B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
The original French:
Les autres forment lhomme; je le recite et en représente un particulier bien mal formé, et lequel, si javoy à façonner de nouveau, je ferois vrayement bien autre quil nest. Mes-huy cest fait. Or les traits de ma peinture ne forvoyent point, quoi quils se changent et diversifient. Le monde nest quune branloire perenne. Toutes choses y branlent sans cesse: la terre, les rochers du Caucase, les pyramides dAegypte, et du branle public et du leur. La constance mesme nest autre chose quun branle plus languissant. Je ne puis asseurer mon object. Il va trouble et chancelant, dune yvresse naturelle. Je le prens en ce point, comme il est, en linstant que je mamuse à luy. Je ne peints pas lestre. Je peints le passage: non un passage daage en autre, ou, comme dict le peuple, de sept en sept ans, mais de jour en jour, de minute en minute. Il faut accommoder mon histoire à lheure. Je pourray tantost changer, non de fortune seulement, mais aussi dintention. Cest un contrerolle de divers et muables accidens et dimaginations irresoluës et, quand il y eschet, contraires; soit que je sois autre moymesme, soit que je saisisse les subjects par autres circonstances et considerations. Tant y a que je me contredits bien à ladventure, mais la vérité, comme disoit Demades, je ne contredy point. Si mon ame pouvoit prendre pied, je ne messaierois pas, je me resoudrois; elle est tousjours en apprentissage et en espreuve.
Je propose une vie basse et sans lustre, cest tout un. On attache aussi bien toute la philosophie morale à une vie populaire et privée que à une vie de plus riche estoffe; chaque homme porte la forme entiere de lhumaine condition.
Les autheurs se communiquent au peuple par quelque marque particuliere et estrangere; moy, le premier, par mon estre universel, comme Michel de Montaigne, non comme grammairien, ou poëte, ou jurisconsulte. Si le monde se plaint de quoy je parle trop de moy, je me plains de quoy il ne pense seulement pas à soy.
Mais est-ce raison que, si particulier en usage, je pretende me rendre public en cognoissance? Est-il aussi raison que je produise au monde, où la façon et lart ont tant de credit et de commandement, des effets de nature crus et simples, et dune nature encore bien foiblette? Est-ce pas faire une muraille sans pierre, ou chose semblable, que de bastir des livres sans science et sans art? Les fantasies de la musique sont conduictes par art, les miennes par sort. Au moins jay cecy selon la discipline, que jamais homme ne traicta subject quil entendit ne cogneust mieux que je fay celuy que jay entrepris, et quen celuy-là je suis le plus sçavant homme qui vive; secondement, que jamais aucun ne penetra en sa matiere plus avant, ny en esplucha plus particulierement les membres et suites; et narriva plus exactement et plainement à la fin quil sestoit proposé à sa besoingne. Pour la parfaire, je nay besoing dy apporter que la fidelité; celle-là y est, la plus sincere et pure qui se trouve. Je dy vray, non pas tout mon saoul, mais autant que je lose dire; et lose un peu plus en vieillissant, car il semble que la coustume concede à cet aage plus de liberté de bavasser et dindiscretion à parler de soy. Il ne peut advenir icy ce que je voy advenir souvent, que lartizan et sa besoigne se contrarient: un homme de si honneste conversation a-il faict un si sot escrit? ou, des escrits si sçavans sont-ils partis dun homme de si foible conversation, qui a un entretien commun et ses escrits rares, cest à dire que sa capacité est en lieu doù il lemprunte, et non en luy? Un personnage sçavant nest pas sçavant par tout; mais le suffisant est par tout suffisant, et à ignorer mesme.
Icy, nous allons conformément et tout dun trein, mon livre et moy. Ailleurs, on peut recommander et accuser louvrage à part de louvrier; icy, non: qui touche lun, touche lautre.
Essais, Book III, Chapter 2 (1588)
Translated by John Florio (1603)
Others form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is but that’s past recalling. Now, though the features of my picture alter and change, ’tis not, however, unlike: the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion. I cannot fix my object; ’tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness; I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute, I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention. ’Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial.
I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: ’tis all one; all moral philosophy may as well be applied to a common and private life, as to one of richer composition: every man carries the entire form of human condition. Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer. If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason that, being so particular in my way of living, I should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge? And is it also reason that I should produce to the world, where art and handling have so much credit and authority, crude and simple effects of nature, and of a weak nature to boot? Is it not to build a wall without stone or brick, or some such thing, to write books without learning and without art? The fancies of music are carried on by art; mine by chance. I have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew than I what I have undertaken, and that in this I am the most understanding man alive: secondly, that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. To perfect it, I need bring nothing but fidelity to the work; and that is there, and the most pure and sincere that is anywhere to be found. I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a man’s self. That cannot fall out here, which I often see elsewhere, that the work and the artificer contradict one another: “Can a man of such sober conversation have written so foolish a book?” Or “Do so learned writings proceed from a man of so weak conversation?” He who talks at a very ordinary rate, and writes rare matter, ’tis to say that his capacity is borrowed and not his own. A learned man is not learned in all things: but a sufficient man is sufficient throughout, even to ignorance itself; here my book and I go hand in hand together. Elsewhere men may commend or censure the work, without reference to the workman; here they cannot: who touches the one, touches the other.
