The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter LIV

Chapter LIV. Of vain subtleties. Edit

There are a sort of little knacks and frivolous subtleties from which men
sometimes expect to derive reputation and applause: as poets, who compose
whole poems with every line beginning with the same letter; we see the
shapes of eggs, globes, wings, and hatchets cut out by the ancient Greeks
by the measure of their verses, making them longer or shorter, to
represent such or such a figure. Of this nature was his employment who
made it his business to compute into how many several orders the letters
of the alphabet might be transposed, and found out that incredible number
mentioned in Plutarch. I am mightily pleased with the humour of him,

     ["Alexander, as may be seen in Quintil., Institut. Orat., lib.
     ii., cap. 20, where he defines Maratarexvia to be a certain
     unnecessary imitation of art, which really does neither good nor
     harm, but is as unprofitable and ridiculous as was the labour of
     that man who had so perfectly learned to cast small peas through the
     eye of a needle at a good distance that he never missed one, and was
     justly rewarded for it, as is said, by Alexander, who saw the
     performance, with a bushel of peas."—Coste.]

who having a man brought before him that had learned to throw a grain of
millet with such dexterity and assurance as never to miss the eye of a
needle; and being afterwards entreated to give something for the reward
of so rare a performance, he pleasantly, and in my opinion justly,
ordered a certain number of bushels of the same grain to be delivered to
him, that he might not want wherewith to exercise so famous an art. 'Tis
a strong evidence of a weak judgment when men approve of things for their
being rare and new, or for their difficulty, where worth and usefulness
are not conjoined to recommend them.

I come just now from playing with my own family at who could find out the
most things that hold by their two extremities; as Sire, which is a title
given to the greatest person in the nation, the king, and also to the
vulgar, as merchants, but never to any degree of men between. The women
of great quality are called Dames, inferior gentlewomen, Demoiselles, and
the meanest sort of women, Dames, as the first. The cloth of state over
our tables is not permitted but in the palaces of princes and in taverns.
Democritus said, that gods and beasts had sharper sense than men, who are
of a middle form. The Romans wore the same habit at funerals and feasts.
It is most certain that an extreme fear and an extreme ardour of courage
equally trouble and relax the belly. The nickname of Trembling with
which they surnamed Sancho XII., king of Navarre, tells us that valour
will cause a trembling in the limbs as well as fear. Those who were
arming that king, or some other person, who upon the like occasion was
wont to be in the same disorder, tried to compose him by representing the
danger less he was going to engage himself in: "You understand me ill,"
said he, "for could my flesh know the danger my courage will presently
carry it into, it would sink down to the ground." The faintness that
surprises us from frigidity or dislike in the exercises of Venus are also
occasioned by a too violent desire and an immoderate heat. Extreme
coldness and extreme heat boil and roast. Aristotle says, that sows of
lead will melt and run with cold and the rigour of winter just as with a
vehement heat. Desire and satiety fill all the gradations above and
below pleasure with pain. Stupidity and wisdom meet in the same centre
of sentiment and resolution, in the suffering of human accidents. The
wise control and triumph over ill, the others know it not: these last
are, as a man may say, on this side of accidents, the others are beyond
them, who after having well weighed and considered their qualities,
measured and judged them what they are, by virtue of a vigorous soul leap
out of their reach; they disdain and trample them underfoot, having a
solid and well-fortified soul, against which the darts of fortune, coming
to strike, must of necessity rebound and blunt themselves, meeting with a
body upon which they can fix no impression; the ordinary and middle
condition of men are lodged betwixt these two extremities, consisting of
such as perceive evils, feel them, and are not able to support them.
Infancy and decrepitude meet in the imbecility of the brain; avarice and
profusion in the same thirst and desire of getting.

A man may say with some colour of truth that there is an Abecedarian
ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes
after it: an ignorance that knowledge creates and begets, at the same
time that it despatches and destroys the first. Of mean understandings,
little inquisitive, and little instructed, are made good Christians, who
by reverence and obedience simply believe and are constant in their
belief. In the average understandings and the middle sort of capacities,
the error of opinion is begotten; they follow the appearance of the first
impression, and have some colour of reason on their side to impute our
walking on in the old beaten path to simplicity and stupidity, meaning us
who have not informed ourselves by study. The higher and nobler souls,
more solid and clear-sighted, make up another sort of true believers, who
by a long and religious investigation of truth, have obtained a clearer
and more penetrating light into the Scriptures, and have discovered the
mysterious and divine secret of our ecclesiastical polity; and yet we see
some, who by the middle step, have arrived at that supreme degree with
marvellous fruit and confirmation, as to the utmost limit of Christian
intelligence, and enjoy their victory with great spiritual consolation,
humble acknowledgment of the divine favour, reformation of manners, and
singular modesty. I do not intend with these to rank those others, who
to clear themselves from all suspicion of their former errors and to
satisfy us that they are sound and firm, render themselves extremely
indiscreet and unjust, in the carrying on our cause, and blemish it with
infinite reproaches of violence and oppression. The simple peasants are
good people, and so are the philosophers, or whatever the present age
calls them, men of strong and clear reason, and whose souls are enriched
with an ample instruction of profitable sciences. The mongrels who have
disdained the first form of the ignorance of letters, and have not been
able to attain to the other (sitting betwixt two stools, as I and a great
many more of us do), are dangerous, foolish, and importunate; these are
they that trouble the world. And therefore it is that I, for my own
part, retreat as much as I can towards the first and natural station,
whence I so vainly attempted to advance.

Popular and purely natural poesy

     ["The term poesie populaire was employed, for the first time, in the
     French language on this occasion. Montaigne created the expression,
     and indicated its nature."—Ampere.]

has in it certain artless graces, by which she may come into comparison
with the greatest beauty of poetry perfected by art: as we see in our
Gascon villanels and the songs that are brought us from nations that have
no knowledge of any manner of science, nor so much as the use of writing.
The middle sort of poesy betwixt these two is despised, of no value,
honour, or esteem.

But seeing that the path once laid open to the fancy, I have found, as it
commonly falls out, that what we have taken for a difficult exercise and
a rare subject, prove to be nothing so, and that after the invention is
once warm, it finds out an infinite number of parallel examples. I shall
only add this one—that, were these Essays of mine considerable enough to
deserve a critical judgment, it might then, I think, fall out that they
would not much take with common and vulgar capacities, nor be very
acceptable to the singular and excellent sort of men; the first would not
understand them enough, and the last too much; and so they may hover in
the middle region.