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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

For the Ghibelline I was a Guelph


And,

indeed, Montaigne's daily life, with outward monotony and internal variety, was a pleasant miscellany on which to comment. He was of a middle temperament, "between the jovial and the melancholic"; a lover of solitude, yet the reverse of morose; choosing bright companions rather than sad; able to be silent, as the mood took him, or to gossip; loyal and frank; a hater of hypocrisy and falsehood; a despiser of empty ceremony; disposed to interpret all things to the best; cheerful among his children; careless of exercising authority; incapable of household management; trustful and kind towards his neighbours; indulgent in his judgments, yet warm in his admiration of old, heroic virtue. His health, which in boyhood had been robust, was shaken in middle life by an internal malady. He travelled in the hope of finding strength, visiting Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Tyrol, and observing, with a serious amusement, the varieties of men and manners. While still absent from France, in 1581, he learned that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux; he hesitated in accepting an honourable but irksome public office; the King permitted no dallying, and Montaigne obeyed. Two years later the mayor was re-elected; it was a period of difficulty; a Catholic and a Royalist, he had a heretic brother, and himself yielded to the charm of Henri of Navarre; "for the Ghibelline I was a Guelph, for the Guelph a Ghibelline." When, in 1585, pestilence raged in Bordeaux, Montaigne's second period of office had almost
expired; he quitted the city, and the election of his successor took place in his absence. His last years were brightened by the friendship--almost filial--of Mlle. de Gournay, an ardent admirer, and afterwards editor, of the _Essais_. In 1592 Montaigne died, when midway in his sixtieth year.

The first two books of the _Essais_ were published by their author in 1580; in 1588 they appeared in an augmented text, with the addition of the third book. The text superintended by Mlle. de Gournay, based upon a revised and enlarged copy left by Montaigne, is of the year 1595.

The unity of the book, which makes no pretence to unity, may be found in the fact that all its topics are concerned with a common subject--the nature of man; that the writer accepts himself as the example of humanity most open to his observation; and that the same tranquil, yet insatiable curiosity is everywhere present. Man, as conceived by Montaigne, is of all creatures the most variable, unstable, inconstant. The species includes the saint and the brute, the hero and the craven, while between the extremes lies the average man, who may be anything that nature, custom, or circumstances make him. And as the species varies indefinitely, so each individual varies endlessly from himself: his conscience controls his temperament; his temperament betrays his conscience; external events transform him from what he was. Do we seek to establish our moral being upon the rock of philosophical dogma? The rock gives way under our feet, and scatters as if sand. Such truth as we can attain by reason is relative truth; let us pass through knowledge to a wise acceptance of our ignorance; let us be contented with the probabilities which are all that our reason can attain. The truths of conduct, as far as they are ascertainable, were known long since to the ancient moralists. Can any virtue surpass the old Roman virtue? We believe in God, although we know little about His nature or His operations; and why should we disbelieve in Christianity, which happens to be part of the system of things under which we are born? But why, also, should we pay such a compliment to opinions different from our own as to burn a heretic because he prefers the Pope of Geneva to the Pope of Rome? Let each of us ask himself, "Que sais-je?"--"What do I really know?" and the answer will serve to temper our zeal.


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