Montaigne’s Essays – Part Three

Finally, this is the last of my postings on Montaigne’s selected essays, which I started at the beginning of my WEM Project.  I’ve enjoyed his unique character and passionate zest for all his topics that I plan to try to read through all his essays at some point.  Montaigne has the ability to mesmerize you, yet I could sometimes find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him in the same sentence.  His approach is so singularly charming, a mixing of intellect with storytelling, which make (most of) his essays a joy to read. 

On Freedom of Conscience:  Quite an unusual essay.  Montaigne examines Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, so called for having abandoned Catholicism. Nevertheless, Julian had a very tolerant view of religion and allowed all religions equal status.  Montaigne appears suspicious of these motives, claiming that this permissive action can have two outcomes:

1) “to give a loose rein to the factions to hold to their opinions, is to sow and scatter division, and almost to lend a hand to increase it, there being no barrier and restraint of the laws to check and impede its course.”

2)  “to give the factions the reins to hold to their beliefs is to render them soft and lax through ease and facility, and to blunt the edge which is sharpened by rarity, novelty and difficulty.”

Again, Montaigne shows the reader his ingenuity at being able to see more than one possibility.

We Can Savour Nothing Pure:  This is a somewhat melancholy essay. Montaigne reveals that because of the “feebleness of our condition”, we can experience nothing in its natural purity and that all the pleasures or goods that we enjoy are “compounded with some evil or injury.”  Every virtue is tainted with vice, every justice with injustice.

I love his example from Socrates: when Socrates said that the gods wished to join pleasure and pain together, but when they were unsuccessful, they decided to join them by their tails.

Est quædam flere voluptas ~ There is a certain pleasure in our tears.  (Ovid)

The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness (1875-93)
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

Against Indolence:  Montaigne gives examples of kings who, even though they were in situations that might work agains them, did not allow themselves to become slaves to idleness:

“…… there is nothing that can so justly disgust a subject, and make him unwilling to expose himself to hardships and dangers in the service of his Prince, as to see him all the while lolling in idleness, or busy over paltry and frivolous things ….”

As usual, Montaigne digresses, or perhaps, his topic deconstructs, as he begins with the offense of idleness in leaders, and moves on to how a man should die valiantly and how to meet death.

“……. bravely meeting death, is to look upon her not only without dismay, but unconcernedly, freely continuing one’s wonted course of life even into her very lap.”

And, oh my goodness, the sarcasm!!  He makes me laugh:

“Those who would number Kings of Castile and Portugal among warlike and great-hearted conquerors, because at twelve hundred leagues distance from their abodes of idleness, by the skin of their agents, they made themselves masters of the East and West Indies, may seek some other than myself to agree with them; since it is doubtful whether they would even have had the courage to go in person to take possession of their conquests.”

On Virtue:  With regard to actions spurred by emotion versus actions performed because of resolution or habit, Montaigne maintains that some great deeds can be accomplished by the former, but to truly gage the measure of a man, one must look to his common behaviour.

I was somewhat following him when he gives the example of Pyhrro distrusting human instinct, and so resolutely living by his philosophy, but I was completely confused by the example of a man, winning his love and then, when unable to perform, cutting off his penis and sending it to his mistress.  Further examples of maiming, suicide and death follow; Montaigne appearing to be lauding the people’s premeditated fortitude.

I can hardly make head nor tail of this essay, but is he possibly saying that virtue needs to be cultivated?  He later makes reference to fate, of everyone’s final hour being known, therefore nothing can prolong or shorten our lives.

Anger or The Tussle (1516)
Dosso Dossi
source Wikiart

On Anger:  Montaigne is upset that many places leave the governing of wife and children to the husband, who could be stupid and evil, instead of to the state (who obviously is completely pure and omniscient — do you sense my sacrasm?). He is often seeing children beaten in the street and justice does nothing.

As much as I disagree with the first part of Montaigne’s essay, the next part has some wonderful quotes:

“There is no passion that so disturbs the clearness of our judgement as anger.”

“Faults, when seen through passion, appear greater to us, like bodies seen through a mist.”

Children, servants, etc. should be punished thoughtfully and by using discretion, and thus, the punishment will be taken more to heart and have more effect.

Withheld anger, simmering under the surface is dangerous too, and it is better to have an outburst than have it fester and grow within.  Otherwise, make sure that your anger is controlled, short, and to the point, with no undisciplined passions, resulting in tirades or violence.

