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Saturday morning quotes 2.7: More Montaigne

July 7, 2012

We revisit the work of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), a writer whose tireless work seems to have distilled so much cumulative knowledge of the ages into a wisdom that speaks calmly and clearly even today.  Montaigne’s Essays can be readily found in modern English translation, or analyzed comprehensively in French with references to facsimiles of the original prints complete with hand-written annotations.

In Montaigne’s work, which we have previously mined, one can revel in the pages-long sentence packed with points that pertain to any and nearly every aspect of the human condition.  His essays also spoke to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Montaigne as:

“…Some stark and sufficient man, who is not salt or sugar, but sufficiently related to the world to do justice to Paris or London, and, at the same time, a vigorous and original thinker, whom cities can not overawe, but who uses them,- is the fit person to occupy this ground of speculation. These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.”

“Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness; but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.”

Writing eloquently on so many topics, Montaigne himself touched on a favorite of ours:


A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it, according to the opinion of Plato, who says, that constancy, faith, and sincerity, are the true philosophy, and the other sciences, that are directed to other ends; mere adulterate paint.

I could wish that Paluel or Pompey, those two noted dancers of my time, could have taught us to cut capers, by only seeing them do it, without stirring from our places, as these men pretend to inform the understanding without ever setting it to work, or that we could learn to ride, handle a pike, touch a lute, or sing without the trouble of practice, as these attempt to make us judge and speak well, without exercising us in judging or speaking.

Today, with so much information at our fingertips, it is far too easy to be an armchair professor without actually lifting one’s backside from the seat and experiencing an authentic life.  This means getting dirty in the garden instead of merely reading about shrubberies.  Or building things with one’s own hands.

We think this point applies to musicians who interpret old music, especially after just having listened to an interpretation of a Dowland devotional song by yet another tenor with a nice voice; singing the word “Grief” as though it meant his seat cushion was a bit unyielding, accompanied by a lutenist apparently furrowing his brow in a distant room and playing shapeless phrases as though he were in mortal fear of playing a wrong note.  Please.

The senses are our first and proper judges, which perceive not things but by external accidents; and ’tis no wonder, if in all the parts of the service of our society, there is so perpetual and universal a mixture of ceremonies and superficial appearances; insomuch that the best and most effectual part of our polities therein consist.

As in a concert of instruments, we do not hear a lute, a harpsichord, or a flute alone, but one entire harmony, the result of all together. If travel and offices have improved them, ’tis a product of their understanding to make it appear.

‘Tis not enough to reckon experiences, they must weigh, sort and distil them, to extract the reasons and conclusions they carry along with them.

There were never so many historians: it is, indeed, good and of use to read them, for they furnish us everywhere with excellent and laudable instructions from the magazine of their memory, which, doubtless, is of great concern to the help of life; but ’tis not that we seek for now: we examine whether these relaters and collectors of things are commendable themselves.

Do things, experience feelings, sing like you mean it.

  1. Well chosen quotes. I’m a big fan of Montaigne.

  2. Thank you, Ed. We love his work as well and there is so much to ponder on each and every page. Montaigne’s voice has something of a Dick Cavett quality about it, perhaps a bit more earnest than wry.

    This may be a stretch, but I think Dowland may have known Montaigne’s work through Florio’s translation. Check this out:

    “,,,To doe as I have seene some, that is, to shroud themselves under other armes, not daring so much as to show their fingers ends unarmed, and to botch up all their works (as it is an easie matter in a common subject, namely for the wiser sort) with ancient inventions, here and there hudled-up together.”

    “And those who endeavoured to hide what they have filched from others, and make it their owne, it is first a manifest note of injustice, than a plaine argument of cowardlinesse, who having nothing of any worth in themselves to make show of, will yet under the countenance of others sufficiencie goe about to make a faire offer: Moreover (oh great foolishnesse) to seek by such cosening tricks to forestall the ignorant approbation of the common sort, nothing fearing to discover their ignorance to men of understanding (whose praise only is of value) who will soone trace out such borrowed ware. As for me, there is nothing I will doe lesse. I never spake of others, but that I speake of myself.”

    “This concerneth not those mingle-mangles of many kinds of stuffe, or as the Grecians call them Rapsodies, that for such are published, of which kind I have (since I came to yeares of discretion) seen divers most ingenious and wittie; amongst others, one under the name of Capilupus; besides many of the ancient stampe.”

    The First Booke of Essayes, Chapter XXV

    There seem to be a few similar turns of phrase when comparing the language in Dowland’s preface to A Pilgrimes Solace. Or maybe it can be considered the nonspecific cut-and-paste phraseology of the indignant rant.


  3. Hi, Ron and Donna. I think it’s very likely Dowland read Montaigne, as did many English folks once the first English translation was published. Like Shakespeare, Dowland seems to have had a Grammar School education the equivalent of Shakespeare’s, if his use of Ovid (in Golding’s translation) in the 4 songbooks is anything to go by. If you’re quick,( i.e. listen in the next few days), If you haven’t heard them already, last week there was a series of short ‘filler’ programs on BBC Radio 3, available to ‘listen again’, about Montaigne, one of which (Wednesday’s) was about the likelihood of Shakespeare having read him:
    Go to 22.45 each evening in the Radio 3 schedule and find ‘The Essay’. I don’t know how long they will keep each one of these progs available up there on the Radio 3 website – normally it’s only a week, but with ‘intellectual’ items, they sometimes keep them up for longer!
    Keep up the good work, folks. You inspired me to go out and buy the complete Montaigne.

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