Note on the e-text: this Renascence Editions text was provided by Ben R. Schneider, Lawrence University, Wisconsin. It is in the public domain. "Florio's Translation of Montaigne's Essays was first published in 1603. In 'The World's Classics' the first volume was published in 1904, and reprinted in 1910 and 1924." Content unique to this presentation is copyright © 1998 The University of Oregon. For nonprofit and educational uses only.
HERE are certaine frivolous and vaine inventions, or as some call them subtilties of wit, by meanes of which some men doe often endeavour to get credit and reputation, as divers Poets that frame whole volumes with verses beginning with one letter. We see Egges, Whigs, Hatchets, Crosses, Globes, Columnes, and figures anciently fashioned by the Græcians, with the measure and proportion of their verses spreading, lengthening and shortening them in such sort as they justly represent represent such and such a figure. Such was the science and profession of him who long time busied himselfe to number how many severall waies the letters of the Alphabet might be ranged, and found out that incredible number mentioned by Plutarke. I allow of his opinion who, having one brought before him that was taught with such industrie, and so curiously to cast a graine of millet with his hand, that without ever missing he would every time make it goe through a needles-eye, and being entreated to bestow some thing upon him (as a reward for so rare a skill), verie pleasantly and worthily commanded that this cunning workman should have two or three peckes of millet delivered him, to the end his rare art and wittie labour might not remaine without dailie exercise. It is a wonderfull testimonie of our judgements imbecilitie that it should commend and allow of things, either for their rarenesse or noveltie, or for their difficultie, though neither goodnesse or profit be joined unto them. We come but now from my house, where we have a while recreated our selves with devising who could find out most things that held by both extreme ends. As for example, Sir is in our tongue a title only given to the most eminent person of the state, which is the King, and yet is commonly given to some of the vulgar sort, as unto Merchants and Pedlars, and nothing concerneth those of the middle sort, and that are betweene both. Women of chiefest calling and qualitie are called Dames, the meane sort Damoisels, and those of the basest ranke are also entitled Dames. The clothes of estate, which we see set over tables and chaires, are only allowed in Princes houses, yet we see them used in tavernes. Democritus was wont to say, That Gods and beasts had quicker senses and sharper wits than men who are of the middle ranke. The Romanes used to weare one selfe-same garment on mourning and on festivall daies. It is most certaine that both an extreme feare and an exceeding heat of courage doe equally trouble and distemper the belly. The nick-name of Tremblant, wherewith Zanchio the twelfth King of Navarre was surnamed, teacheth that boldnesse as well as feare engender a startling and shaking of the limbs. Those which armed either him or any other of the like nature, whose skin would quiver, assaid to re-assure him by diminishing the danger wherein he was like to fall: you have no perfect knowledge of me (said he), for if my flesh knew how far my courage will ere-long carry it, it would presently fall into a flat swoune. That chilnesse, or as I may terme it, faintnesse, which we feel after the exercises of Venus, the same doth also proceed from an over vehement appetite and disordered heat. Excessive heat and extreme cold doe both boile and rost. Aristotle saith, That leaden vessels doe as well melt and consume away by an excessive cold and rigor of winter as by a vehement heat. Both desire and satietie fill the sense with sorrow both above and under voluptuousnesse. Folly and wisdome meet in one point of feeling and resolution above the suffering of humane accidents. The wiser sort doth gourmondise and command evill, and others know it not: The latter man would say) short of accidents, the other beyond, who after they have well weighed and considered their qualities, and duly measured and rightly judged what they are, overleap them by the power of a vigorous courage. They disdaine and tread them under foot, as having, a strong and solide minde, against which, if fortunes [darts] chance to light, they must of necessitie be blunted and abated meeting with so resisting a body, as they cannot pierce or make any impression therein. The ordinarie and meane condition of men abideth betweene these two extremities, which are those that perceive and have a feeling of mischiefs but cannot endure them. Both infancie and decreptitude meet with weaknesse of the braine. Covetise and profusion in a like desire to acquire and hoard up. It may with likelihood be spoken that there is a kinde of Abecedarie ignorance preceding science: another doctorall following science: an ignorance which science doth beget, even as it spoileth the first. Of simple, lesse-curious, and least-instructed spirits are made good Christians; who simply believe through reverence and obedience, and are kept in awe of the lawes. In the meane vigor of spirits, and slender capacitie is engendered the error of opinions. They follow the apparance of the first sense, and have some title to interpret it foolishnesse and sottishnesse, that we are confirmed in ancient waies respecting us that are nothing therein instructed by study. The best, most-settled, and clearest-seeing spirits make another sort of well-beleevers, who by long and religious investigation, penetrate a more profound and find out a more abstruse light in scriptures, and discover the mysterious and divine secrets of our ecclesiastical policie. And therefore see we some of them that have reached unto this last ranke, by the second, with wonderfull fruit and confirmation, as unto the furthest bounds of Christian intelligence, and enjoy their victorie with comfort, thanksgiving, reformation of manners, and great modesty. In which ranke my purpose is not to place these others who to purge themselves from the suspicion of their forepassed errors, and the better to assure us of them, become extreme, indiscreet, and unjust in the conduct of our cause, and tax and taint the same with infinite reproaches of violence. The simple peasants are honest men, so are philosophers (or as our time nameth them, strong and cleare natures), enriched with a large instruction of profitable sciences. The mongrell sort of husbandmen, who have disdained the first forme of ignorance of letters, and could never reach unto the other (as they that sit betweene two stooles, of which besides so many others I am one) are dangerous, peevish, foolish, and importunate, and they which trouble the world most. Therefore doe I (as much as lieth in me) withdraw my selfe into the first and naturall seat, whence I never assaied to depart. Popular and meerely naturall Poesie hath certaine graces and ill-bred liveliness, whereby it concurreth and compareth it selfe unto the principall beautie of perfect and artificiall Poesie as may plainly be seene in the Villannelles, homely gigs, and countrie songs of Gasconie, which are brought us from Nations that have no knowledge at all, either of any learning or so much as of writing. Meane and indifferent Poesie, and that consisteth betweene both, is scorned and contemned and passed without honour or esteemed. But forasmuch as since the passage hath beene opened unto the spirit, I have found (as it commonly hapneth) that we had apprehended that which is neither so nor so for a difficult exercise and of a rare subject; and that since our invention hath been set on fire it discovereth an infinite number of like examples. I will onely adde this one: That if these Essayes were worthy to be judged of, it might in mine opinion happen that they would not greatly please the common and vulgar spirits, and as little the singular and excellent. The first will understand but little of them, the latter over much; they might perhaps live and rub out in the middle region.