On the Useful and the Honourable:  Political office is often filled with lies, betrayal and violence.  Montaigne, however, has always conducted himself with an ingratiating and mildness of manner, and the utmost candour and disinterestedness.  He is not swayed by political passions nor private interest. He could play both sides, but he refuses.

I quite liked this quote:

“When one’s country is disturbed and the people are divided I think it neither handsome nor honourable to be a wobbler and a hybrid, to be unmoved in one’s affections and to incline to neither side.”

Montaigne dislikes war and prefers to be of use to both parties, but his methods of negotiating have not been appreciated, and therefore he prefers working in a private, as opposed to public, manner.

Leadership can require treachery and dishonourable action, but while the person may think that they’ll profit by this behaviour, the end may prove otherwise.

Repentance (1917)
Nicholas Roerich
source Wikiart

Of Repentance:  This essay was extremely difficult but I’ll give it a shot.  Montaigne announces that he very seldom repents. If you show vice, you will be troubled by it, if you show virtue, you will receive the award of its goodness.  To base your actions on other people’s opinions is to build an unsteady foundation. You alone know yourself.  There are base actions ingrained by habit in our will that we cannot fully escape, and are part of our nature, so what is the use of repenting them?

An evil person can be inspired to do good, just as a virtuous person can be inspired to act evilly.  To truly judge a man, one must see him at work at home, or at least in a state of repose.  Montaigne says that to act out a sin, the sin must have lived in the heart of a man and he must consciously will it, therefore, I wonder if he is implying that to repent is almost an insincere act? The disease itself needs to be thrown off.  God must work in our hearts and the conscious must be truly amended.  Wishing to be different is not true repentance.

Montaigne claims to take very little advice, but he gives even less.  He knows of nothing that his advice has benefitted and people do not often act on it, in any case.  Drawing upon a Stoic mindset, the universe unfolds as it may, and Montaigne is happy to be self-contained away from others and any responsibility concerning them.

My favourite quotes:

“Many a man has been a wonder in the eyes of the world in whom neither his wife nor his valet have ever detected anything even remarkable.  Few men have been admired by their own household.”

“To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, rule a people, are conspicuous actions.  To chide, laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, to live in communion with one’s people and oneself, pleasantly and correctly, not to give way to passion, not to contradict oneself; that is more rarely seen, more difficult and less remarked.”

On Experience:  Man has a great natural desire for knowledge but when reason fails, he looks to his experience.  Experience is not the greatest way to knowledge but in the noble search for truth, one may use any option at his means.  Montaigne uses examples from law, science, philosophy and religion to explain that as soon as you attempt to define truth through numerous different perspectives, truth itself is lost.  By spreading it out, we dilute it.

“Men do not realize the natural infirmity of their mind; it does nothing but ferret and hunt around, incessantly like a silkworm, and there suffocating.”

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

He has more wise words concerning life and death:

“But you do not die because you are ill; you die because you are alive.  Death will kill you right enough without the help of sickness.  And maladies have kept death away from some who have lived the longer for thinking they were dying. Besides, there are maladies, as there are wounds, that are medicinal and health-bringing.

…… Nature has given it (life) into our hands, trimmed with so many and such happy surrounding, that we have only ourselves to blame if we feel it a burden, and if we waste it unprofitably ….. And yet I am resigned to lose it without regret; but as a thing that is by its nature losable, not as if it were a troublesome burden …. Not to hate the idea of death is properly becoming only in those who enjoy life ……. It needs good management to enjoy life.  I enjoy it doubly as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends upon the more or less attention we give to it …… The shorter my possession of life the fuller and deeper must I live it …… Rather should we study, relish and ruminate it, in order to give adequate thanks to him who bestows it upon us.”

This last essay of Montaigne’s marries ideas contained in his former essays, showing through his life experience, as he uses various culinary, emotional, and especially physical examples, how life can be best approached and enjoyed.  It’s a fitting end to my reading of his selected essays!

The Canterbury Tales ~ Chaucer’s Retraction

Chaucer concludes his tales by stating that if this sermon has pleased anyone, it is because of Christ, but if it has displeased them, he takes all the blame. He prays for forgiveness for his translation of a number of well-known books, including “tales of Canterbury”, although only the tales that tend towards sin. He then bookends more spiritual books in his closing comments, perhaps hoping those more edifying books will wipe out any sins for his translation of any immoral ones.

