The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter VI

Chapter VI. Use makes perfect. Edit

'Tis not to be expected that argument and instruction, though we never so
voluntarily surrender our belief to what is read to us, should be of
force to lead us on so far as to action, if we do not, over and above,
exercise and form the soul by experience to the course for which we
design it; it will, otherwise, doubtless find itself at a loss when it
comes to the pinch of the business. This is the reason why those amongst
the philosophers who were ambitious to attain to a greater excellence,
were not contented to await the severities of fortune in the retirement
and repose of their own habitations, lest he should have surprised them
raw and inexpert in the combat, but sallied out to meet her, and
purposely threw themselves into the proof of difficulties. Some of them
abandoned riches to exercise themselves in a voluntary poverty; others
sought out labour and an austerity of life, to inure them to hardships
and inconveniences; others have deprived themselves of their dearest
members, as of sight, and of the instruments of generation, lest their
too delightful and effeminate service should soften and debauch the
stability of their souls.

But in dying, which is the greatest work we have to do, practice can give
us no assistance at all. A man may by custom fortify himself against
pain, shame, necessity, and such-like accidents, but as to death, we can
experiment it but once, and are all apprentices when we come to it.
There have, anciently, been men so excellent managers of their time that
they have tried even in death itself to relish and taste it, and who have
bent their utmost faculties of mind to discover what this passage is, but
they are none of them come back to tell us the news:

               "Nemo expergitus exstat,
               Frigida quern semel est vitai pausa sequuta."

     ["No one wakes who has once fallen into the cold sleep of death."
     —Lucretius, iii. 942]

Julius Canus, a noble Roman, of singular constancy and virtue, having
been condemned to die by that worthless fellow Caligula, besides many
marvellous testimonies that he gave of his resolution, as he was just
going to receive the stroke of the executioner, was asked by a
philosopher, a friend of his: "Well, Canus, whereabout is your soul now?
what is she doing? What are you thinking of?"—"I was thinking," replied
the other, "to keep myself ready, and the faculties of my mind full
settled and fixed, to try if in this short and quick instant of death, I
could perceive the motion of the soul when she parts from the body, and
whether she has any sentiment at the separation, that I may after come
again if I can, to acquaint my friends with it." This man philosophises
not unto death only, but in death itself. What a strange assurance was
this, and what bravery of courage, to desire his death should be a lesson
to him, and to have leisure to think of other things in so great an

               "Jus hoc animi morientis habebat."

     ["This mighty power of mind he had dying."-Lucan, viii. 636.]

And yet I fancy, there is a certain way of making it familiar to us, and
in some sort of making trial what it is. We may gain experience, if not
entire and perfect, yet such, at least, as shall not be totally useless
to us, and that may render us more confident and more assured. If we
cannot overtake it, we may approach it and view it, and if we do not
advance so far as the fort, we may at least discover and make ourselves
acquainted with the avenues. It is not without reason that we are taught
to consider sleep as a resemblance of death: with how great facility do
we pass from waking to sleeping, and with how little concern do we lose
the knowledge of light and of ourselves. Peradventure, the faculty of
sleeping would seem useless and contrary to nature, since it deprives us
of all action and sentiment, were it not that by it nature instructs us
that she has equally made us to die as to live; and in life presents to
us the eternal state she reserves for us after it, to accustom us to it
and to take from us the fear of it. But such as have by violent accident
fallen into a swoon, and in it have lost all sense, these, methinks, have
been very near seeing the true and natural face of death; for as to the
moment of the passage, it is not to be feared that it brings with it any
pain or displeasure, forasmuch as we can have no feeling without leisure;
our sufferings require time, which in death is so short, and so
precipitous, that it must necessarily be insensible. They are the
approaches that we are to fear, and these may fall within the limits of

Many things seem greater by imagination than they are in effect; I have
passed a good part of my life in a perfect and entire health; I say, not
only entire, but, moreover, sprightly and wanton. This state, so full of
verdure, jollity, and vigour, made the consideration of sickness so
formidable to me, that when I came to experience it, I found the attacks
faint and easy in comparison with what I had apprehended. Of this I have
daily experience; if I am under the shelter of a warm room, in a stormy
and tempestuous night, I wonder how people can live abroad, and am
afflicted for those who are out in the fields: if I am there myself, I do
not wish to be anywhere else. This one thing of being always shut up in
a chamber I fancied insupportable: but I was presently inured to be so
imprisoned a week, nay a month together, in a very weak, disordered, and
sad condition; and I have found that, in the time of my health, I much
more pitied the sick, than I think myself to be pitied when I am so, and
that the force of my imagination enhances near one-half of the essence
and reality of the thing. I hope that when I come to die I shall find it
the same, and that, after all, it is not worth the pains I take, so much
preparation and so much assistance as I call in, to undergo the stroke.
But, at all events, we cannot give ourselves too much advantage.

