I deal myself the best hand I can, and then accept it

From Montaigne 1.20 – That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die:

It is enough for me to spend my time contentedly. I deal myself the best hand I can, and then accept it. It can be as inglorious or as unexemplary as you please:

 Prætulerim delirus inersque videri,
Dum mea delectent mala me, vel denique fallant,
Quam sapere et ringi.
[I would rather be delirious or a dullard if my faults pleased me, or at least deceived me, rather than to be wise and snarling.]

Car il me suffit de passer à mon aise; et le meilleur jeu que je me puisse donner, je le prens, si peu glorieux au reste et exemplaire que vous voudrez,

praetulerim delirus inérsque videri,
Dum mea delectent mala me, vel denique fallant,
Quam sapere et ringi.

The Latin is from Horace – Epistles 2.2.126

I always hear an echo of this passage in a favorite line from Moby Dick’s opening chapter – I guess Melville would’ve had the Cotton translation or, less likely, the Florio.

I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself

Then we shall see if my arguments come from my lips or my heart.

From Montaigne’s Essays 1.19 – That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Until After Our Death

So it seems likely to me that [Solon] was … intending to tell us that happiness in life (depending as it does on the tranquillity and contentment of a spirit well-born and on the resolution and assurance of an ordered soul) may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest.10 In all the rest he can wear an actor’s mask: those fine philosophical arguments may be only a pose, or whatever else befalls us may not assay us to the quick, allowing us to keep our countenance serene. But in that last scene played between death and ourself there is no more feigning; we must speak straightforward French; we must show whatever is good and clean in the bottom of the pot:

Nam veræ voces tum demum pectore ab into
Ejiciuntur, et eripitur persona, manet res
[Only then are true words uttered from deep in our breast. The mask is ripped off: reality remains.]

That is why all the other actions in our life must be tried on the touchstone of this final deed. It is the Master-day, the day which judges all the others; it is (says one of the Ancients) the day which must judge all my years now past. The assay of the fruits of my studies is postponed unto death. Then we shall see if my arguments come from my lips or my heart.

je trouve vray-semblable qu’il aye regardé plus avant, et voulu dire que ce mesme bon-heur de nostre vie, qui dépend de la tranquillité et contentement d’un esprit bien né, et de la resolution et asseurance d’un’ame reglée, ne se doive jamais attribuer à l’homme, qu’on ne luy aye veu jouer le dernier acte de sa comedie, et sans doute le plus difficile. En tout le reste il y peut avoir du masque: ou ces beaux discours de la Philosophie ne sont en nous que par contenance; ou les accidens, ne nous essayant pas jusques au vif, nous donnent loysir de maintenir tousjours nostre visage rassis. Mais à ce dernier rolle de la mort et de nous, il n’y a plus que faindre, il faut parler François, il faut montrer ce qu’il y a de bon et de net dans le fond du pot,

Nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Ejiciuntur, et eripitur persona, manet res.

Voylà pourquoy se doivent à ce dernier traict toucher et esprouver toutes les autres actions de nostre vie. C’est le maistre jour, c’est le jour juge de tous les autres: c’est le jour, dict un ancien, qui doit juger de toutes mes années passées. Je remets à la mort l’essay du fruict de mes estudes. Nous verrons là si mes discours me partent de la bouche, ou du coeur

The two lines are Lucretius, III, 57.

It is much better to offend him once than myself every day, for it would be a perpetual slavery

From Montaigne’s Essais Book 1, XIII – Ceremonie de l’entreveu des Rois, The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes:

For my part, who as much as I can endeavour to reduce the ceremonies of my house, I very often forget both the one and the other of these vain offices [of receiving and seeing off guests]. If, peradventure, some one may take offence at this, I can’t help it; it is much better to offend him once than myself every day, for it would be a perpetual slavery.

Pour moy j’oublie souvent l’un et l’autre de ces vains offices, comme je retranche en ma maison toute ceremonie. Quelqu’un s’en offence: qu’y ferois-je? Il vaut mieux que je l’offence pour une fois, que à moy tous les jours: ce seroit une subjection continuelle.

