Sayfadaki görseller
[blocks in formation]

judging, it must be owned, must have surpassed that of Solomon. After all, however, it is some consolation to reflect that a little more of reserve, a little less of egotism, and his book would have degenerated into the sombre proportions of a mere ethical treatise, as neglected as his own Seneca. If he has lost hy his laborious candour, that at least has gained, and the gain is not imparted to another. It is only to be regretted the self-sacrificer should have produced one of those

Books, the scandal of the shelves, In which lewd Sensualists print out themselves.' It is with considerable reluctance that we leave the company of the gossip for that of the metaphysician. While he lived, Montaigne surrounded himself with doubts, and it is, perhaps, but a fair retaliation on bim that his reputation should partake of the dubious character it does. On the very threshold of an inquiry into his tastes and prepossessions, the examiner meets with nothing but hesitation and conjecture. Was Montaigne a good Catholic ? Was he a Christian ? are questions which everybody asks, and which no one can answer; and it is typical of the pyrrhonic condition in which he discharged the exigencies of his career that he has been claimed at once at Rome and at Ferney, that the foundation of these respective claims were rested on the one single production of his mind, and that as far as that production is concerned, both claimants are amply justified in their pretensions. A discriminating taste might readily find sentiments in his Essays worthy of an honest Catholic, and even of a member of the Saint Union, while from the same source might be extracted pages that would form a fit preface to a Breviary of the Holy Philosophical Church of a later era.

One thing may be predicated of him without fear of contradiction or partisanship. It is certain that with the spiritual element of the great religious revolution that was going on around him, he did not identify himself either by word or deed. There is nothing in his book or his actions to show that he had any sympathy with the authors of the Confession of Augsburg, or that if he had openly renounced his allegiance to Rome he would have transferred it to Geneva. If he was disposed to show any sympathy with the reaction at all, it was not in its character of a Protestant reaction, but in its character of an intellectual one.

His prepossessions were all on this side. His large and liberal mind could, in matters of literature, readily urge the plea for liberality. His prejudices in this respect had all been inherited from those gallant Deipnosophs who quoted the 'Morgante Maggiore' at the table of Leo X. from those fine young libertines who, under the name of Pantagruelists, joined with


[ocr errors]

Cardinal Du Bellay in pronouncing Garagantua to be a book κατ' εξοχην. Had he lived a hundred years earlier he would have

' . been a welcome guest along with Ficino, at the villa of Fiesole, or yet earlier still, he would have been among the most eager of those five thousand who, day by day, received their intellectual food from the lover of Heloise.

On the other hand, he never owned his associations by his demeanour. From his writings, indeed, he had nothing to apprehend. Provided they contained nothing that could be translated into heresy, they were safe from the Index Purgatorius. He rather did his best to show that he was as good a Catholic as Guise. He kissed the Pope's toe, though he does not omit the opportunity for ridiculing the habit. He hung up his ex-voto at the shrine of Loretto, though he takes care to mention that the Grand Turk had just before done the same. If outward conformity be the test, then the decision must be that Montaigne was both a Catholic and a Christian. But the value of that conformity must be estimated by his own confessions, and his own confessions are, unfortunately for those who would vindicate his orthodoxy, radically at variance with the deductions to be drawn from his conduct. The truth is, like the Common Councilman in Goldsmith's Essays, he had his eyes wide open, and contrived to make his contemporaries believe that he was asleep. Every great moral revolution has its Montaignes, time-servers, trimmers,

- creatures of a double kind,' men who can reconcile themselves to the adoration of idols, while in secret they worship the true God. . Why he should have been at the pains to blind the eyes of his generation is not so clear. Perhaps he thought, with Malherbe, that the best religion of a subject is that of his prince. “Some, he writes, 'impose

upon the world that they believe that which they do not. * Others, more in number, make themselves believe that they believe, not being able to penetrate into what it is to believe.' It might be that he ranked himself in the latter category. Perhaps he was content to regulate his conduct on the model of that docile, easy mind, he has elsewhere depicted as 'making

nought of its own judgment, neither disbelieving nor establish*ing any dogma against common observances, humble, obedient, disciplinable, studious, a sworn enemy of heresy, and consequently freeing itself from the vain and irreligious opinions of sectarianism.' Or, once more, it may be that he intended to solve the whole enigma when he made the acknowledgment that 'having incidentally begotten in himself a certain constancy of

opinion, he did not easily change for fear of losing by the 'bargain ; that as he was not capable of choosing, he took other

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

His Reserve on Religion.



men's choice, and to keep himself from perpetually rolling, * kept himself where Providence had placed him. At any rate, it is not too much to say, and he himself owns to the fact, that he was not one of those higher and nobler souls he so finely alludes to, more solid and clear-sighted than others, who by a ' long and religious investigation bave obtained a more clear and penetrating insight into their creed, and have discovered the mysterious and divine secret of their ecclesiastical dispensation.'

The general complexion of his character tends to contradict the assumption that Montaigne was a man likely to become a candidate for martyrdom. There was, indeed, a large share of hyperbole about him, of gesticulation, of frankness in the assertion of his views, and of emphasis in their maintenancequalities which, sometimes, under easy circumstances, may compensate for a deficiency of moral courage. But there is no enthusiasm about him. Morally speaking, he does not betray a single well-defined partiality that could lay claim to the strength of a prejudice, or an opinion marked enough to involve the imputation of partisanship. So equivocal was his moderation, that more than once he had an opportunity of congratulating himself that he is a Guelf to the Ghibellines, and a Ghibelline to the Guelfs. As for mere intellectual conviction, that alone never yet made a martyr. If it could, Galileo had not escaped the rack and pulleys. And even of intellectual conviction he possessed as little on this as on any other subject.