There is speculation as to whether this Retraction was a death-bed retraction, a confession, written by someone else, a continuation of The Parson’s Tale, or simply a method employed to ensure his safety from the church for these sometimes bawdy tales.  While it’s entirely possible that Chaucer regretted writing such morally bankrupt stories, I think it more likely that Chaucer was simply giving himself an out.  Like Thomas More who is perhaps deliberately unclear with his intentions in Utopia to protect himself from the state, Chaucer gives himself an excuse for the church: yes, I did it but I’m very sorry and I’ll spend the rest of my life repenting.  How can one argue with that?

Chaucer as a pilgrim from
the Ellesmere manuscript
source Wikipedia

And here finishes my first, but not my last read, of The Canterbury Tales. They honestly exceeded all of my expectations.  Chaucer is not only a master of poetry, he is a master of human nature and a master of the reader.  One of my favourite reads of 2015!


Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene VI

Attack by Pirates (1880)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikiart

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene VI

A sailor arrives in Denmark and speaks with Horatio.  He hands over a letter from Hamlet and other letters for the King.  The letter reveals that the ship was attacked by pirates on its way to England and somehow Hamlet ended up as their only prisoner.  Hamlet urges Horatio to come to him immediately as he has amazing things to tell him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are headed to England.

Horatio rushes to deliver the letters so he can set off to find Hamlet directly.

Combat naval, ou un navire maltais attaqué par des pirates algériens

Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherbourg


Okay, this is interesting.  Hamlet has been abducted by pirates.  He is the only prisoner.  I have a hard time believing that the Prince of Denmark is the only one taken by the pirates, unless he put himself in a position to be taken.   He must know that he would be safe if he could get Claudius to pay for his release.  And in reality, he is only going from being a prisoner in one camp, to being a prisoner in another.  His actions are brilliant, and once again, he keeps Claudius on his toes, always unsure of Hamlet’s actions, and now even his whereabouts.  Hamlet may have been lamenting his inaction in previous scenes, but the torture of uncertainty that he is putting Claudius through must be excruciating.  Is his inaction more effective than action?

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene V

Ophelia Before the King and Queen (1792)
Benjamin West
source Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene V

Wow, does the painting above truly highlight Ophelia’s madness, or what?  But I’m getting ahead of myself ……..  However, not too much ahead because the second person in this scene, in the third line, a gentleman speaking to Gertrude, announces Ophelia’s madness.  However, in this unsettled state of Denmark, people are listening to Ophelia’s babbling and drawing conclusions from it.  Horatio suggests that it might be wise to speak with her to learn of the danger of her condition.  While waiting, Gertrude perhaps gives the first sight of guilt in her actions, referring to her sin.  However, she shows compassion for the poor girl’s plight as Ophelia spews drivel about tombs and Valentine’s Day and lost virginity.

The First Madness of Ophelia (1864)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikiart

Claudius is affected by Ophelia’s madness, but also makes reference to unrest and strife in his kingdom due to his hastily burying Polonius without a state funeral. He also reveals that Laertes has secretly returned from France and his good sense is being poisoned by gossip.  He’s concerned that Laertes will place the blame on him.  Poor, poor, Claudius ……… (gag!)

A messenger arrives, announcing that the people are shouting for Laertes as king.  The doors break open and Laertes arrives, angry in his grief and looking for revenge. He demands to know what happened to his father, but Claudius does not tell him, choosing instead to try to bring him to sense and emphasize his friendship with him and his father. Ophelia interrupts their discourse, and Laertes’ grief increases as he witnesses the result of her broken mind.  Claudius attempts to join him in his sorrow, but suggests he bring his wisest friends to judge on Claudius’ guilt or innocence.

“And where the offense is, let the great ax fall.”


I was somewhat disappointed that the reader is rather whacked over the head with Ophelia’s madness.  There is no prelude, no leading up to it, no real example of excess paternal devotion that may make the outcome truly believable.  I believe it because I’ve been whacked with it, but for no other reason.

Ophelia (1888)
Marcus Stone
source Wikimedia Commons

Has anyone ever speculated about Ophelia’s story of the girl who loses her virginity to a man, and then the man refuses to marry her?  I was wondering if it had anything to do with her relationship with Hamlet, but really it’s not clear — you’d probably have to employ rampant speculation here.  I also wondered if the lost of virginity might simply echo of the loss of Ophelia’s innocence, in her belief that the world is good.  She has not only lost her love (Hamlet), she has now lost her father forever.  Her character has always come across as sweet, simple and uncomplicated.  These tragedies in her life, coming so close together are just too much for her to bear.

