« ÖncekiDevam »
than his efforts to repudiate any serious constructions that sober people might be disposed to put on his labours. His only purpose, he avows, for committing such chimeras, such fantastic monsters to writing, is to make them ashamed of themselves, and of himself. They are mere trifles, beneath the notice of criticism, only fit to hover in a middle region, and to take with men of moderate capacities. They are only the fruits of a fagoting-up of stray pieces, collected to beguile the tedium of idleness, and only patched together at snatches. He is, he assures his friend, Madame du Duras, less a writer of books than anything else. Nothing could be more inimical to him than the reputation of being a pretty fellow at writing, if such a trade was his sole claim for reputation. As for expecting to gain any reputation by these follies, he will be content if he does not come off the loser. There is nothing in all this, however, of the vanity and affectation of Horace Walpole, for instance. Montaigne, all the time he was depreciating them, publish them in whatever spirit he might, knew that his Essays must strike a generation accustomed only to tread the narrow rounds of scholastic philosophy. He knew that the furred doctors of the schools, the lettre-ferits--to use a Perigordian phrase—the letter-marked, would be scandalized to see a layman degrading Aristotle from a logician to a mere man, and introducing Plato into an essay on coaches. Accordingly, he assumed, and barely assumed, the thin disguise of a mere trifler. It cost him nothing to depreciate his labours, and depreciate them he did, and with apparent good faith. But amid his half-lisped disparagements we can still trace the twinkling eye, and the smile that belies every stroke of the pen.
He was, indeed, safe to win in the teeth of every adversary. His Essays contained intrinsic captivations of their own, which no disparagement on his part could have weakened or impaired. That writer could never at any time have been without more than ordinary attractions that can, after the lapse of nearly three centuries, still excite a generous envy in the breasts of foreigners in possession of the Spectators and Ramblers. To the palates of contemporaries satiated with the stately barrenness of academical learning, his book offered the rich repast of a lively erudition garnished with an originality that has never been surpassed. It presented to them the enunciation of a novel truth, that the proper study of mankind is man, and that the study of man is not to be regulated by the domineering logic of the cloister or the cell. In the illustration of this, its favourite theory, it traversed with them the records of ages long since considered as palæozoic, explored the secret recesses of history and of literature, brought them into communion in a familiar guise with the mysterious His Essays—their Character and Influence.
heroes of archæology, substantiated the phantoms of deeds that had been to the uninitiated hitherto as only names, and quickened into existence individualities that had been to them but as statues, disenchanted them of that fond idea, implanted by the earliest stroke of the ferule, that antiquity is but a receptacle for demi-gods, and by way of degrading them from the giddy pinnacle of selfish exclusiveness on which the infatuation of habit and education had placed them, proved to them that Socrates might as well have been born at Geneva, and that Cicero was modelled of the same clay as a Perigordian ploughboy.
And all this it did in language natural and familiar, in discourses where the gaiety of the accomplished man of the world and the acuteness of the metaphysician meet and unite. It is the peculiar characteristic of Montaigne's fame, insisted on even by those who, to all appearance, have never read his works through, that he had the courage to rescue philosophy, as yet cribbed and cabined within the narrow circuit of the Academy, and to lead her with tripping step enough into broad and genial fields of speculation, not to be intruded into by the syllogism of the scholar, or the dogma of the pedant. There is sententiousness for the student, and the air du monde, the air cavalier, as Mallebranche calls it, for the courtier. The elegant trifler might with surprise have found in the pages of the old Gascon squire matter as irritating as anything he was accustomed to search for in his Decameron, while the more laborious investigator rose from their perusal with the satisfaction of having learned more in one hour of the philosophy of human existence than Doctors Serapbic or Beatific could have taught him in a lifetime.
To these attractions was added the attraction of a style singularly in unison with the object of the author and his works. It was precisely the informal, irregular style, epigrammatic as Rochefoucauld's, adapted to the delivery of episodes and miscellanies. To the taste of most Englishmen, even in the diluted form of a translation, it possesses too much mannerism to be tolerated any length of time. Gifted with a large share of
dear wit and gay rhetoric' of his own, he overlaid it too thickly with artificial ornaments borrowed from the ancients, and thus repels where he meant to captivate, like the ill-judged Beauty in the Retaliation,
'Who beplasters with rouge her own natural red.'
Anything pretending to the subtleties of rhetoric, Montaigne himself affects to disclaim with his usual self-denial.
He was too warm, on picking work to dwell,
And if they rhymed and rattled, all was well.'* He knows, he says, as little about ablative, conjunctive, substantive, or grammar as his lacquey. To use the expression of Malherbe, he was not preparing meat for cooks. Ronsard had proclaimed it as his mission to infuse richness and variety into the French of Marot, and had used the dialects of France as promiscuously as Homer used the dialects of Greece. Montaigne seems to have adopted a similar licence. The dialects of Normandy, of Poitiers, of Lyons, and of Mans were all the same to him. * And let Gascon step in if French will not suffice.'
Unfortunately, the sentiments and language of the Essays bear quite as much the stamp of freedom as the style. Though some of them were addressed to women, the delicacy of even the hardiest reader is continually being shocked by an unlooked-for encounter with expressions and turns of thought that would not have been used by that notorious Duke of Beaufort whom the contemporaries of Montaigne had christened the King of the Markets, and the fame of whose grossness is still preserved in the works of St. Evremond. On this matter we would not abate one syllable of Pascal's strong and indignant exclamation : 'Des défauts de Montaigne sont grands : il est plein des mots sales et déshonnêtes.'
