The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter IV

Chapter IV. To-morrow's a new day. Edit

I give, as it seems to me, with good reason the palm to Jacques Amyot of
all our French writers, not only for the simplicity and purity of his
language, wherein he excels all others, nor for his constancy in going
through so long a work, nor for the depth of his knowledge, having been
able so successfully to smooth and unravel so knotty and intricate an
author (for let people tell me what they will, I understand nothing of
Greek; but I meet with sense so well united and maintained throughout his
whole translation, that certainly he either knew the true fancy of the
author, or having, by being long conversant with him, imprinted a vivid
and general idea of that of Plutarch in his soul, he has delivered us
nothing that either derogates from or contradicts him), but above all, I
am the most taken with him for having made so discreet a choice of a book
so worthy and of so great utility wherewith to present his country. We
ignorant fellows had been lost, had not this book raised us out of the
dirt; by this favour of his we dare now speak and write; the ladies are
able to read to schoolmasters; 'tis our breviary. If this good man be
yet living, I would recommend to him Xenophon, to do as much by that;
'tis a much more easy task than the other, and consequently more proper
for his age. And, besides, though I know not how, methinks he does
briskly—and clearly enough trip over steps another would have stumbled
at, yet nevertheless his style seems to be more his own where he does not
encounter those difficulties, and rolls away at his own ease.

I was just now reading this passage where Plutarch says of himself, that
Rusticus being present at a declamation of his at Rome, there received a
packet from the emperor, and deferred to open it till all was done: for
which, says he, all the company highly applauded the gravity of this
person. 'Tis true, that being upon the subject of curiosity and of that
eager passion for news, which makes us with so much indiscretion and
impatience leave all to entertain a newcomer, and without any manner of
respect or outcry, tear open on a sudden, in what company soever, the
letters that are delivered to us, he had reason to applaud the gravity of
Rusticus upon this occasion; and might moreover have added to it the
commendation of his civility and courtesy, that would not interrupt the
current of his declamation. But I doubt whether any one can commend his
prudence; for receiving unexpected letters, and especially from an
emperor, it might have fallen out that the deferring to read them might
have been of great prejudice. The vice opposite to curiosity is
negligence, to which I naturally incline, and wherein I have seen some
men so extreme that one might have found letters sent them three or four
days before, still sealed up in their pockets.

I never open any letters directed to another; not only those intrusted
with me, but even such as fortune has guided to my hand; and am angry
with myself if my eyes unawares steal any contents of letters of
importance he is reading when I stand near a great man. Never was man
less inquisitive or less prying into other men's affairs than I.

In our fathers' days, Monsieur de Boutieres had like to have lost Turin
from having, while engaged in good company at supper, delayed to read
information that was sent him of the treason plotted against that city
where he commanded. And this very Plutarch has given me to understand,
that Julius Caesar had preserved himself, if, going to the Senate the day
he was assassinated by the conspirators, he had read a note which was
presented to him by, the way. He tells also the story of Archias, the
tyrant of Thebes, that the night before the execution of the design
Pelopidas had plotted to kill him to restore his country to liberty, he
had a full account sent him in writing by another Archias, an Athenian,
of the whole conspiracy, and that, this packet having been delivered to
him while he sat at supper, he deferred the opening of it, saying, which
afterwards turned to a proverb in Greece, "Business to-morrow."

A wise man may, I think, out of respect to another, as not to disturb the
company, as Rusticus did, or not to break off another affair of
importance in hand, defer to read or hear any new thing that is brought
him; but for his own interest or particular pleasure, especially if he be
a public minister, that he will not interrupt his dinner or break his
sleep is inexcusable. And there was anciently at Rome, the consular
place, as they called it, which was the most honourable at the table, as
being a place of most liberty, and of more convenient access to those who
came in to speak to the person seated there; by which it appears, that
being at meat, they did not totally abandon the concern of other affairs
and incidents. But when all is said, it is very hard in human actions to
give so exact a rule upon moral reasons, that fortune will not therein
maintain her own right.