Laertes is a mirror of Hamlet when he says:

“That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries “Cuckold!” to my father, brands the “harlot”
Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
Of my true mother.”

He is not his father’s son until he avenges his death.  Hmmm ….. Hamlet all over again ……

Ophelia is speaking nonsense but we do get sense from her when she gives Gertrude fennel and columbines to signify adultery and to Claudius rue for repentance.  Again, we have a foil in Ophelia’s madness to Hamlet’s.  She is truly mad and sometimes speaks sense, and his madness is a pretense (so far) impregnated with sense.  As Laertes notes about his sister: “A document in madness.  Thoughts and remembrance fitted.”

Is anyone else truly flabbergasted by the complete political ineptitude of Claudius?  He kills the first King, acts too hastily in marrying Gertrude, does not deal with Hamlet and perhaps acts too hastily in sending him away, which unsettles the populous, and NOW he has buried Polonius hastily without the proper ceremonies and trappings.  What was he thinking?  Not only does he make mistakes, he makes them again and again and again, apparently not learning anything from the previous ones.  Sigh!  I can’t imagine what blunder he’s going to make next!

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Classics Club Spin #11 ………… And the Winner Is ………

Number 19 !!
Oh, my!  This means that I’ll be reading C.S. Lewis’  God in the Dock.

Yikes.  On one hand, I was really wanting to avoid this book because I know that it’s going to take quite a bit of brain power, but on the other, I’m anticipating it because I know that it will be rich with ideas and meaning. Even donning his scholar’s hat, Lewis is so immensely practical and gracious to others.  I’ve read the first essay and right away he is lauding the positive aspects of a philosophy that he disagrees with.  I really love the guy.

Yet realistically, I’m not going to finish this by February 1st.  I don’t want to rush through it and miss the gems that Lewis has to offer, and I’d like to journal as I go to better understand what I’m reading.  All of this will take time, so if I don’t finish on February 1st, I’ll be still plugging away.  That’s my prediction although stranger things have happened.

Enjoy your spin books, fellow Bloggers!

The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton

“Along some parts of the coast in South Wales the mountains rise abruptly from the shore, with only a narrow shingle between them and the sea.”

Miss Priscilla Parry is a farm leaseholder, the last of three generations before the farm will revert to its landlord.  She ekes out a living on the craggy, unfertile land, selling butter, cheese and mutton to manage a poor living.  Her life’s work is epitomized in her determination to make her teenage ward and niece, Rhoda, independent, so she will never be forced to marry, the biggest misfortune, in Priscilla’s eyes, that a woman could face.

When another niece dies and leaves a child, Joan, an orphan, Priscilla grudging agrees to take her in, yet in her concern that the plans for Rhoda not be compromised, she gives the child rather a lukewarm welcome and questionable care.  Little does she need another girl to worry and fret about her future.  Rhoda, however, adores young Joan, and they quickly become fast friends.  When Christmas arrives, they play a game of looking for the Christ child in their manager, but on the second Christmas Rhoda disappears and the household is thrown into mourning.  Old Nathan, the servant, is the only one to comfort Joan, as Priscilla withdraws into a cold demeanour of disappointed hopes.

However, the next Christmas, a child is discovered sleeping in the manager, a child that will bring hope, restoration and joy back into the lives of Priscilla, Joan and old Nathan, echoing the mission of that first manger child long, long ago.

This is a wonderful story of love, mistakes, forgiveness and reconciliation. Coincidentially, I found this article when searching for pictures for my blog post.  Hopefully the life of this little one will bring joy into this world as well.

View north into Cwm Llwch from Corn Du
source Wikipedia

Classics Club Spin #11

Well, my last spin was a fail, so I was humming-and-hawing over whether I should do this one, but …….. I really need to start concentrating on my Classics Club list, if I want to finish it on time.  So, I’m in.

As per usual, the rules for the spin are:

  1. Go to your blog.
  2. Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club list.
  3. Post that list, numbered 1 – 20, on your blog by next Monday.
  4. Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1 – 20.  Go to the list of twenty books you posted and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  5. The challenge is to read that book by February 1st.