A second charge, that of egotism, brought against him from the same quarter, it is not so difficult to palliate. That Montaigne is an egotist is certain ; that he is not an egotist in the vulgar acceptation of the term is equally certain. The definition of selfishness, self-conceit, self-commendation, which we are accustomed to associate with the word, entirely fails when applied to him. The truth is, the Port-Royalists half acquitted him almost in the same breath that they accused him, when they explained their accusation to be, ‘le sot projet que Montaigne a de se peindre. Montaigne himself confesses as much. There
' is no affected attempt to conceal the matter. Neither is there any frowardness to justify it. If he plays the fool it is, as he says, at his own expense, and nobody is concerned in it. What he tells of himself, he tells openly, and without partiality. His egotism commences, indeed, where another man's ends.' He is far more explicit, far more communicative about his deficiencies than his excellences, and makes greater capital of his vices than his virtues. Custom, he acknowledges, has made a man's speaking of himself vicious, and positively forbids it in con
Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel.
Inquiry into his Egotism.
111 demnation of the vanity that seems inseparably attached to the testimony men give of themselves. Just, as a general rule, this condemnation is unwarranted in the case of a writer who, to borrow his own estimate of Philip de Comines, is as free from vanity when speaking of himself as from affectation or envy when speaking of others. Que diable a t'on à faire de savoir ce qu'il aime !' exclaimed the Scaligers and Dupuys; but there is certainly as little conceit in the egotism that prompts a man to tell what wine he likes best, or whether he likes his venison high, or prefers salt-fish to the rump of a beccafico, as there is in that feeling of self-importance on the strength of which autobiographers consider themselves entitled to relate the extent of their patrimony or the colour of their hair.
The more than Boswellian candour with which Montaigne unfolds one by one the reduplications of his character, exposes, to use his own forcible expression, the very veins, muscles, and tendons of his moral and physical anatomy, might strike a casual observer as indicative of a morbid unconsciousness of the claims of self-respect. Such, however, would be but a poor estimate of the object of the philosopher, however it might be true in part of the man.
Montaigne makes his confessions knowingly and with a perfect sensibility to the consequences. And, though he affects neither the enthusiasm of Rousseau nor the impudence of Abelard, it is easy to see from the easy tone in which he scarcely condescends to apologize for his hardihood, that he was equally indifferent to those consequences. None but a very bold man, or a very vain one, would have ventured on the experiment. Montaigne was both. He was vain, and vain enough to believe that the eccentricity of the motive which suggested the publication of his Essays, would atone for his vanity in publishing them. He was conscious that the world would be made familiar with his faults, but the consciousness that it would overlook them in the contemplation of the novelty the exposure afforded, added to his confidence. In spite, too, of his chapter on Vanity, the rare execution of the artist must not be forgotten as a plea. Montaigne was not blind to his own powers of analysis. Hence an air of self-complacency in his very self-humiliations. He portrays his defects only that he might show how graceful he can be in the portraiture, like those unhappy creatures who, born without hands or feet, forget their deformities in the pride and delight they take in exhibiting the delicacy with which they can thread a needle or handle a brush.
And it is certain that he has succeeded in his object. No book has been rendered more interesting to his readers by the very exposure that renders it so painful to the moralist. All
the first impulses to disgust at the grotesqueness of a dissection which every man of taste must condemn, and which no man of any native delicacy would have submitted himself to, are sunk in the feelings of pleasure and curiosity with which we contemplate the results of the operation. Repulsive as is the audacity with which he lifts up the stupid rag that hides his poor humanity,' we forget it while we watch him catching the lights and shades of a character singularly chameleon-like in its complexion, and preserving the reflections of every hue as vividly as though he were endowed with the fabulous mirror of Lao; nor do we find leisure to wonder at that strange inconsistency between his mental and moral organization,-to which we are indebted for the most delightful book in the world,—that total absence of equilibrium between his intellect and his moral sense, while we listen to him relating with quaint and humorous minuteness all the habits of his mind and body, his preferences and prejudices, his unconquerable love of ease, his weakness of memory, his hatred of restraint, his contempt for ceremony, his distaste for society, his love of doubt, his sceptical inclinings; intermingled with still more garrulous details of his person,—what size he was, so short that it was with difficulty he could keep his legs amid the crowded streets of Paris, and of so poor a presence that strangers were continually transferring the obeisance due to the master of the house to his barber; what kind of physiognomy he had—so jovial, but withal of such tolerable interpretation, that on more than one occasion the arquebus of the freebooter had been arrested by its courteous intelligence; what kind of voice he had, so loud and unmusical that he could not reduce it to a whisper even in moments of confidence; and descending in the scale of his propensities, how he liked his meats, roast better than boiled, and his bread without salt in it; how he could not dine without a clean napkin after the German fashion, and never made use of spoon or fork; how he could not endure long meals, and imitated Augustus in coming to table last; how, like Marius, he could not drink except out of a certain form of glass, and then must drink neither pure water nor pure wine; how, in spite of Plato's admonition, he slept as heavily as the great Scipio, though in unwarmed sheets; how he stood the snows of a Perigordian winter in only one pair of silk stockings, and wore a vulture's skin under his quilted doublet; how he hated fogs, pedants, and stupid lacqueys, and loved scratching his ear above all things in the world. Bacon, in his essay on Discourse, tells us that he knew a man who was wont to say of the egotist in scorn, ‘He must needs be a wise man, he speaks so much of himself!' Montaigne's wisdom, at this rate of