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Entries in Montaigne (2)

Sunday
Mar122017

Montaigne, "Du parler prompt ou tardif"

An essay ("On speaking promptly or tardily") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Never yet have all the graces been given to a single soul. 

Thus we see with regard to the gift of eloquence that some possess facility and promptitude and such, as they say, ease of expression, that they are ready at every instance. Those more tardy never say anything that is not elaborate and premeditated. Similar to how we provide ladies with rules for them to take part in games and physical exercise, in other words, those things in which they most excel, so then if I had to advise this same bunch in these two diverse advantages of eloquence – of which, at least in our century, it seems that preachers and lawyers make the most use professionally – the tardy would be better off as a preacher, it seems to me; the other skill is better for a lawyer. For the former gives the preacher as much leisure as he would like in order to prepare himself; what is more, his career passes uninterruptedly in one thread and towards one consequence. On the other hand, the commodities of a lawyer force him at all times to be in court. And the responses refuted by his opponents simply jostle him and oblige him to take up a new argument.       

At the meeting between Pope Clement and King François in Marseille quite the opposite appeared to happen.  Mr. Poyet, a man of great reputation whose entire life had been nourished on the bail-dock, had been tasked with addressing the Pope. Having a mature and experienced touch, Poyet, it is truly claimed, arrived from Paris with the very speech ready made with which he was to address His Holiness. The very day it was to be pronounced, the Pope, fearing that Poyet could say something that might offend the emissaries of the other Princes who would be present, sent a proposal to the King which seemed to be the most correct at that time and place, but, as luck would have it, very different from that which Mr. Poyet had been working on.  The result was that his argument proved to be useless and he had to come up with another very promptly. As Poyet did not feel capable of doing so, the Cardinal of Bellay was obliged to assume the task. 

The part of the lawyer is more difficult than that of the preacher. Nevertheless, we find a greater number of passable lawyers than of passable preachers, at least in France.

It seems that it is more natural or right for the mind to engage in prompt and sudden operation and more natural or right for judgment to undertake slow and well-considered acts. With someone who remains silent because he does not have the luxury of preparing himself and someone else for whom this luxury would not allow him to improve his words, there persists the same degree of estrangement. One often hears of Cassius Severus, who always spoke best when he never reflected at all upon the subject matter. Such skill he owed less to diligence than to luck. Yet it served him well when his words happened to meet with disagreement because his adversaries did not dare nettle him for fear of redoubling his eloquence. Through my own experience I recognize that condition in nature which cannot sustain vehement and laborious premeditation: if it doesn't proceed happily and freely, it doesn't proceed at all. Of certain works we say that they reek of oil and lamp owing to a certain asperity or roughness which the labor roundly imprints upon them. But apart from this, the concern about doing well – and the struggle of that soul too bound to and too stretched by its enterprise – shall break and impede itself like water, which, owing to its being pressed by violence and abundance could not exit from an open bottleneck.

Within that condition of nature of which I speak there is, at the same time, also that sentiment which should not be agitated by strong passions, like Cassius's anger (because this movement would be too harsh); it asks not to be shaken but to be sought after; it asks to be heated and roused by strange, in-the-moment and fortuitous occasions. If it ventures out by itself, it will do nothing more than drag its heels and languish; agitation is its life and its grace.   

I do not consistently adhere to my self-possession and disposition; here chance has right of way – the moment, the company, the very timbre of my voice – it affects my mind much more. And I find myself testing and using chance. 

In this way spoken words are worth more than their written counterparts, provided they may be chosen without cost or price.

It also occurs to me that I do not find myself where I look for myself: I find myself more often by chance encounter than by the inquisition of my judgment. And in so writing I will have launched some subtlety of thought and I understand full well, as dull as it may seem to another, so sharp may it appear to me. Let us leave behind all these honesties.  These will be pronounced by each of us according to his ability. I have lost my ability so utterly that I do not know what I wanted to say and a stranger often discovers the truth before I do. If I were to erase all that happened to me, I would remove the sheen and ore from everything. Chance encounter sooner or later will give me a day more apparent than noontime; and will surprise me with my hesitation.  

Onc ne furent à tous toutes graces données.
Wednesday
Sep172014

Montaigne, "Des menteurs"

An essay ("On liars") by this French writer.  You can read the original here.

There is no man whom speaking from memory pleases less than me; therein I recognize but traces of myself. And yet I think there cannot be in all the world a memory as marvelously treacherous as mine own. All my other faculties may be vile and common, but in memory I believe myself to be singular, so rare and worthy of gaining both name and reputation.

