Michel de Montaigne Quotes
Quotes from the Essays, in context
I only quote others the better to quote myself.
Translation by M. A. Screech from book 1, chapter 26: On the Education of Children • In French: Je ne dis les autres, sinon pour d’autant plus me dire.
To cover a man’s self (as I have seen some do) with another man’s armor, so as not to discover so much as his fingers’ ends; to carry on a design (as it is not hard for a man that has anything of a scholar in him, in an ordinary subject to do) under old inventions, patched up here and there with his own trumpery, and then to endeavor to conceal the theft, and to make it pass for his own, is injustice and meanness of spirit in those who do it, who having nothing in them of their own fit to procure them a reputation, endeavor to do it by attempting to impose things upon the world in their own name, which they have no manner of title to…. For my own part, there is nothing I would not sooner do than that, neither have I said so much of others, but to get a better opportunity to explain myself. →
He who fears he shall suffer already suffers what he fears.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 3, chapter 13: On Experience • In French: Qui craint de souffrir, il souffre desja de ce qu’il craint. • M. A. Screech’s translation: Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid.
Now if I feel anything stirring, do not fancy that I trouble myself to consult my pulse or my urine, thereby to put myself upon some annoying prevention; I shall soon enough feel the pain, without making it more and longer, by the disease of fear. He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears. To which may be added, that the doubts and ignorance of those who take upon them to expound the designs of nature and her internal progressions, and the many false prognostics of their art, ought to give us to understand that her ways are inscrutable and utterly unknown; there is great uncertainty, variety, and obscurity in what she either promises or threatens. →
He who will establish this proposition by authority and huffing discovers his reason to be very weak.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 3, chapter 11: On the Lame • In French: . Qui establit son discours par braverie et commandement, montre que la raison y est foible. • M. A. Screech’s translation: Any man who supports his opinion with challenges and commands demonstrates that his reasons for it are weak. • Donald M. Frame’s translation: He who imposes his argument by bravado and command shows that it is weak in reason.
I see very well that men get angry, and that I am forbidden to doubt upon pain of execrable injuries; a new way of persuading! Thank God, I am not to be cuffed into belief. Let them be angry with those who accuse their opinion of falsity; I only accuse it of difficulty and boldness, and condemn the opposite affirmation equally, if not so imperiously, with them. He who will establish this proposition by authority and huffing discovers his reason to be very weak. →
When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?
Translation by M. A. Screech from book 2, chapter 12: Apology for Raymond Sebond • In French: . Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait, si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle ?
’Tis by the same vanity of imagination that (man) equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals? From what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them?
When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers. →
Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 2, chapter 17: On Presumption • In French: . Ne pouvant regler les evenemens, je me regle moy-mesme.
In a danger, I do not so much consider how I shall escape it, as of how little importance it is, whether I escape it or no: should I be left dead upon the place, what matter? Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and apply myself to them, if they will not apply themselves to me. I have no great art to evade, escape from or force fortune, and by prudence to guide and incline things to my own bias. I have still less patience to undergo the troublesome and painful care therein required; and the most uneasy condition for me is to be suspended on urgent occasions, and to be agitated betwixt hope and fear. →
When seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 3, chapter 13: On Experience • In French: Au plus eslevé throne du monde, si ne sommes nous assis, que sus nostre cul. • M. A. Screech’s translation: Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.
’Tis an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how there to reside. ’Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and, when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.
The fairest lives, in my opinion, are those which regularly accommodate themselves to the common and human model; without miracle, without extravagance. →
The most profound joy has more of severity than gaiety in it.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 2, chapter 20: We Taste Nothing Pure • In French: La profonde joye a plus de severité, que de gayeté.
Our extremest pleasure has some sort of groaning and complaining in it; would you not say that it is dying of pain? Nay, when we frame the image of it in its full excellence, we stuff it with sickly and painful epithets and qualities, languor, softness, feebleness, faintness, morbidezza: a great testimony of their consanguinity and consubstantiality.
The most profound joy has more of severity than gaiety, in it. The highest and fullest contentment offers more of the grave than of the merry: Ipsa felicitas, se nisi temperat, premit.
Pleasure chews and grinds us; according to the old Greek verse, which says that the gods sell us all the goods they give us; that is to say, that they give us nothing pure and perfect, and that we do not purchase but at the price of some evil. →
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.
Translation by Donald M. Frame from book 1, chapter 39: On Solitude • In French: La plus grande chose du monde c’est de sçavoir estre à soy.
