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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Whom Montaigne always remembered with affectionate reverence


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refuge from the troubles and vicissitudes of the time was sought by some in a Christianised Stoicism. Guillaume du Vair (1556-1621), eminent as a magistrate, did not desert his post of duty; he pleaded eloquently, as chief orator of the middle party of conciliation, on behalf of unity under Henri of Navarre. In his treatise on French eloquence he endeavoured to elevate the art of public speaking above laboured pedantry to true human discourse. But while taking part in the contentious progress of events, he saw the flow of human affairs as from an elevated plateau. In the conversations with friends which form his treatise _De la Constance et Consolation es Calamites Publiques_, Du Vair's counsels are those of courage and resignation, not unmingled with hope. He rendered into French the stoical morals of Epictetus; and in his own _Sainte Philosophie_ and _Philosophie Morale des Stoiques_ he endeavoured, with honest purpose, rather than with genius, to ally speculation to religion, and to show how human reason can lead the way to those ethical truths which are the guiding lights of conduct.

Perhaps certitude sufficient for human life may be found by limitation; a few established truths will, after all, carry us from the cradle to the grave; and beyond the bounds of certitude lies a limitless and fascinating field for observation and dubious conjecture. Amid the multitude of new ideas which the revival of antiquity brought with it, amid the hot disputes

of the rival churches, amid the fierce contentions of civil war, how delightful to possess one's soul in quiet, to be satisfied with the needful knowledge, small though it be, which is vouchsafed to us, and to amuse the mind with every opinion and every varying humour of that curious and wayward creature man! And who so wayward, who so wavering as one's self in all those parts of our composite being which are subject to the play of time and circumstance? Such, in an age of confusion working towards clearness, an age of belligerency tending towards concord, were the reflections of a moralist, the most original of his century--Michel de Montaigne.

MICHEL EYQUEM, SEIGNEUR DE MONTAIGNE, was born at a chateau in Perigord, in the year 1533. His father, whom Montaigne always remembered with affectionate reverence, was a man of original ideas. He entrusted the infant to the care of peasants, wishing to attach him to the people; educated him in Latin as if his native tongue; roused him at morning from sleep to the sound of music. From his sixth to his thirteenth year Montaigne was at the College de Guyenne, where he took the leading parts in Latin tragedies composed by Muret and Buchanan. In 1554 he succeeded his father as councillor in the court _des aides_ of Perigueux, the members of which were soon afterwards incorporated in the Parliament of Bordeaux. But nature had not destined Montaigne for the duties of the magistracy; he saw too many sides of every question; he chose rather to fail in justice than in humanity. In 1565 he acquired a large fortune by marriage, and having lost his father, he retired from public functions in 1570, to enjoy a tranquil existence of meditation, and of rambling through books. He had published, a year before, in fulfilment of his father's desire, a translation of the _Theologia Naturalis_ of Raimond de Sebonde, a Spanish philosopher of the fifteenth century; and now he occupied himself in preparing for the press the writings of his dead friend La Boetie. Love for his father and love for his friend were the two passions of Montaigne's life. From 1571 to 1580 he dwelt in retreat, in company with his books and his ideas, indulging his humour for tranquil freedom of the mind. It was his custom to enrich the margins of his books with notes, and his earliest essays may be regarded as an extension of such notes; Plutarch and Seneca were, above all, his favourites; afterwards, the volume which he read with most enjoyment, and annotated most curiously, was that of his own life.


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