Friday, April 22, 2011

A Matter of Difficult and Dangerous Belief by Michael Montaigne (1533-1592)

I follow Saint Augustine’s opinion, that a man were better to bend towards doubt, than incline toward certainty, in matters of trial and dangerous belief.

Some years are now past that I traveled through the country of a Prince who, in favor of me, and to abate my incredulity, did me the grace, in his own presence, and in a particular place, to let me see ten or twelve prisoners of that kind; and amongst the others there was an old beldam witch, a true and perfect sorceress, both by her ugliness and deformity; and such a one as long before was most famous in that profession.

I saw both the proofs, witnesses, voluntary confessions, and some other insensible marks about this miserable old woman; I inquired and talked with her a long time, with the greatest attention I could, yet I am not easily carried away by preoccupation. In the end, and in my conscience, I should rather have appointed Helleborum [a cure], than Hemlock [a punishment]. Captisque res magis mentibus, quam consceleratis similis visa. ‘ The matter seemed liker to minds captivate than guilty.’

That privilege it hath pleased God to give some of our testimonies, ought not to be vilified, or slightly communicated but mine ears are filled with a thousand such tales. Three saw her such a day in the East; three saw her the next day in the West, at such an hour, and in such a place, and this and thus attired, verily in such a case I could not believe myself. How much more natural and more likely do I find it, that two men should lie than one, in twelve hours, pass with the winds, from East to West? How much more natural that our understanding may by the volubility of our loose-capering mind be transported from his place or that one of us should by a strange spirit be carried on a broom through the tunnel of a chimney?

Touching the oppositions and arguments against my opinions that honest men made unto me, both there, and often elsewhere, I have found none that tie me yet, admit that mine is not always a more likely solution than their conclusions. True it is that proofs and reasons grounded upon fact and experience I untie not for indeed they have no end but I often cut them, as Alexander did his knot although when all is said and done it is an over-valuing of one’s conjecture to by them cause a man to be burned alive.

I am neither a Judge, nor a counselor unto kings, very far from any such worthiness, but rather a man of the common stamp and both by my deeds and sayings, born and vowed to the obedience of public reason. He that should register my humors to the prejudice of the simplest law, or opinion, of custom of this village, would greatly wrong himself, and injure me as much. For in what I say, I gape for no other certainty, but such as was then my thought. A tumultuous and wavering thought. It is by way of discourse only that I speak at all and nothing by way of advise. Nec me pudet, ut istos, fateri nescire, quod nesciam. ‘Nor am I shamed, as they are to confess I know not that which I do not know.’

Many abuses are engendered into the World; or to speak more boldly, all the abuses in the World are engendered upon this, that we are taught to fear to make profession of our ignorance, and are bound to accept and follow all that we cannot refute, We speak of things by precepts and resolutions but I am drawn to hate likely things when men go about to set them down as infallible. I love, on the other hand, those words and phrases which mollify and moderate the temerity of our propositions" "It may be', 'Peradventutre', 'In some sort', 'Some', 'It is said', "I think' and such like and I have been a teacher I would have put this manner of answering in their mouths, inquiring and not resolving: 'What means it?', 'I understand it not', 'It may well be' that they should have rather kept the form of learners until three score years of age than present themselves Doctors at ten, as many do. There is some kind of ignorance strong and generous that for honor and courage is not beholding to knowledge: an ignorance which to conceive rightly there is required no less learning than to conceive true learning.

I would not be so hardy to speak, if was your duty to believe me: and so I answered a great man who blamed the sharpness and contention of my exhortations. When I see you bent and prepared on one side, with all the endeavor I can, I will propose the contrary to you, to resolve and enlighten your judgment but not to subdue and bind the same. God hath your hearts in his hands, and he will furnish you with a choice. I am not so malapert as to desire that my opinions alone to give sway to a matter of such important. My fortune has not raised them to so powerful and deep conclusions.

Truly, I have not only a great number of complexions, and an infinite many of opinions from which, had I a son of my own, I would dissuade him, willingly make him to distaste them. What? If the truest are not ever the most commodious for man, he being of so strange and untamed composition: whether it be to the purpose or from the purpose, it is no great matter.

"Of the Lame and Crippled", Florio's Montaigne, Third Book, Chapter 11. edited and abridged.


  1. Montaigne seems a fairly good example of how memoires and even philosophical works can function as novels now that their original function is less present in their readers.

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