I used the random list organizer here to choose the 20 books from my master list.  So my list ended up looking like this:
  1. She Stoops to Conquer (1773) – Oliver Goldsmith
  2. Dead Souls (1842) – Nikolai Gogol 
  3. Kidnapped (1886) – Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. The History of the Pelopponesian War (431 B.C.) – Thucydides 
  5. Huckleberry Finn (1884) – Mark Twain 
  6. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  7. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962) – Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  8. Brideshead Revisited (1945) – Evelyn Waugh
  9. The Lord of the Flies (1954) – William Golding
  10. On the Imitation of Christ (1418-27) – Thomas à Kempis
  11. Moby Dick (1851) – Herman Melville
  12. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) – John Bunyan
  13. On the Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  14. The Silver Chalice (1952) – Thomas Costain
  15. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) – Barbara Tuchman 
  16. The Custom of the Country (1913) – Edith Wharton
  17. Fear and Trembling (1843) – Søren Kierkegaard
  18. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
  19. God in the Dock (1970) – C.S. Lewis
  20. Au Page d’Amour (1878) – Émile Zola
Well, my last spin was a fail, so I was humming-and-hawing over whether I should do this one, but …….. I really need to star concentrating on my Classics Club list, if I want to finish it on time.  So, I’m in.

I don’t know why, but I’m not excited about this list.  Is it because it seems unbalanced?  I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because there is no book that really pops out at me and give me an anticipatory thrill.

Five books that I’m dreading to read:

1.  Moby Dick (no explanation necessary, right?)
2.  Brideshead Revisited (I’m not sure why this is on my list)
3.  A Distant Mirror (for length)
4.  God in the Dock (not in the mood to do it justice)
5.  On the Imitation of Christ (only because I have no idea what to expect)

Five book that I’m reasonably curious about:

1.  The History of the Pelopponesian War
2.  On the Social Contract
3.  Moby Dick
4.  God in the Dock
5.  Custom of the Country

Yes, I’m both excited and dreading Moby Dick and God in the Dock.  With A Small House at Allington, if I get it, I’ll switch it out for Framley Parsonage, which is the next book on schedule for my Barsetshire read.  Similarly with Zola, I would switch Au Page d’Amour to La Révè, which again is next in the Rougon-Marquart series.
Spin away, oh, Classics Club and I will accept my fate!

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene IV

Hamlet  ~  Act IV  Scene IV

Hamlet comes upon the captain of Fortinbras’ army who has arrived to pass through the kingdom on their way to Poland.  Upon questioning the captain, Hamlet discovers that the piece of Polish land being fought over is really worthless, and Hamlet laments the loss of money and lives over such a trivial thing.

Hamlet then sinks into a fantastic soliloquy, comparing Fortinbras’ venture to his own poor inaction.  Fortinbras’ is prepared to go to his death with an army of twenty thousand over an illusion, yet Hamlet has cause to fight, but is so far showing himself a coward.  He spurs his thoughts on to violence.

Hamlet tries to show his mother, Gertrude, his
father’s ghost (1778)
Nicolai A. Abildgaard
source Wikipedia


Hamlet is still appearing very sane and reasonable.  He questions the captain with great astuteness and judges the situation with a rational insight.

His soliloquy is quite wonderful.  I wonder however …….. at the beginning of his speech, he ridicules over-thinking without action, yet at the end he says, “From now on, if my thoughts aren’t violent I’ll consider them worthless.” Hamlet is still focused on his thoughts, and for all his blustering for action, again appears unprepared to act.  However, by concentrating on violence, perhaps he is slowly moving towards the culmination of his desire.  All in good time, Hamlet.

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene III

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene III

No one knows where Hamlet has placed Polonius’ body, and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern’s efforts at discovery have been fruitless, therefore Claudius calls Hamlet before him.  Hamlet plays with him a little, a cat and mouse type of game, increasing Claudius’ horror of his act until he divulges the location. Claudius reveals that he is sending Hamlet to England, and Hamlet receives the information with a calm disinterestedness.  Out of Hamlet’s hearing, Claudius urges speed and reveals that he has commissioned the English king to execute Hamlet.  He hopes that the fear of Denmark’s past deeds to England will secure this edict.


Ah, Hamlet quite cleverly, advises Claudius to look in Hell for the body of Polonius:

“In heaven.  Send hither to see.  If your messenger find him 
not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself…..”

It’s quite appalling how Claudius can transform from a dear, doting, sympathetic figure to a cold-blooded murderer.  It’s becoming more apparent how he could have disposed of King Hamlet.  He sees the present Hamlet as a disease affecting himself and one that needs to be eradicated.

Hell (1500-04)
Hieronymus Bosch
source Wikiart