Translated by Charles Cotton (1685), revised by William Hazlitt (1842)
Others form man; I describe him, and portray a particular, very ill-made one, who, if I had to fashion him anew, should indeed be very different from what he is. But now it is done. Now the features of my painting do not err, although they change and vary. The world is but a perennial see-saw. All things in it are incessantly on the swing, the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the Egyptian pyramids, both with the common movement and their own particular movement. Even fixedness is nothing but a more sluggish motion. I cannot fix my object; it is befogged, and reels with a natural intoxication. I seize it at this point, as it is at the moment when I beguile myself with it. I do not portray the thing in itself. I portray the passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people put it, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt my history to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. It is a record of diverse and changeable events, or undecided, and, when the occasion arises, contradictory ideas; whether it be that I am another self, or that I grasp a subject in different circumstances and see it from a different point of view. So it may be that I contradict myself, but, as Demades said, the truth I never contradict. If my mind could find a firm footing, I should not speak tentatively, I should decide; it is always in a state of apprenticeship, and on trial.
I am holding up to view a humble and lustreless life; that is all one. Moral philosophy, in any degree, may apply to an ordinary and secluded life as well as to one of richer stuff; every man carries within him the entire form of the human constitution. Authors communicate themselves to the world by some special and extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my general being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a lawyer. If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself, I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself. But is it reasonable that I, who am so retired in actual life, should aspire to make myself known to the public? And is it reasonable that I should show up to the world, where artifice and ceremony enjoy so much credit and authority, the crude and simple results of nature, and of a nature besides very feeble? Is it not like making a wall without stone or a similar material, thus to build a book without learning or art? The ideas of music are guided by art, mine by chance. This I have at least in conformity with rules, that no man ever treated of a subject that he knew and understood better than I do this that I have taken up; and that in this I am the most learned man alive. Secondly, that no man ever penetrated more deeply into his matter, nor more minutely analyzed its parts and consequences, nor more fully and exactly reached the goal he had made it his business to set up. To accomplish it I need only bring fidelity to it; and that is here, as pure and sincere as may be found. I speak the truth, not enough to satisfy myself, but as much as I dare to speak. And I become a little more daring as I grow older; for it would seem that custom allows this age more freedom to prate, and more indiscretion in speaking of oneself. It cannot be the case here, as I often see elsewhere, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other. . . . A learned man is not learned in all things; but the accomplished man is accomplished in all things, even in ignorance. Here, my book and I go hand in hand together, and keep one pace. In other cases we may commend or censure the work apart from the workman; not so here. Who touches the one touches the other.
Translated by E.J. Trechmann (1927)
Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.
Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.
I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.
I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Each man bears the entire form of mans estate.
Authors communicate with the people by some special extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my entire being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a jurist. If the world complains that I speak too much of myself, I complain that it does not even think of itself.
But is it reasonable that I, so fond of privacy in actual life, should aspire to publicity in the knowledge of me? Is it reasonable too that I should set forth to the world, where fashioning and art have so much credit and authority, some crude and simple products of nature, and of a very feeble nature at that? Is it not making a wall without stone, or something like that, to construct books without knowledge and without art? Musical fancies are guided by art, mine by chance.
At least I have one thing according to the rules: that no man ever treated a subject he knew and understood better than I do the subject I have undertaken; and that in this I am the most learned man alive. Secondly, that no man ever penetrated more deeply into his material, or plucked its limbs and consequences cleaner, or reached more accurately and fully the goals he had set for his work. To accomplish it, I need only bring it to fidelity; and that is in it, as sincere and pure as can be found. I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old, for it seems that custom allows old age more freedom to prate and more indiscretion in talking about oneself. It cannot happen here as I see it happening often, that the craftsman and his work contradict each other: Has a man whose conversation is so good written such a stupid book? or Have such learned writings come from a man whose conversation is so feeble?
If a man is commonplace in conversation and rare in writing, that means that his capacity is in the place from which he borrows it, and not in himself. A learned man is not learned in all matters; but the capable man is capable in all matters, even in ignorance.
In this case we go hand in hand and at the same pace, my book and I. In other cases one may commend or blame the work apart from the workman; not so here; he who touches the one, touches the other.
Translated by Donald Frame (1957)
Others shape the man; I portray him, and offer to the view one in particular, who is ill-shaped enough, and whom, could I refashion him, I should certainly make very different from what he is. But there is no chance of that.
Now the lines of my portrait are never at fault, although they change and vary. The world is but a perpetual see-saw. Everything goes incessantly up and down the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt both with the universal motion and with their own. Constancy itself is nothing but a more sluggish movement. I cannot fix my subject. He is always restless, and reels with a natural intoxication. I catch him here, as he is at the moment when I turn my attention to him. I do not portray his being; I portray his passage; not a passage from one age to another or, as the common people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must suit my story to the hour, for soon I may change, not only by chance but also by intention. It is a record of various and variable occurrences, an account of thoughts that are unsettled and, as chance will have it, at times contradictory, either because I am then another self, or because I approach my subject under different circumstances and with other considerations. Hence it is that I may well contradict myself, but the truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. Could my mind find a firm footing, I should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions; it is, however, always in its apprenticeship and on trial.