In the time of our third or second troubles (I do not well remember
which), going one day abroad to take the air, about a league from my own
house, which is seated in the very centre of all the bustle and mischief
of the late civil wars in France; thinking myself in all security and so
near to my retreat that I stood in need of no better equipage, I had
taken a horse that went very easy upon his pace, but was not very strong.
Being upon my return home, a sudden occasion falling out to make use of
this horse in a kind of service that he was not accustomed to, one of my
train, a lusty, tall fellow, mounted upon a strong German horse, that had
a very ill mouth, fresh and vigorous, to play the brave and set on ahead
of his fellows, comes thundering full speed in the very track where I
was, rushing like a Colossus upon the little man and the little horse,
with such a career of strength and weight, that he turned us both over
and over, topsy-turvy with our heels in the air: so that there lay the
horse overthrown and stunned with the fall, and I ten or twelve paces
from him stretched out at length, with my face all battered and broken,
my sword which I had had in my hand, above ten paces beyond that, and my
belt broken all to pieces, without motion or sense any more than a stock.
'Twas the only swoon I was ever in till that hour in my life. Those who
were with me, after having used all the means they could to bring me to
myself, concluding me dead, took me up in their arms, and carried me with
very much difficulty home to my house, which was about half a French
league from thence. On the way, having been for more than two hours
given over for a dead man, I began to move and to fetch my breath; for so
great abundance of blood was fallen into my stomach, that nature had need
to rouse her forces to discharge it. They then raised me upon my feet,
where I threw off a whole bucket of clots of blood, as this I did also
several times by the way. This gave me so much ease, that I began to
recover a little life, but so leisurely and by so small advances, that my
first sentiments were much nearer the approaches of death than life:

               "Perche, dubbiosa ancor del suo ritorno,
               Non s'assicura attonita la mente."

    ["For the soul, doubtful as to its return, could not compose itself"
     —Tasso, Gierus. Lib., xii. 74.]

The remembrance of this accident, which is very well imprinted in my
memory, so naturally representing to me the image and idea of death, has
in some sort reconciled me to that untoward adventure. When I first
began to open my eyes, it was with so perplexed, so weak and dead a
sight, that I could yet distinguish nothing but only discern the light:

               "Come quel ch'or apre, or'chiude
               Gli occhi, mezzo tra'l sonno e l'esser desto."

     ["As a man that now opens, now shuts his eyes, between sleep
     and waking."—Tasso, Gierus. Lib., viii., 26.]

As to the functions of the soul, they advanced with the same pace and
measure with those of the body. I saw myself all bloody, my doublet
being stained all over with the blood I had vomited. The first thought
that came into my mind was that I had a harquebuss shot in my head, and
indeed, at the time there were a great many fired round about us.
Methought my life but just hung upon my, lips: and I shut my eyes, to
help, methought, to thrust it out, and took a pleasure in languishing and
letting myself go. It was an imagination that only superficially floated
upon my soul, as tender and weak as all the rest, but really, not only
exempt from anything displeasing, but mixed with that sweetness that
people feel when they glide into a slumber.

I believe it is the very same condition those people are in, whom we see
swoon with weakness in the agony of death we pity them without cause,
supposing them agitated with grievous dolours, or that their souls suffer
under painful thoughts. It has ever been my belief, contrary to the
opinion of many, and particularly of La Boetie, that those whom we see so
subdued and stupefied at the approaches of their end, or oppressed with
the length of the disease, or by accident of an apoplexy or falling

         "Vi morbi saepe coactus
          Ante oculos aliquis nostros, ut fulminis ictu,
          Concidit, et spumas agit; ingemit, et tremit artus;
          Desipit, extentat nervos, torquetur, anhelat,
          Inconstanter, et in jactando membra fatigat;"