We must break the knot of our obligations, how strong soever, and hereafter love this or that, but espouse nothing, but ourselves: that is to say, let the remainder be our own, but not so joined and so close as not to be forced away without flaying us or tearing out part of our whole. The greatest thing in the world is for a man to know that he is his own. ’Tis time to wean ourselves from society, when we can no longer add anything to it; he who is not in a condition to lend must forbid himself to borrow. →
My métier, my art, is to live.
Translator unknown, from book 2, chapter 6: On Practice • In French: Mon mestier et mon art, c’est vivre. • M. A. Screech’s translation: My business, my art, is to live my life. • Donald M. Frame’s translation: My trade and my art is living. • Montaigne reuses this motif in book 2, chapter 37 (On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers): “I have made it my whole business to frame my life: this has been my trade and my work.”
My trade and art is to live; he that forbids me to speak according to my own sense, experience, and practice, may as well enjoin an architect not to speak of building according to his own knowledge, but according to that of his neighbor; according to the knowledge of another, and not according to his own. If it be vainglory for a man to publish his own virtues, why does not Cicero prefer the eloquence of Hortensius, and Hortensius that of Cicero? →
No wind favors he who has no destined port.
Translator unknown, from book 2, chapter 1: On the Inconsistency of Our Actions • In French: . Nul vent fait pour celuy qui n’a point de port destiné. • M. A. Screech’s translation: No wind is right for a seaman who has no predetermined harbour. • Donald M. Frame’s translation: No wind works for the man who has no port of destination.
(I)t is impossible for any one to arrange the pieces, who has not the whole form already contrived in his imagination. Of what use are colors to him that knows not what he is to paint? No one lays down a certain design for his life, and we only deliberate thereof by pieces. The archer ought first to know at what he is to aim, and then accommodate his arm, bow, string, shaft, and motion to it; our counsels deviate and wander, because not levelled to any determinate end. No wind serves him who addresses his voyage to no certain port. →
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 1, chapter 32: Hazarding an Opinion on God’s Plans Demands Caution • In French: Il n’est rien creu si fermement, que ce qu’on sçait le moins.
For which reason, says Plato, it is much more easy to satisfy the hearers, when speaking of the nature of the gods than of the nature of men, because the ignorance of the auditory affords a fair and large career and all manner of liberty in the handling of abstruse things.
Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians. →
Whatever I deliver myself to be, provided it be such as I really am, I have my end.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 2, chapter 17: On Presumption • In French: Mais quel que je me face cognoistre, pourveu que je me face cognoistre tel que je suis, je fay mon effect.
By these features of my confession men may imagine others to my prejudice: but whatever I deliver myself to be, provided it be such as I really am, I have my end; neither will I make any excuse for committing to paper such mean and frivolous things as these: the meanness of the subject compells me to it. They may, if they please, accuse my project, but not my progress: so it is, that without anybody’s needing to tell me, I sufficiently see of how little weight and value all this is, and the folly of my design. →
If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 1, chapter 28: On Friendship • In French: Si on me presse de dire pourquoy je l’aymoys, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer, qu’en respondant : Par ce que c’estoit luy, par ce que c’estoit moy. • M. A. Screech’s translation: If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: “Because it was him; because it was me.”
But in the friendship I speak of, [our souls] mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think ’twas by some secret appointment of heaven. →
That we may whet and sharpen our wits by rubbing them against those of others.
Translation by Charles Cotton from book 1, chapter 26: On the Education of Children • In French: Pour frotter et limer nostre cervelle contre celle d’autruy. • M. A. Screech’s translation: Knocking off our corners by rubbing our brains against other people’s.
And for this reason, conversation with men is of very great use and travel into foreign countries; not to bring back (as most of our young monsieurs do) an account only of how many paces Santa Rotonda is in circuit; or of the richness of Signora Livia’s petticoats; or, as some others, how much Nero’s face, in a statue in such an old ruin, is longer and broader than that made for him on some medal; but to be able chiefly to give an account of the humors, manners, customs, and laws of those nations where he has been, and that we may whet and sharpen our wits by rubbing them against those of others. I would that a boy should be sent abroad very young, and first, so as to kill two birds with one stone, into those neighbouring nations whose language is most differing from our own, and to which, if it be not formed betimes, the tongue will grow too stiff to bend. →
And, finally, the most famous things Montaigne never wrote: My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. While it sounds like something he (or Mark Twain, to whom this is also often misattributed) could have written, it is not. Time to take down those inspirational Instagram posts!