In addition to this natural disadvantage I suffer (for certainly, given its necessity, Plato was right to deem memory a great and powerful goddess), there is another: when one says in my country that a man has no sense, one says he has no memory. And when I lament the failure of my own memory, I am not believed and instead rebuked as if I were accusing myself of senselessness. These parties see no choice between memory and understanding, which would truly worsen my state of affairs. But they do me an injustice because experience has demonstrated precisely the opposite: namely, excellent memories conjoined with foolish judgments. Here also they do me an injustice – I who know nothing as well as being a friend – whereby the same words that accuse me of infirmity represent ingratitude. They discount and mistrust my affection owing to my memory and contort my natural shortcoming into a shortcoming of conscience. "He has forgotten," they say, "this prayer or that vow"; "he no longer remembers his friends"; "he never remembers to say, or to do, or not to mention this or that for my sake." Certainly it is easy for me to forget. But to neglect a task given to me by a friend, this I do not do. May my own misery be enough without my being accused of malice, as malice is just as much the enemy of my own humor.          

To some extent I am able to console myself. Firstly because my poor memory is an evil whose primary purpose is to correct a greater evil that would have easily arisen within me: namely, ambition, an unbearable shortcoming for those wishing to conduct public affairs. As in many similar examples in its development, nature has fortified all other faculties in me to the same extent that it has diminished memory. Otherwise, if the inventions and opinions of others had been summoned by my memory, I might have easily reposed my mind and judgment, without letting them exert their full powers, upon these alien reports. My speech may even be more concise, as the storehouse of memory is surely more stocked with material than that of invention. And if invention had kept me supplied, I would have deafened all my friends with my babble – deafened with subjects which excited my own faculty of their manipulation and employment, as well as animated and guided my discourse – and yet examples from some of my close friends will show what a pity this all is. As their memories furnish them with present and whole landscapes, they start their narratives so far back and embed them with so many extenuating circumstances that, if a story is good, it will be stuffed with goodness, and if it isn't, you will condemn the vitality of their memory or lament their decidedly poor judgment. And it is no small feat to cease a story when it is well along its way, for in no one action does one recognize the power of a horse as in a round and sudden stop.

Even among those who remain pertinent, I see that they wish to but cannot undo their course. And while they search for a fine point at which to halt, they end up traipsing about wobbly-legged in force and speech. Old men are the most dangerous, for in them remains the remembrance of things past even if they lack any memory of how often they have retold these events. I have seen some very pleasant stories become dull and irritating on the lips of a gentleman because each member of his audience had been gorged on the tale a hundred times over. Secondly, I remember fewer offenses endured over the years, as the old man might say. Nevertheless, I would need a protocol of offenses like that of Darius who, so as not to forget the offenses he suffered from the Athenians, made a page sing thrice in his ear each time he sat down to eat, "Sire, remember the Athenians." And yet, the places and books that I see again still smile at me with a new freshness.    

It is not without reason that we say that he who does not consider his memory to be strong enough should not try his luck as a liar. I know full well that grammarians differentiate between telling an untruth and lying. Telling an untruth, they aver, is to say something false which we have taken to be true; whereas the definition of the word "to lie" in Latin (mentire, from which our French mentir stems) seems more akin to going against our own conscience. Consequently, I only wish to speak about those who say things contrary to what they know to be true. These here either wholly invent the untruths, or they disguise and alter a veracious source. In the case of the latter, they often find that once they have made their replacements, it becomes uncomfortable to undo them because the thing the way it really is remains lodged in their memory, impressed by means of knowledge and science. And here it becomes difficult for the truth not to manifest itself to their imagination, at once dislodging the falsehood, which could never have so firm or serene a foothold, as well as evoking the circumstances of its initial acquisition. And all this flows into and obliges the mind to lose the the false and bastardized pieces it has concocted.