I present a humble life, without distinction; but that is no matter. Moral philosophy, as a whole, can be just as well applied to a common and private existence as to one of richer stuff. Every man carries in himself the complete pattern of human nature.
Authors communicate with the world in some special and peculiar capacity; I am the first to do so with my whole being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer. If people complain that I speak too much of myself, I complain that they do not think of themselves at all.
But is it reasonable that, being so private in my way of life, I should set out to make myself known to the public? Is it reasonable either that I should present to the world, in which style and artifice receive so much credit and authority, the crude and simple products of nature, and of a weakish nature at that? Is it not like building a wall without stone or some similar material, to construct books without learning or art? Musical compositions are the product of skill, mine of chance.
To this extent, at least, I have conformed to the rules: that no man ever came to a project with better knowledge and understanding than I have of this matter, in regard to which I am the most learned man alive; and secondly that no man ever went more deeply into his subject, or more thoroughly examined its elements and effects, or more exactly and completely achieved the purpose he set out to work for. To perfect it I need only bring fidelity to my task; and that is here, the purest and sincerest that is to be found anywhere. I speak the truth, not to the full, but as much as I dare; and as I grow older I become a little more daring, for custom seems to allow age greater freedom to be garrulous and indiscreet in speaking of oneself. It cannot happen here, as I often see it elsewhere, that the craftsman and his work are in contradiction. Can a man so sensible in his conversation, they ask, have written so foolish a book? Or can such learned writings proceed from one so poor in conversation?
If a mans talk is commonplace and his writings distinguished, it means that his talent lies in the place from which he borrows, and not in himself. A learned person is not learned in all things, but a man of talent is accomplished in every respect, even in his ignorance.
Here my book and I proceed in agreement, and at the same pace. In other cases, the work may be praised or blamed apart from the workman; but here it cannot be. Who touches one, touches the other.
Translated by J.M. Cohen (1958)
Others form Man; I give an account of Man and sketch a picture of a particular one of them who is very badly formed and whom I would truly make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him afresh. But it is done now. The brush-strokes of my portrait do not go awry even though they do change and vary. The world is but a perennial see-saw. Everything in it the land, the mountains of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt all waver with a constant motion and their own. Constancy itself is nothing but a more languid rocking to and fro. I am unable to stabilize my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness. I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it. I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another (or, as the folk put it, from one seven-year period to the next) but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. I shall perhaps change soon, not accidentally but intentionally. This is a register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects. So I may happen to contradict myself but, as Demades said, I never contradict truth. If my soul could only find a footing I would not be assaying myself but resolving myself. But my soul is ever in its apprenticeship and being tested. I am expounding a lowly, lacklustre existence. You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life as well as to one of richer stuff. Every man bears the whole Form of the human condition. Authors communicate themselves to the public by some peculiar mark foreign to themselves; I the first ever to do so by my universal being, not as a grammarian, poet or jurisconsult but as Michel de Montaigne. If all complain that I talk too much about myself, I complain that they never even think about their own selves.
But is it reasonable that I who am so private in my habits should claim to make public this knowledge of myself? And is it also reasonable that I should expose to a world in which grooming has such credit and artifice such authority the crude and simple effects of Nature and of such a weakling nature too? Is writing a book without knowledge or art not like building a wall without stones and so on? The fancies of the Muses are governed by art: mine, by chance. But I have one thing which does accord with sound teaching: never did man treat a subject which he knew or understood better than I know and understand the subject which I have undertaken: in that subject I am the most learned man alive! Secondly, no man even went more deeply into his matter, ever stripped barer its own peculiar members and consequences, or ever reached more precisely or more fully the goal he had proposed for his endeavor. To finish the job I need only to contribute fidelity: and fidelity is there, as clean and as pure as can be found. I tell the truth, not enough to make me replete but as much as I dare and as I grow older I dare a little more, for custom apparently concedes to old age a greater license to chatter more indiscreetly about oneself. What cannot happen here is what I often find elsewhere: that the craftsman and his artefact thwart each other: How can a man whose conversation is so decent come to write such a scurrilous book? or How can such learned writings spring from a man whose conversation is so weak?
When a man is commonplace in discussion yet valued for what he writes that shows that his talents lie in his borrowed sources not in himself. A learned man is not learned in all fields: but a talented man is talented in all fields, even in ignorance. Here, my book and I go harmoniously forward at the same pace. Elsewhere you can commend or condemn a work independently of its author; but not here: touch one and you touch the other.
Translated by M.A. Screech (1987)
Six translations of the opening of Michel de Montaignes essay On Repentance (Essays, Book III, #2; 1588). An excellent detailed analysis of this passage can be found in Chapter 12 of Erich Auerbachs Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.
[Passages from other recommended works]
[Gateway to the Vast Realms]
[Rexroth essay on Montaigne]
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