had power to lodge in us of its own authority, it would have the same power in all; for men are all of one species, and, save as regards the more and the less, they are supplied with the same tools and instruments for conceiving and judging. But the diversity of our opinions concerning these things shows clearly that they enter into us only as we accept them:[3] one man, it may be, holds them in himself in their true character, but a thousand others give them in their minds a new and different character. We regard death, poverty, and pain as our chief enemies. Now this death, which some call the most horrible of horrible things — who does not know that others call it the only haven from the tempests of this life, the

  1. Epictetus, Enchiridion, 10. Montaigne probably took it from Stobæus, Sermon 117. This proverb — Ταράσσει τοὺς άνθρώπους οὐ τὰ πράγματα, άλλὰ τὰ περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων δόγματα — was inscribed in Greek on one of the beams of Montaigne’s library.
  2. De nous bander pour le party qui nous est le plus ennuyeux.
  3. Elles n’entrent en nous que par composition.