Malo me fortunae poeniteat, quam victoriae pudeat

From Montaigne’s Essais 1.6, L’Heure des Parlemens Dangereuse / The Hour of Parley is Dangerous:

….Et plus genereusement encore ce grand Alexandre à Polypercon, qui lui suadoit de se servir de l’avantage que l’obscurité de la nuict luy donnoit pour assaillir Darius: Point, fit-il, ce n’est pas à moy d’employer des victoires desrobées:

malo me fortunae poeniteat, quam victoriae pudeat.

And nobler still was the answer made by Alexander the Great to Polypercon, who was urging him one night to take advantage of the darkness to launch an attack against Darius: ‘Certainly not. I am not the man to thieve a victory and then follow it up!’

‘Malo me fortunae poeniteat, quam victoriae pudeat.’
I would rather complain of Fortune than feel ashamed of victory.

The story is taken from Quintus Curtius’ History of Alexander (4.13) where Alexander adds the additional argument, (carefully?) omitted by Montaigne, that the plan wouldn’t work anyway.

Almost all agreed with Parmenion [whose plan was to attack at night]; Polypercon thought that victory undoubtedly depended upon that plan. Alexander, looking solemnly at the latter—for he had lately chided Parmenion more severely than he wished and did not have the heart to upbraid him again—said: “The craft which you recommend to me is that of petty robbers and thieves; for their sole desire is to deceive. I will not suffer my glory always to be impaired by the absence of Darius, or by confined places, or by deceit by night. I am determined to attack openly by daylight; I prefer to regret my fortune rather than be ashamed of my victory. Besides, this consideration too is added; I am well aware that the barbarians keep watch by night and stand under arms, so that it is not really possible to deceive them. Therefore do you prepare for battle.” When they had been thus aroused, he bade them take food and rest.

Omnes ferme Parmenioni assentiebantur; Polypercon haud dubie in eo consilio positam victoriam arbitrabatur. Quem intuens rex—namque Parmenionem, nuper acrius quam vellet increpitum, rursus castigare non sustinebat—: “Latrunculorum” inquit, “et furum ista sollertia est quam praecipitis mihi; quippe illorum votum unicum est fallere. Meae vero gloriae semper aut absentiam Darei aut angustias locorum aut furtum noctis obstare non patiar. Palam luce aggredi certum est; malo me meae fortunae paeniteat quam victoriae pudeat. Ad haec illud quoque accedit; vigilias agere barbaros et in armis stare, ut ne decipi quidem possint, compertum habeo. Itaque ad proelium vos parate.” Sic incitatos ad corpora curanda dimisit.

The more he yelled out curses against sausage, beef tongue, and ham, the more relief he felt.

From Montaigne Essais 1.4 – Comme l’Ame Descharge ses Passions sur des Objects Faux, Quand les Vrais Luy Defaillent (How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones).

Un gentil-homme des nostres merveilleusement subject à la goutte, estant pressé par les medecins de laisser du tout l’usage des viandes salées, avoit accoustumé de respondre fort plaisamment, que sur les efforts et tourments du mal, il vouloit avoir à qui s’en prendre, et que s’escriant et maudissant tantost le cervelat, tantost la langue de boeuf et le jambon, il s’en sentoit d’autant allegé.

A gentleman of ours who is terribly subject to gout would answer his doctors quite amusingly when asked to give up salted meats entirely. He would say that he liked to have something to blame when tortured by the onslaughts of that illness: the more he yelled out curses against sausage, beef tongue, and ham, the more relief he felt.

Nous ne sommes jamais chez nous, nous sommes tousjours au delà

From Montaigne’s Nos affections s’emportent au delà de nous – Our emotions are carried beyond us.

We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more. [C] ‘Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius’ [Wretched is a mind anxious about the future].

Nous ne sommes jamais chez nous, nous sommes tousjours au delà.  La crainte, le desir, l’esperance, nous eslancent vers l’advenir: et nous desrobent le sentiment et la consideration de ce qui est, pour nous amuser à ce qui sera, voire quand nous ne serons plus.  Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius

The latin is from Seneca letter 98.