As for the stories they wholly invent, in as much as there is no impression to the contrary that will rattle their falseness, they seem to have far fewer fears of mistelling a story. And yet even these creations, since they are vain bodies without hold, will soon elude the memory if not well secured. Of these matters I have had pleasant experiences at the expense of those who profess to speak in no way other than what serves them best in their business, and what pleases the high-and-mighty people to whom they are uttered. Since these circumstances in which they seek to enslave their faith and their conscience may be subjected to many a change, their words will always need to vary. And so they may come to the same object and say to one man one thing and to another man another, to wit, that sometimes this object is gray and other times yellow. And if by chance these men report to one another their so opposite instructions, what shall become of this fine art? Moreover it must often happen that they imprudently defeat themselves; for what memory could endure so many memories in so many diverse forms, all forged from the same subject? I have seen many in my time desiring the reputation of this lovely type of wisdom. What they do not see, however, is that if their reputation is already abroad, there can no longer be any effect.     

So in truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor are we linked to one another if not by words. If we knew the horror and gravity of such lies, we would pursue them with flames more justly than other crimes. It seems to me that we find common amusement in chastising children for innocent mistakes, very poorly chosen, and that we torment them for capricious acts which have neither impression nor import. Whereas, in my opinion, only lying, and a notch below, obstinacy, should be combated in children at every instance from birth to development for they grow with them. And once we have granted their tongue false reins, it is amazing to see how impossible they are to retract. Hence we may see otherwise honest men who to this vice are subjects and slaves. I know a good tailor's lad whom I have never once heard speak the truth, simply because it has never been to his advantage.

If like truth, mistruth had but one face, we would be on better terms, for we would take for granted the opposite of what the liar would say. But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand countenances and an indefinite playing field. The Pythagoreans make the good certain and finite, and evil infinite and uncertain. A thousand routes to miss the bull's-eye and only one to hit it. I am not sure that I would be able to safeguard my well-being from evident and extreme danger through effrontery and solemn untruth.

An ancient father says that we are better off the in the company of a dog we know than in the company of a man whose language we do not understand. As Pliny states, Ut externus alieno non sit hominis vice – a stranger cannot be said to take the place of a man. So how much less sociable than silence is false language?

King Francis I boasted of having trapped in this way Francesco Taverna, ambassador of Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan, a man very famous in the art of parlour verbiage. He had been dispatched to offer his master's pardons to His Majesty regarding a matter of great consequence. So as to maintain some intelligence sources in Italy from where He was most recently driven, and especially with the Duke of Milan, the King had advised a Gentleman to stay close to the Duke on His behalf. This Gentleman became in effect an ambassador, but in appearance was merely a private citizen who pretended to be there to see to his own personal affairs, whereas the Duke, who depended much more on the Emperor (mostly because at the time he was in a contract of marriage with his niece, daughter of the King of Denmark and present dowager of Lorraine) could not disclose any practice or conference with us without his own great interest. For this commission a Milanese Gentleman by the name of Merveille, and equerry to the King, was found. He was dispatched with some private credentials and ambassadorial instructions, and with other letters of recommendation to the Duke regarding his own private affairs for the mask and show of business. 

In fact, he remained so long with the Duke that the Emperor began to experience a certain amount of suspicion, which led to what occurred subsequently as we might surmise. It happened that, under the guise of murder, the Duke had his trial completed in two days and his head cut off in the middle of the night. Signor Francesco came, however, with a long and counterfeit conclusion about this story, since the King had already addressed His queries to all the Princes of Christianity and to the Duke himself, had His audience with His morning counsel, and was lobbying for His own cause and had raised to this end many plausible justifications. Firstly, his master had never taken our man Merveille for anything less than a private gentleman and this subject, who had come to Milan to conduct business, had never lived under a different guise. Secondly, he disavowed even having known that he had been part of the King's household, nor having known of him to begin with, so that He took him for an ambassador. The King for his part pressed on with various objections and demands and burdened him from every side; finally He got him on the matter of the execution's having been carried out at night, and whether it had been committed in stealth. To which the poor, embarrassed man responded so as to be honest as well as out of respect for His Majesty that the Duke would have been very troubled if the execution had taken place during the day. Anyone could think how he was perceived having been so brutally cut down alongside the nostril of someone like King Francis.

Pope Julius II, having sent an ambassador to the King of England to rouse him against King Francis, the ambassador having heard his duties, and the King of England having delayed his response owing to the difficulties he encountered in preparing what he required to combat such a powerful King, alleged various reasons for this last problem. And the ambassador did not respond well to the matter, saying that he had also considered for his part the same difficulties, and had mentioned all of them to the Pope. From these words so distant from his proposal, which would have been to drive him headlong into war, the King of England found the first argument for that which he would discover later, namely that this ambassador in his private intentions depended on the French side and had revealed his master. His possessions were confiscated and he narrowly escaped losing his life as well.