The Common Privileges of Transcribing from Others, and Digressing from Himself

‘I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nutshell; but it has been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nutshell in an Iliad. There is no doubt that human life has received most wonderful advantages from both; but to which of the two the world is chiefly indebted, I shall leave among the curious, as a problem worthy of their utmost inquiry. For the invention of the latter, I think the commonwealth of learning is chiefly obliged to the great modern improvement of digressions: the late refinements in knowledge running parallel to those of diet in our nation, which, among men of a judicious taste, are dressed up in various compounds, consisting in soups and olios, fricassees, and ragouts.

It is true, there is a sort of morose, detracting, ill-bred people, who pretend utterly to disrelish these polite innovations; and as to the similitude from diet, they allow the parallel, but are so bold [as] to pronounce the example itself a corruption and degeneracy of taste. They tell us that the fashion of jumbling fifty things together in a dish was at first introduced in compliance to a depraved and debauched appetite as well as to a crazy constitution: and to see a man hunting through an olio after the head and brains of a goose, a widgeon, or a woodcock, is a sign he wants a stomach and digestion for more substantial victuals. Farther, they affirm that digressions in a book are like foreign troops in a state, which argue the nation to want a heart and hands of its own, and often either subdue the natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful corners.

But, after all that can be objected by these supercilious censors, it is manifest the society of writers would quickly be reduced to a very inconsiderable number, if men were put upon making books, with the fatal confinement of delivering nothing beyond what is to the purpose. It is acknowledged, that were the case the same among us as with the Greeks and Romans, when learning was in its cradle, to be reared and fed and clothed by invention; it would be an easy task to fill up volumes upon particular occasions, without farther expatiating from the subjects than by moderate excursions, helping to advance or clear the main design. But with knowledge it has fared as with a numerous army, encamped in a fruitful country; which, for a few days, maintains itself by the product of the soil it is on; till, provisions being spent, they send to forage many a mile, among friends or enemies, it matters not. Meanwhile the neighbouring fields, trampled and beaten down, become barren and dry affording no sustenance but clouds of dust.

The whole course of things being thus entirely changed between us and the ancients, and the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method, to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking. The most accomplished way of using books at present is two-fold: either, first, to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or secondly, which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms; therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door. For the arts are all in a flying march, and therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge by throwing their wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows with flinging salt upon their tails. Thus human life is best understood by the wise man’s rule of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found like Hercules’s oxen, by tracing them backwards. Thus are old sciences unravelled, like old stockings, by beginning at the foot.

Besides all this, the army of the sciences has been of late, with a world of martial discipline, drawn into its close order, so that a view or a muster may be taken of it with abundance of expedition. For this great blessing we are wholly indebted to systems and abstracts, in which the modern fathers of learning, like prudent usurers, spent their sweat for the ease of us their children. For labour is the seed of idleness, and it is the peculiar happiness of our noble age to gather the fruit.

Now, the method of growing wise, learned, and sublime, having become so regular an affair, and so established in all its forms; the numbers of writers must needs have increased accordingly, and to a pitch that has made it of absolute necessity for them to interfere continually with each other. Besides, it is reckoned that there is not at this present a sufficient quantity of new matter left in nature to furnish and adorn any one particular subject to the extent of a volume. This I am told by a very skilful computer, who has given a full demonstration of it from rules of arithmetic.

This perhaps may be objected against by those who maintain the infinity of matter, and therefore will not allow that any species of it can be exhausted. For answer to which, let us examine the noblest branch of modern wit or invention planted and cultivated by the present age, and which of all others has borne the most and the fairest fruit. For though some remains of it were left us by the ancients, yet have not any of those, as I remember, been translated or compiled, into systems for modern use. Therefore we may affirm, to our own honour, that it has, in some sort, been both invented and brought to a perfection by the same hands. What I mean is that highly celebrated talent among the modern wits of deducing similitudes, allusions, and applications, very surprising, agreeable, and apposite, from the pudenda of either sex, together with their proper uses. And truly, having observed how little invention bears any vogue, besides what is derived into these channels, I have sometimes had a thought that the happy genius of our age and country was prophetically held forth by that ancient typical description of the Indian pigmies, whose stature did not exceed above two foot; sed quorum pudenda crassa, et ad talos usque pertingentia. Now, I have been very curious to inspect the late productions wherein the beauties of this kind have most prominently appeared; and although this vein has bled so freely, and all endeavours have been used in the power of human breath to dilate, extend, and keep it open; like the Scythians, who had a custom, and an instrument, to blow up the privities of their mares, that they might yield the more milk: yet I am under an apprehension it is near growing dry, and past all recovery; and that either some new fonde of wit should if possible be provided, or else that we must e’en be content with repetition here, as well as upon all other occasions.