Timanthes and Iphigenia

From Montaigne 1.2 De la Tristesse (On Sadness):

…. the account goes on to tell us that Cambyses asked [Psammenitus] why he had remained unmoved by the fate of his son and daughter yet showed such emotion at the death of his friend. ‘Only the last of these misfortunes can be expressed by tears’, he replied; ‘the first two are way beyond any means of expression.’

That may explain the solution adopted by a painter in antiquity. He had to portray the grief shown on the faces of the people who were present when Iphigenia was sacrificed, giving each of them the degree of sorrow appropriate to his feelings of involvement in the death of that fair and innocent young woman. By the time he came to portray the father of Iphigenia he had exhausted all the resources of his art, so he painted him with his face veiled over, as though no countenance could display a grief so intense.

… elle adjouste que Cambises s’enquerant à Psammenitus, pourquoy ne s’estant esmeu au malheur de son fils et de sa fille, il portoit si impatiemment celuy d’un de ses amis: C’est, respondit-il, que ce seul dernier desplaisir se peut signifier par larmes, les deux premiers surpassans de bien loin tout moyen de se pouvoir exprimer. A l’aventure reviendroit à ce propos l’invention de cet ancien peintre, lequel, ayant à representer au sacrifice de Iphigenia le dueil des assistans, selon les degrez de l’interest que chacun apportoit à la mort de cette belle fille innocente, ayant espuisé les derniers efforts de son art, quand se vint au pere de la fille, il le peignit le visage couvert, comme si nulle contenance ne pouvoit representer ce degré de dueil.

The painter is Timanthes (4th century B.C) and the painting described is mentioned several times in Roman sources.

Pliny the Elder (35.74) says:

To return to Timanthes—he had a very high degree of genius. Orators have sung the praises of his Iphigenia, who stands at the altar awaiting her doom; the artist has shown all present full of sorrow, and especially her uncle, and has exhausted all the indications of grief, yet has veiled the countenance of her father himself. whom he was unable adequately to portray. There are also other examples of his genius, for instance a quite small panel of a Sleeping Cyclops, whose gigantic stature he aimed at representing even on that scale by painting at his side some Satyrs measuring the size of his thumb with a wand. Indeed Timanthes is the only artist in whose works more is always implied than is depicted, and whose execution, though consummate, is always surpassed by his genius.

Nam Timanthis vel plurimum adfuit ingenii. eius enim est Iphigenia oratorum laudibus celebrata, qua stante ad aras peritura cum maestos pinxisset omnes praecipueque patruum et tristitiae omnem imaginem consumpsisset, patris ipsius voltum velavit, quem digne non poterat ostendere. sunt et alia ingenii eius exempla, veluti Cyclops dormiens in parvola tabella, cuius et sic magnitudinem exprimere cupiens pinxit iuxta Satyros thyrso pollicem eius metientes. atque in unius huius operibus intelligitur plus semper quam pingitur et, cum sit ars summa, ingenium tamen ultra artem est.

And Cicero (Orator 22):

the poet avoids impropriety as the greatest fault which he can commit; he errs also if he puts the speech of a good man in the mouth of a villain, or that of a wise man in the mouth of a fool; so also the painter in portraying the sacrifice of Iphigenia, after representing Calchas as sad, Ulysses as still more so, Menelaus as in grief, felt that Agamemnon’s head must be veiled

quod si poeta fugit ut maximum vitium qui peccat etiam, cum probam orationem affingit improbo stultove sapientis; si denique pictor ille vidit, cum immolanda Iphigenia tristis Calchas esset, tristior Ulixes, maereret Menelaus, obvolvendum caput Agamemnonis esse, quoniam summum illum luctum penicillo non posset imitari;

The below fresco from Pompeii is sometimes thought to be a Roman copy of Timanthes’ work – though it would seem necessary to take copy in a somewhat loose sense.  Iphigenia is not standing at an altar as Pliny states and, Agamemnon excepted, I can’t match any of the figures with the emotions he or Cicero describe as so manifestly present.