     ["Often, compelled by the force of disease, some one as
     thunderstruck falls under our eyes, and foams, groans, and trembles,
     stretches, twists, breathes irregularly, and in paroxysms wears out
     his strength."—Lucretius, iii. 485.]

or hurt in the head, whom we hear to mutter, and by fits to utter
grievous groans; though we gather from these signs by which it seems as
if they had some remains of consciousness, and that there are movements
of the body; I have always believed, I say, both the body and the soul
benumbed and asleep,

               "Vivit, et est vitae nescius ipse suae,"

               ["He lives, and does not know that he is alive."
               —Ovid, Trist., i. 3, 12.]

and could not believe that in so great a stupefaction of the members and
so great a defection of the senses, the soul could maintain any force
within to take cognisance of herself, and that, therefore, they had no
tormenting reflections to make them consider and be sensible of the
misery of their condition, and consequently were not much to be pitied.

I can, for my part, think of no state so insupportable and dreadful, as
to have the soul vivid and afflicted, without means to declare itself; as
one should say of such as are sent to execution with their tongues first
cut out (were it not that in this kind of dying, the most silent seems to
me the most graceful, if accompanied with a grave and constant
countenance); or if those miserable prisoners, who fall into the hands of
the base hangman soldiers of this age, by whom they are tormented with
all sorts of inhuman usage to compel them to some excessive and
impossible ransom; kept, in the meantime, in such condition and place,
where they have no means of expressing or signifying their thoughts and
their misery. The poets have feigned some gods who favour the
deliverance of such as suffer under a languishing death:

                              "Hunc ego Diti
               Sacrum jussa fero, teque isto corpore solvo."

     ["I bidden offer this sacred thing to Pluto, and from that body
     dismiss thee."—AEneid, iv. 782.]

both the interrupted words, and the short and irregular answers one gets
from them sometimes, by bawling and keeping a clutter about them; or the
motions which seem to yield some consent to what we would have them do,
are no testimony, nevertheless, that they live, an entire life at least.
So it happens to us in the yawning of sleep, before it has fully
possessed us, to perceive, as in a dream, what is done about us, and to
follow the last things that are said with a perplexed and uncertain
hearing which seems but to touch upon the borders of the soul; and to
make answers to the last words that have been spoken to us, which have
more in them of chance than sense.

Now seeing I have in effect tried it, I have no doubt but I have hitherto
made a right judgment; for first, being in a swoon, I laboured to rip
open the buttons of my doublet with my nails, for my sword was gone; and
yet I felt nothing in my imagination that hurt me; for we have many
motions in us that do not proceed from our direction;

          "Semianimesque micant digiti, ferrumque retractant;"

     ["Half-dead fingers grope about, and grasp again the sword."
     —AEneid, x. 396.]

so falling people extend their arms before them by a natural impulse,
which prompts our limbs to offices and motions without any commission
from our reason.

         "Falciferos memorant currus abscindere membra . . .
          Ut tremere in terra videatur ab artubus id quod
          Decidit abscissum; cum mens tamen atque hominis vis
          Mobilitate mali, non quit sentire dolorem."

     ["They relate that scythe-bearing chariots mow off limbs, so that
     they quiver on the ground; and yet the mind of him from whom the
     limb is taken by the swiftness of the blow feels no pain."
     —Lucretius, iii. 642.]

My stomach was so oppressed with the coagulated blood, that my hands
moved to that part, of their own voluntary motion, as they frequently do
to the part that itches, without being directed by our will. There are
several animals, and even men, in whom one may perceive the muscles to
stir and tremble after they are dead. Every one experimentally knows
that there are some members which grow stiff and flag without his leave.
Now, those passions which only touch the outward bark of us, cannot be
said to be ours: to make them so, there must be a concurrence of the
whole man; and the pains which are felt by the hand or the foot while
we are sleeping, are none of ours.

