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Echoes of the Past


Montaigne "the Essayist" may with appositeness be placed in the company of those teachers of mankind whose words, echoing and reechoing from the distant past, still bear the unmistakable ring of truth. He has something to say upon numerous and varied subjects, and although somewhat marred by his Pyrrhonism and apparent cynicism, his utterances, in his better moments, bear the impress of a master mind. In the essay "On Prayers" we read—

"We must have our souls pure, and cleansed from vicious passions, at least at the moment we are praying to Him, other-wise we do but present Him with the rods wherewith to chastise us. Instead of repairing our fault we double it, when we offer to Him of whom we ask pardon feelings full of irreverence and hatred. This is why I cannot find it in my heart to praise those whom I observe praying oftenest and most regularly, if the actions which lie close upon their prayers give me no evidence of their amendment and reformation. The practice of a man who mixes up devotion with an abominable life seems in some sort more to be condemned than that of a man who is consistent with himself and dissolute altogether...I am scandalized to see a man cross himself thrice at Benedicite, and as often at saying grace, and to see him nevertheless fill up all the other hours of the day with hatred, avarice, and injustice; giving his one hour to God, as if by way of bargain and compensation."

Of the divorce of religion from morality he says: "It is a doctrine subversive of all good government, far more mischievous than it is ingenious and subtle, which teaches the people that a religious belief alone will suffice, without moral conduct, to satisfy the Divine justice."

On the subjects of Truth and Honor Montaigne has some pertinent remarks—"I have often considered whence sprang this custom, which we observe so religiously, of feeling more deeply offended at being reproached with this vice (untruthfulness of speech) which is so common among us, than with any other; and why it should be the highest insult that anyone can offer us in words, to accuse us of a lie. I find the explanation to be that it is natural to defend one's self most warmly on the point where we are weakest. It seems as if in being moved by the accusation and resenting it, we in some sort absolve ourselves from the fault; if we are guilty of it in fact, at least we condemn it in profession."

"The tie that holds me bound by the law of honor seems to me far stronger and more weighty than that of legal obligation. I am throttled less tight by a lawyer than by myself. Is it not reasonable that my conscience should be much more strictly pledged when men have trusted to that simply and entirely? In other cases my honor owes no debt, because it has been trusted with nothing; let them help themselves as they may by such pledges and securities as they have taken external to myself. I had much rather break the wall of a prison, or break the law, than break my word."

Again—"I would rather see affairs go to ruin than falsify my own honor to save them. For as to this new virtue of feigning and dissimulation, which is at this moment in such great request, I hate it mortally; of all vices I know none which shows such meanness and baseness of spirit."

In combating the fallacious and prevailing idea that the quest of virtue is difficult and disagreeable, he says, in a sentence of great beauty: "The happiness and blessedness which shines in virtue illumines all its avenues and approaches, from the first entrance to the last inner-gate."

In the essay "On Anger" we read: "No one would hesitate to punish a judge with death who should have condemned a prisoner in a fit of passion. Why is it allowed any more to parents and masters to beat and strike children in their anger? That is not correction; it is revenge. Chastisement stands to children in the place of medicine, and should we endure a physician who was angry and violent against his patient? Rash and indiscriminate scolding grows into a habit, and makes everyone despise it. The language you use to a servant for a theft loses its effect, because it is the same that he has known you use a hundred times against him for having rinsed a glass badly, or set a stool out of its place."

To those who think of escaping their sufferings by suicide, he says: "There is more courage in bearing the chain by which we are bound than in breaking it."

And of repentance—"For myself, I may desire to be in general other than I am. I may condemn and disallow my whole character, and pray God for an entire reformation, and that he will excuse my natural frailty, but it seems to me that I have no right to call that repentance any more than the being dissatisfied at not being an angel or a Cato."

And education—"It seems to me that the first teaching with which we ought to imbue his (the scholar's) mind should be that which is to regulate his morals and his feelings, which shall teach him to know himself, and to know how to live well and to die well. 'Tis great foolishness to teach our children the knowledge of the stars and the motions of the eighth sphere before we teach them the knowledge of themselves."

We cannot refrain from a brief quotation from what has been considered Montaigne's masterpiece, viz., the essay on "The Art of Conversation." Pascal has called this essay "incomparable."—"Our disputes ought to be put under restrictions and penalties, like other offences of the tongue; what mischief do they not breed and encourage, governed and directed as they always are by passion! We quarrel first with the arguments, and then with the men. We learn to argue only that we may contradict, and every one contradicting and being contradicted, it follows there from that the result of argument is the loss and annihilation of truth."

Concerning death and "the frightful ceremonies and apparatus surrounding it" we read: "Children are afraid of their best friends when they see them with masks on; and so it is with us. We must strip the mask from things as well as persons; take that away and we shall find beneath but that same death which a valet or simple chambermaid passed through but just now without fear. Happy is the death that leaves us no leisure for such ceremonies and preparations."

Again—"If I were to have my choice it should be on horseback rather than in bed, out of my own house, and away from my family. There is more of heart-breaking than consolation in taking leave of one's friends. I would willingly omit that duty of politeness, for of all the offices of friendship, that is the only unpleasant one, and so I would gladly forget to wish a last and eternal adieu."

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Thomas W. Allen

  • Brother of author James Allen
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