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Vol. II. Part II.
Art. I. Essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne, made English by Charles Cotton, Esq.; 3 vols. 8vo.; 4th edition. London, 1711.
In the world of literature there is food adapted for all palates, be they ever so various—solid and substantial fare for those of healthy and wholesome digestions—light and nutritive for the weak or idle, and stimulative for the languid: so that a man need never be at a loss for literary matter suitable to his inclination or constitution, and he may vary it as often as he pleases, according to the mood in which he finds himself, with the happy consciousness, that let him consume as much as he will, he can never exhaust the common stock.
"Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale
Of those books to which we have recourse for pleasure or recreation, we have a particular fancy for a gossipping book, a collection of choice morceaux and short dissertations, in which an author gives us the cream of a diversity of subjects, without calling upon us for any rigid attention or nice examination of his arguments. A kind of reading which resembles the very best conversation, but which is, at the same time, more artificially dressed up and more elegantly turned. When, for instance,
VOL. II. PART II. T
we have been wading through a ponderous or tedious volume, for the purposes of analysis or for the sake of a few good extracts, we return, with a keen relish, to a literary gossip with an author of this kind, whom we can take up with the certainty of being instructed and amused—the smooth current of whose thoughts we can follow without effort or constraint, and to whose guidance we abandon ourselves with a desultory, but luxurious, indifference: and whom, when we have read so much as to our humour or idleness seemeth good, we can lay down without a sense of weariness, or a feeling of dissatisfaction. And then, if his disquisitions be short, and have no sequel or dependance upon each other, we can select from the bundle such as, in length or quality, may suit our time or fancy. Truly this may be an idle, but it is a pleasant mode of reading, and that is sufficient to recommend it. Indeed, we do not see why it should not be carried even farther than for the mere purposes of relaxation and amusement. It is, without doubt, much better to pursue an agreeable road to the temple of knowledge, than to pick out the most rugged and uninviting path. The latter course, it is true, calls upon us for a greater sacrifice of ease and comfort—it requires more resolution and pains-taking, and we ourselves should have no objection to it, where it is inaccessible by any other means. But to select this briery path in preference to one more easy and agreeable, voluntarily to lacerate ourselves with the thorns which stick in the way, is, we cannot help thinking, a labour of supererogation—an infliction of penance for its own sake; the effect of which can only be to discourage and disgust. And one would think there are pleasures few enough sprinkled in thi6 pilgrimage of three-score and ten, to inr duce us not inquisitively to make " that little, less." Nor can such a mode of study be called vain and unproductive, for the richest fruit grows on the sunny aspect of the hill, where nature has been busiest in scattering her May-flowers and ornaments of a gay season. The countenance of wisdom is not naturally harsh and crabbed, and repulsive; if it be wrinkled, it is not with care and ill-temper, but with the lines of deep thought. "Her ways are ways of pleasantness," and her smile is as genial and refreshing as that of young beauty, and equally invites us to be joyous and glad. She teaches us
We feel no sympathy with those authors who would do every thing by the square and compass, who would rudely snap the springs of feeling, and torture us into wisdom or virtue. It is the author who gives utterance to the promptings of the heart, who mingles human feelings with all his knowledge, that lays fast hold of our affection, and whom, above all, we love and venerate. And such a one is the lively old Gascon, whose essays stand at the head of this article. He is, indeed, the author for a snug fire-side and an easy armed chair, and more particularly whilst (as at this moment) the rain is pattering against the window at intervals, as the gusts of wind come and go, and, with the sea's hoarse murmuring in the distance, makes harsh music, which shews that Nature is somewhat out of tune. At such a time, Montaigne's self-enjoyment becomes doubly our own. His everlasting gaiety and good humour is more grateful from the contrast; and yet, in the midst of these comfortable reflexions, we cannot avoid thinking of the rude fisherman, who ventures out with his young boy, to be tossed up and down on the watery element "in such a night as this," (a rugged nurture for so slender a frame) and casts his net, without thinking much of the world's rough outside or this turmoil, which it gives us such a sensible delight to be protected from. If he Knew aught of Montaigne, he would not follow his vocation with more success, but he might, perchance, be more content with his gains. Montaigne wrote sans peur, but not saris reproche. He is not content with a little sprinkling of " salt in the lines, to make the matter savoury"—he is fond of high seasoning. The licentiousness which would drive an author of our days from all honest company, cannot be tolerated even in an old writer. Antiquity cannot sanctify nor age palliate obscenity. It is probable, however, that what, according to our system of manners, is highly indelicate, was read by the modest of his age, by a wife or a daughter, without the disgust which it would now deservedly excite. Some of his Essays are even addressed to ladies, it may be, of exemplary lives. Mademoiselle Gournay, a young lady who had conceived such an affection for the author, that she wished to be styled his adopted daughter, after his death published an edition of them, with a preface and defence. And, after all, manners are but the fashions of the time, and how variable they are we need no ghost from the dead to tell us. The customs of one nation or age are considered indecorous in another. Thus, the kiss of ceremony or salutation which Montaigne erroneously affirms to be peculiar to France, and which he censures as disagreeable to both sexes, became not long afterwards to be regarded as a piece of great immodesty, as appears from Dr. Heylin's France painted to the life. When the doctor visited that country in 1625, he thought it strange and uncivil that