As I drew near my own house, where the alarm of my fall was already got
before me, and my family were come out to meet me, with the hubbub usual
in such cases, not only did I make some little answer to some questions
which were asked me; but they moreover tell me, that I was sufficiently
collected to order them to bring a horse to my wife whom on the road,
I saw struggling and tiring herself which is hilly and rugged. This
should seem to proceed from a soul its functions; but it was nothing so
with me. I knew not what I said or did, and they were nothing but idle
thoughts in the clouds, that were stirred up by the senses of the eyes
and ears, and proceeded not from me. I knew not for all that, whence I
came or whither I went, neither was I capable to weigh and consider what
was said to me: these were light effects, that the senses produced of
themselves as of custom; what the soul contributed was in a dream,
lightly touched, licked and bedewed by the soft impression of the senses.
Notwithstanding, my condition was, in truth, very easy and quiet; I had
no affliction upon me, either for others or myself; it was an extreme
languor and weakness, without any manner of pain. I saw my own house,
but knew it not. When they had put me to bed I found an inexpressible
sweetness in that repose; for I had been desperately tugged and lugged by
those poor people who had taken the pains to carry me upon their arms a
very great and a very rough way, and had in so doing all quite tired out
themselves, twice or thrice one after another. They offered me several
remedies, but I would take none, certainly believing that I was mortally
wounded in the head. And, in earnest, it had been a very happy death,
for the weakness of my understanding deprived me of the faculty of
discerning, and that of my body of the sense of feeling; I was suffering
myself to glide away so sweetly and after so soft and easy a manner, that
I scarce find any other action less troublesome than that was. But when
I came again to myself and to resume my faculties:

               "Ut tandem sensus convaluere mei,"

          ["When at length my lost senses again returned."
          —Ovid, Trist., i. 3, 14.]

which was two or three hours after, I felt myself on a sudden involved in
terrible pain, having my limbs battered and ground with my fall, and was.
so ill for two or three nights after, that I thought I was once more
dying again, but a more painful death, having concluded myself as good as
dead before, and to this hour am sensible of the bruises of that terrible
shock. I will not here omit, that the last thing I could make them beat
into my head, was the memory of this accident, and I had it over and over
again repeated to me, whither I was going, from whence I came, and at
what time of the day this mischance befell me, before I could comprehend
it. As to the manner of my fall, that was concealed from me in favour to
him who had been the occasion, and other flim-flams were invented. But a
long time after, and the very next day that my memory began to return and
to represent to me the state wherein I was, at the instant that I
perceived this horse coming full drive upon me (for I had seen him at my
heels, and gave myself for gone, but this thought had been so sudden,
that fear had had no leisure to introduce itself) it seemed to me like a
flash of lightning that had pierced my soul, and that I came from the
other world.

This long story of so light an accident would appear vain enough, were it
not for the knowledge I have gained by it for my own use; for I do really
find, that to get acquainted with death, needs no more but nearly to
approach it. Every one, as Pliny says, is a good doctrine to himself,
provided he be capable of discovering himself near at hand. Here, this
is not my doctrine, 'tis my study; and is not the lesson of another, but
my own; and if I communicate it, it ought not to be ill taken, for that
which is of use to me, may also, peradventure, be useful to another. As
to the rest, I spoil nothing, I make use of nothing but my own; and if I
play the fool, 'tis at my own expense, and nobody else is concerned in't;
for 'tis a folly that will die with me, and that no one is to inherit.
We hear but of two or three of the ancients, who have beaten this path,
and yet I cannot say if it was after this manner, knowing no more of them
but their names. No one since has followed the track: 'tis a rugged
road, more so than it seems, to follow a pace so rambling and uncertain,
as that of the soul; to penetrate the dark profundities of its intricate
internal windings; to choose and lay hold of so many little nimble
motions; 'tis a new and extraordinary undertaking, and that withdraws us
from the common and most recommended employments of the world. 'Tis now
many years since that my thoughts have had no other aim and level than
myself, and that I have only pried into and studied myself: or, if I
study any other thing, 'tis to apply it to or rather in myself. And yet
I do not think it a fault, if, as others do by other much less profitable
sciences, I communicate what I have learned in this, though I am not very
well pleased with my own progress. There is no description so difficult,
nor doubtless of so great utility, as that of a man's self: and withal, a
man must curl his hair and set out and adjust himself, to appear in
public: now I am perpetually tricking myself out, for I am eternally upon
my own description. Custom has made all speaking of a man's self
vicious, and positively interdicts it, in hatred to the boasting that
seems inseparable from the testimony men give of themselves:

                    "In vitium ducit culpae fuga."