Un subject merveilleusement vain, divers, et ondoyant

From Montaigne’s Essai 1.1 Par Divers Moyens On Arrive à Pareille Fin (By different means one arrives at the same end).

Certes, c’est un subject merveilleusement vain, divers, et ondoyant, que l’homme. Il est malaisé d’y fonder jugement constant et uniforme

Certainly he is a subject marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating – man.  It is not easy to found a steady and unchanging judgment on him.

There’s nothing remarkable in the sentiment but the word choice is so beautifully Montaigne and so good an instance of one of Proust’s insights into style:

Il en est ainsi pour tous les grands écrivains, la beauté de leurs phrases est imprévisible, comme est celle d’une femme qu’on ne connaît pas encore; elle est création puisqu’elle s’applique à un objet extérieur auquel ils pensent—et non à soi—et qu’ils n’ont pas encore exprimé. Un auteur de mémoires d’aujourd’hui, voulant sans trop en avoir l’air, faire du Saint-Simon, pourra à la rigueur écrire la première ligne du portrait de Villars: «C’était un assez grand homme brun… avec une physionomie vive, ouverte, sortante», mais quel déterminisme pourra lui faire trouver la seconde ligne qui commence par: «et véritablement un peu folle». La vraie variété est dans cette plénitude d’éléments réels et inattendus, dans le rameau chargé de fleurs bleues qui s’élance, contre toute attente, de la haie printanière qui semblait déjà comble, tandis que l’imitation purement formelle de la variété (et on pourrait raisonner de même pour toutes les autres qualités du style) n’est que vide et uniformité, c’est-à-dire ce qui est le plus opposé à la variété, et ne peut chez les imitateurs en donner l’illusion et en rappeler le souvenir que pour celui qui ne l’a pas comprise chez les maîtres.

So it is with all great writers: the beauty of their sentences is as unforeseeable as is that of a woman whom we have never seen; it is creative, because it is applied to an external object which they have thought of—as opposed to thinking about themselves—and to which they have not yet given expression. An author of memoirs of our time, wishing to write without too obviously seeming to be writing like Saint-Simon, might at a pinch give us the first line of his portrait of Villars: “He was a rather tall man, dark . . . with an alert, open, expressive physiognomy,” but what law of determinism could bring him to the discovery of Saint-Simon’s next line, which begins with “and, to tell the truth, a trifle mad”? The true variety is in this abundance of real and unexpected elements, in the branch loaded with blue flowers which shoots up, against all reason, from the spring hedgerow that seemed already overcharged with blossoms, whereas the purely formal imitation of variety (and one might advance the same argument for all the other qualities of style) is but a barren uniformity, that is to say the very antithesis of variety, and cannot, in the work of imitators, give the illusion or recall the memory of it save to a reader who has not acquired the sense of it from the masters themselves.

Montaigne’s annotations

In one of my often pricey midnight impulses a few weeks back I almost bought a three volume facsimile edition of the hand-annotated Bordeaux edition of Montaigne’s Essais.  There is a likely nicer single volume color edition printed in 2002 that I have never been able to find, while this is a 1987 black and white photostat copy printed by Slatkine.  Fortunately I exercised restraint and found a library willing to send me their copy for a bit.  It’s fascinating as insight into his revision process but – like my Proust facsimile –  impossible to read and, for general purposes, unnecessary next to the Pleiade edition that works (most of) his changes into the body of the text or the notes and variants section of the edition.


Les malheur est, de les dire curieusement

From Montaigne’s De l’utile et de l’honeste – with the Latin from Terence’s Heauton Timorumenos.  

Personne n’est exempt de dire des fadaises: les malheur est, de les dire curieusement:

Nae iste magno conatu magnas nugas dixerit

Cela ne me touche pas; les miennes m’eschappent aussi nonchallamment qu’elles le valent

No one is free from speaking bits of nonsense – the misfortune is in making an effort to say them:

Yes, that one with a great effort has said a great nothing

That doesn’t touch me; mine flow from me with as little conscious attention as they’re worth.