There is this excuse for him; he lived at a crisis when convictions of any kind were weak and unsettled. The Que scaisje? of his motto might well have been accepted as the general device of the age. Events were occurring around that might well have shaken a soberer mind than Montaigne's in its confidence in human experience, in its estimate of human penetration. He saw all the old truths which had held the world in subjection for so many centuries rudely denied. In the general convulsion he recognised the veil which had concealed the mysteries of spiritualism rudely rent in twain. All the old associations had been torn up, and, as yet, nothing fixed, nothing certain had been substituted in their place. The truth is, the sudden establishment of Protestantism must have presented to the mind of the observer phenomena as confounding as the establishment of Christianity itself. The intelligent Catholic may have regarded the reaction against Catholicism with amazement similar to that with which the penetrating minds of paganism, of such pagans as Pliny and Julian, regarded the great insurrection against the religion of Socrates and Varro. As it was, the idea of doubt and uncertainty penetrated into the natural avenues of Montaigne's understanding, and leavened the whole mass of his philosophy. His mind was not a profound one, but it was a comprehensive one, and its comprehensiveness was made to promote the infatuation. Stimulated, in spite of his habitual fainéantise, by a large and almost universal inquisitiveness, he set himself to scan the vast circle of human knowledge, and then prepared to deduct from his inquiry the logical establishment of human ignorance. The essence of his philosophy, if philosophy it may be called, is embodied in his apology for the work of Raymond De Sebond, and is propounded under cover of defending the old position of mysticism that faith is not founded on reason, by proving that reason has no foundation of its own. To this proof all the strength of his intellect, and the zeal and humour of his character, are directed by turns. Setting out with an investigation into the essential distinction between animals and man, he arrives at a conclusion analogous to that at which Helvetius arrived in his famous work on the Mind, and the very opposite to that which Hume afterwards maintains in one of his Essays (on the Instinct of Beasts), that there is less of difference between certain men and certain beasts than there is between some men and other men. The intelligence of the elephant, the sagacity of the dog, the fidelity of the horse, the subtlety of the fox, the prudence of the ant, and the deliberation of the spider and bee: are, to his mind, so many protests against that arrogance and presumption that would raise a middle wall of partition between the individual creature and the general creation. Of course, such a decision can only lead him to a general depreciation of human knowledge; and in the treatment of this his favourite theme, he appears to use Burke's famous expression-a very Vitruvius of ruin. What is man? Man is but a thing of naught! is the burden of his examination and discovery. The vanity of human achievements, the vanity of human wisdom, its fickleness, its frailty, its hesitation and doubts, are the principal accompaniments. Few, indeed, but must realize the utter weakness of unaided nature, as he calls up before them the records of its collected strength, contrasts its failures with its successes, its decisions with its disputes, its moments of variation with its moments of stability, and then bids philosophy account for the picture.

The great blemish in Montaigne's reasoning is his singular one. sidedness. He seems to have started on his speculations unconsciously imbued with a principle of optimism. His imagination first attributed to human nature a standard of perfectibility to which it lays no claim, and then his judgment quarrelled with the contrast in the conception and the reality. The mental and His Depreciation of Human Reason.

117 physical constitution of man is limited by bounds, beyond which it may not transgress; and Montaigne overlooked the consideration that the inanity of the speculations, the idleness of the opinions in which man sometimes indulged, is rather a testimony to the presumption than the imbecility of his nature. The failures of great geniuses are marks by which the observer may measure their strength rather than gauge their weakness. The helplessness of human philosophy on certain subjects but too plainly testifies to its fallibility, but does not invalidate its claims to consent on all. The various conflicting deductions of antiquity on matters of the most vital importance with which he fills up half his treatise—the ignorance which permitted Aristotle to assert that God is the heat of heaven; or Zeno, that he is an animal; or Parmenides, a circle—the poverty of discrimination which prompted Empedocles to teach that the soul is a thing of blood; or Hesiod that it is a composition of clay and water; or Thales, a nature without repose, and self-moving—the uncertainty that drove Plato, Epicurus, and Pythagoras to invent their ideas, atoms, and numbers, to explain the phenomenon of the universe-prove not that human reason is utterly incapable, but that those speculators whose examples he adduced, were exercising their reason on matters too high for them, and for which it is not originally adapted. Uncertainty in everything which does not come under the cognizance of the senses, or which is not revealed to us, is indeed the general condition of man's nature; but it is a poor and comfortless philosophy that would plunge its disciple into the despair of scepticism, because it cannot give him the title to assume the arrogance of the dogmatist.

Even the senses, the beginning and the end of our knowledge, according to his account, he does not acquit of the inconsistencies of error. He had studied man as a moral and intellectual phenomenon, and the result of his study had been to find him wanting. But if moral philosophy presented to him nothing but a mass of unintelligible chimeras, in physical science, he could recognise, to use his own contemptuous expression, only dreams and fanatic follies. The state of contemporary science was not, indeed, very encouraging to a man whose mind was so hard to be convinced. Accordingly, he charges science with being nothing more than sophisticated poetry, and with imposing on mankind, 'not that which really is, or what she really believes, ' but what she has contrived with the greatest and most plausible

likelihood of truth. Every art has its presuppositions, on the merit of which it negotiates for its general acceptance; and every presupposition is linked, as it were, in a league of amity, to promote the general imposition. Thus the logician refers the si gnification of words to the grammarian ; the rhetorician

[ocr errors]
« ÖncekiDevam »