     ["The avoiding a mere fault often leads us into a greater."
     Or: "The escape from a fault leads into a vice"
     —Horace, De Arte Poetics, verse 31.]

Instead of blowing the child's nose, this is to take his nose off
altogether. I think the remedy worse than the disease. But, allowing it
to be true that it must of necessity be presumption to entertain people
with discourses of one's self, I ought not, pursuing my general design,
to forbear an action that publishes this infirmity of mine, nor conceal
the fault which I not only practise but profess. Notwithstanding, to
speak my thought freely, I think that the custom of condemning wine,
because some people will be drunk, is itself to be condemned; a man
cannot abuse anything but what is good in itself; and I believe that this
rule has only regard to the popular vice. They are bits for calves, with
which neither the saints whom we hear speak so highly of themselves, nor
the philosophers, nor the divines will be curbed; neither will I, who am
as little the one as the other, If they do not write of it expressly, at
all events, when the occasions arise, they don't hesitate to put
themselves on the public highway. Of what does Socrates treat more
largely than of himself? To what does he more direct and address the
discourses of his disciples, than to speak of themselves, not of the
lesson in their book, but of the essence and motion of their souls? We
confess ourselves religiously to God and our confessor; as our
neighbours, do to all the people. But some will answer that we there
speak nothing but accusation against ourselves; why then, we say all; for
our very virtue itself is faulty and penetrable. My trade and art is to
live; he that forbids me to speak according to my own sense, experience,
and practice, may as well enjoin an architect not to speak of building
according to his own knowledge, but according to that of his neighbour;
according to the knowledge of another, and not according to his own. If
it be vainglory for a man to publish his own virtues, why does not Cicero
prefer the eloquence of Hortensius, and Hortensius that of Cicero?
Peradventure they mean that I should give testimony of myself by works
and effects, not barely by words. I chiefly paint my thoughts, a subject
void of form and incapable of operative production; 'tis all that I can
do to couch it in this airy body of the voice; the wisest and devoutest
men have lived in the greatest care to avoid all apparent effects.
Effects would more speak of fortune than of me; they manifest their own
office and not mine, but uncertainly and by conjecture; patterns of some
one particular virtue. I expose myself entire; 'tis a body where, at one
view, the veins, muscles, and tendons are apparent, every of them in its
proper place; here the effects of a cold; there of the heart beating,
very dubiously. I do not write my own acts, but myself and my essence.

I am of opinion that a man must be very cautious how he values himself,
and equally conscientious to give a true report, be it better or worse,
impartially. If I thought myself perfectly good and wise, I would rattle
it out to some purpose. To speak less of one's self than what one really
is is folly, not modesty; and to take that for current pay which is under
a man's value is pusillanimity and cowardice, according to, Aristotle.
No virtue assists itself with falsehood; truth is never matter of error.
To speak more of one's self than is really true is not always mere
presumption; 'tis, moreover, very often folly; to, be immeasurably
pleased with what one is, and to fall into an indiscreet self-love, is in
my opinion the substance of this vice. The most sovereign remedy to cure
it, is to do quite contrary to what these people direct who, in
forbidding men to speak of themselves, consequently, at the same time,
interdict thinking of themselves too. Pride dwells in the thought; the
tongue can have but a very little share in it.

They fancy that to think of one's self is to be delighted with one's
self; to frequent and converse with one's self, to be overindulgent; but
this excess springs only in those who take but a superficial view of
themselves, and dedicate their main inspection to their affairs; who call
it mere reverie and idleness to occupy one's self with one's self, and
the building one's self up a mere building of castles in the air; who
look upon themselves as a third person only, a stranger. If any one be
in rapture with his own knowledge, looking only on those below him, let
him but turn his eye upward towards past ages, and his pride will be
abated, when he shall there find so many thousand wits that trample him
under foot. If he enter into a flattering presumption of his personal
valour, let him but recollect the lives of Scipio, Epaminondas; so many
armies, so many nations, that leave him so far behind them. No
particular quality can make any man proud, that will at the same time put
the many other weak and imperfect ones he has in the other scale, and the
nothingness of human condition to make up the weight. Because Socrates
had alone digested to purpose the precept of his god, "to know himself,"
and by that study arrived at the perfection of setting himself at nought,
he only was reputed worthy the title of a sage. Whosoever shall so know
himself, let him boldly speak it out.