the ladies should turn away from the proffer of a salutation, and he indignantly exclaims, "that the chaste and innocent kiss of an English gentlewoman is more in heaven than their best devotions." Erasmus, in a letter, urging his friend Andrelinus to come to England, very pleasantly makes use of this custom to strengthen his invitation: "If, Faustus," says he, '' thou knewest the advantages of England, thou wouldst run hither with winged feet, and, if the gout would not suffer that, thou wouldst wish thyself a Deedalus. For, to name one amongst many: here are girls with divine countenances, bland and courteous, and whom thou wouldst readily prefer to thy muses. And besides, there is a custom which can never be sufficiently praised. For, if you visit any where, you are received with their kisses—if you go away, you are dismissed with kisses—if you return, these sweet things are again rendered—if any one goes away with you, the kisses are divided— wherever you go, you are abundantly kissed. In short, move which way you will, all things are full of delight."*
Montaigne, however, acknowledges that he babbled a little more about such matters than was strictly decorous; and he informs us, that, although he was so impudent on paper, he was of an extreme modesty and shamefacedness in conversation. But his object was to describe himself—what he thought, he was not ashamed to write; and he would have considered it a weakness and unmanliness to have done otherwise. For our parts, although we hate hypocrisy with a hatred as perfect and cordial as our author himself, we have, at the least, as much abhorrence of every species of indecency. We cannot bear to see the loathsome toad held up for the public eye to rest upon, notwithstanding it
"Bears a precious jewel in its head."
"Seeing we are civilized Englishmen, let us not be naked savages in our talk." This is one reason of our selecting Montaigne for the subject of an article. To the scholar and philosopher, he is well known, for he was himself both; but the impurities, mixed up with his excellent sense, must, of necessity, prevent him from being generally read, especially by our fair countrywomen. But whilst we endeavour to preserve the native purity of their minds unsullied,
"As the snowy skin of lily leaves"— that the domestic torch, which illumes " the wintry paradise of
home,” may burn with a clear and chaste light, there is no reason why they should not participate in all communicable knowledge, which may enlarge their affections or gratify their understandings, without shocking their delicacy or contaminating their taste. The chief subject of Montaigne's reflexions and writings i. the philosophy of life. How to live well and die well with IIll Is the prime wisdom; what is more, is fume, Or emptiness, or fond impertinence.
To achieve this, he studied himself deeply and accurately ; he dissected and anatomized his feelings, his fears, and his hopes, nay, the slightest motions of his soul, with the coolness and unconcern of an operating surgeon. He lets us into the innermost thoughts of his heart—he spreads out before us, as in a picture, every shade and gradation of feeling. Not a o flitted across his mind that he did not put down, and, aving contemplated its strangeness or absurdity, he placed it to the credit or debit side of his account. “He nothing extenuates nor sets down aught in malice.” He is the most warm and candid of friends—the most open of enemies, if, indeed, he ever admitted into his heart any feeling which amounted to #. hostility. The consequence is, that nobody can read is works without becoming his intimate and approved good friend—his most familiar acquaintance. We know almost the very minute he was born, and, if he could have so far anticipated time, he would, with equal precision, have informed us of the hour of his death. Nor do we think that any thing would have given him so much pleasure as afterwards to have been able to come back to earth again, and add another volume to his Essays, that the world might still know the state of his mind. He was a count entleman, and could have little to record but the workings of his own thoughts; and yet he laments that he had not, like his predecessors, kept a journal even of the barren events of the house of Montaigne. He was born betwixt eleven and twelve o'clock in the forenoon of the last of February, 1533. His father sent him from his cradle to be brought up in a village of his in the meanest and most common way of living. He also pursued a singular mode for the introduction of his son into the vestibule of knowledge, of which we have a full account in an Essay on Education, which, like most of his discourses, contains a great deal of excellent matter, mixed with some strange opinions. To this system of education we, in all probability, are indebted for his Essays; and, as it is as sound as it is peculiar, we shall make no apology for quoting so much as relates to it.