Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

Montaigne opens the piece with a comment on writing, lamenting that there were so many “scribblers” in his age; probably the result of the freedom that the recent development of the printing press gave to writers such as himself. It seems relevant today: the internet has opened similar opportunities for bloggers to scribble, as I do*:

…there should be some restraint of law against foolish and impertinent scribblers, as well as against vagabonds and idle persons; which if there were, both I and a hundred others would be banished from the reach of our people. I do not speak this in jest: scribbling seems to be a symptom of a disordered and licentious age. When did we write so much as since our troubles? when the Romans so much, as upon the point of ruin? Besides that, the refining of wits does not make people wiser in a government: this idle employment springs from this, that every one applies himself negligently to the duty of his vocation, and is easily debauched from it.

And as usual, the chapter is peppered with quotes from the classic authors, many of which have their relevance today:

“Multi fallere do cuerunt, dum timent falli; et aliis jus peccandi suspicando fecerunt.”
“Many have taught others to deceive, while they fear to be deceived, and, by suspecting them, have given them a title to do ill.”
Seneca, Epist., 3.]

That has a certain local resonance, doesn’t it? Montaigne also comments on having his words taken out of context:

Where they wholly break the sense, I am very little concerned, for they at least discharge me; but where they substitute a false one, as they so often do, and wrest me to their conception, they ruin me. When the sentence, nevertheless, is not strong enough for my proportion, a civil person ought to reject it as spurious, and none of mine. Whoever shall know how lazy I am, and how indulgent to my own humour, will easily believe that I had rather write as many more essays, than be tied to revise these over again for so childish a correction.

He also adds that he does not live by the opinions of others, but rather by his own moral compass,

As to what concerns age, which is alleged against me, ’tis quite contrary; ’tis for youth to subject itself to common opinions, and to curb itself to please others; it has wherewithal to please both the people and itself; we have but too much ado to please ourselves alone.

A bit later on, he comments,

…our licence carries us beyond what is lawful and allowed, men have, often beyond universal reason, stretched the precepts and rules of our life:
“Nemo satis credit tantum delinquere, quantum permittas.”
["No one thinks he has done ill to the full extent of what he may." —Juvenal, xiv. 233.]

And another line pulled from the classics:

Nulla placida quies est, nisi quam ratio composuit.
“There is no tranquillity but that which reason has conferred.” —Seneca, Ep., 56.

Montaigne concludes his rambling essay thus with typical words of wise warning and a powerful final line:

This opinion and common usage to observe others more than ourselves has very much relieved us that way: ’tis a very displeasing object: we can there see nothing but misery and vanity: nature, that we may not be dejected with the sight of our own deformities, has wisely thrust the action of seeing outward. We go forward with the current, but to turn back towards ourselves is a painful motion; so is the sea moved and troubled when the waves rush against one another. Observe, says every one, the motions of the heavens, of public affairs; observe the quarrel of such a person, take notice of such a one’s pulse, of such another’s last will and testament; in sum, be always looking high or low, on one side, before or behind you. It was a paradoxical command anciently given us by that god of Delphos: “Look into yourself; discover yourself; keep close to yourself; call back your mind and will, that elsewhere consume themselves into yourself; you run out, you spill yourself; carry a more steady hand: men betray you, men spill you, men steal you from yourself. Dost thou not see that this world we live in keeps all its sight confined within, and its eyes open to contemplate itself? ‘Tis always vanity for thee, both within and without; but ’tis less vanity when less extended. Excepting thee, O man, said that god, everything studies itself first, and has bounds to its labours and desires, according to its need. There is nothing so empty and necessitous as thou, who embracest the universe; thou art the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and, after all, the fool of the farce.”

The “investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction,” who is the “fool of the farce.” Damn, I love reading Montaigne. He hits the nail on the head so many times.

~~~~~~

* Montaigne also wrote of himself as a writer, again self-deprecating of his talents in other parts of his books:

My God! Madame, how should I hate such a recommendation of being a clever fellow at writing, and an ass and an inanity in everything else! Yet I had rather be a fool both here and there than to have made so ill a choice wherein to employ my talent. And I am so far from expecting to gain any new reputation by these follies, that I shall think I come off pretty well if I lose nothing by them of that little I had before. For besides that this dead and mute painting will take from my natural being, it has no resemblance to my better condition, but is much lapsed from my former vigour and cheerfulness, growing faded and withered: I am towards the bottom of the barrel, which begins to taste of the lees.
Book 2, Chapter XXXVII – Of the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers

One thought on “Inanity and vanity


  1. Damn, the Amazon blues again. I had expected to come home from London to a package with the paperback version of The Essays, but Amazon sent me a message saying it wouldn’t arrive until early September. Very frustrating when you order something allegedly in stock, that turns out to be on order instead.