This will stand as an uncontestable argument, that our modem wits are not to reckon upon the infinity of matter for a constant supply. What remains therefore, but that our last recourse must be had to large indexes, and little compendiums? quotations must be plentifully gathered, and booked in alphabet; to this end, though authors need be little consulted, yet critics, and commentators, and lexicons carefully must. But, above all, those judicious collectors of bright parts, and flowers, and observandas, are to be nicely dwelt on; by some called the sieves and boulters of learning, though it is left undetermined whether they dealt in pearls or meal, and consequently, whether we are more to value that which passed through, or what stayed behind.

By these methods, in a few weeks, there starts up many a writer capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects. For what though his head be empty, provided his common-place-book be full? and if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and style, and grammar, and invention; allow him but the common privileges of transcribing from others, and digressing from himself, as often as he shall see occasion; he will desire no more ingredients towards fitting up a treatise that shall make a very comely figure on a bookseller’s shelf; there to be preserved neat and clean for a long eternity, adorned with the heraldry of its title fairly inscribed on a label; never to be thumbed or greased by students, nor bound to everlasting chains of darkness in a library: but when the fullness of time is come, shall happily undergo the trial of purgatory, in order to ascend the sky.

Without these allowances, how is it possible we modern wits should ever have an opportunity to introduce our collections, listed under so many thousand heads of a different nature; for want of which the learned world would be deprived of infinite delight, as well as instruction, and we ourselves buried beyond redress in an inglorious and undistinguished oblivion?

From such elements as these, I am alive to behold the day wherein the corporation of authors can outvie all its brethren in the guild. A happiness derived to us with a great many others, from our Scythian ancestors, among whom the number of pens was so infinite, that the Grecian eloquence had no other way of expressing it than by saying that in the regions far to the north it was hardly possible for a man to travel, the very air was so replete with feathers.

The necessity of this digression will easily excuse the length; and I have chosen for it as proper a place as I could readily find. If the judicious reader can assign a fitter, I do here impower him to remove it into any other corner he pleases. And so I return with great alacrity to pursue a more important concern.’

Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub.


‘And touching bookes: historie is my chiefe studie, poesie my only delight, to which I am particularly affected: for as Cleanthes said, that as the voice being forciblie pent in the narrow gullet of a trumpet, at last issueth forth more strong and shriller , so me seemes, that a sentence cunningly and closely couched in measure-keeping Posie, darts it selfe forth more furiously, and wounds me even to the quicke. And concerning the naturall faculties that are in me (whereof behold here an essay). I perceive them to faint under their owne burthen; my conceits, and my judgement march but uncertaine, and as it were groping, staggering, and stumbling at every rush: And when I have gone as far as I can, I have no whit pleased my selfe: for the further I saile the more land I descrie, and that so dimmed with fogges, and overcast with clouds, that my sight is so weakened, I cannot distinguish the same.

And then undertaking to speake indifferently of all that presents it selfe unto my fantasie, and having nothing put mine owne naturall meanes to imploy therein, if it be my hap (as commonly it is) among good Authors, to light upon those verie places which I have undertaken to treat off, as even now I did in Plutarke, reading his discourse of the power of imagination, wherein in regard of those wise men, I acknowledge my selfe so weake and so poore, so dull and grose-headed, as I am forced both to pittie and disdaine my selfe, yet am I pleased with this; that my opinions have often the grace to jump with theirs, and that I follow them a loofe-off, and thereby possesse at least, that which all other men have not; which is, that I know the utmost difference between them and my selfe: all which notwithstanding, I suffer my inventions to run abroad, as weake and faint as I have produced them, without bungling and botching the faults which this comparison hath discovered to me in them. A man had need have a stronge backe, to undertake to march foot to foot with these kind of men. The indiscreet writers of our age, amidst their triviall compositions, intermingle and wrest in whole sentences taken from ancient Authors, supposing by such filching-theft to purchase honour and reputation to themselves, doe cleane contrarie. For, this infinite varietie and dissemblance of lustres, makes a face so wan, so ill-favored, and so uglie, in respect of theirs, that they lose much more than gaine thereby.

These were two contrarie humours: The Philosopher Chrisippus was wont to foist-in amongst his bookes, not only whole sentences and other long-long discourses, but whole bookes of other Authors, as in one, he brought inEuripides his Medea. And Apollodorus was wont to say of him, that if one should draw from out his bookes what he had stolne from others, his paper would remaine blanke. Whereas Epicurus cleane contrarie to him in three hundred volumes he left behind him, had not made use of one allegation.

It was my fortune not long since to light upon such a place: I had languishingly traced after some French words, so naked and hollow, and so void either of sense or matter, that at last I found them to be nought but meere French words; and after a tedious and wearisome travell, I chanced to stumble upon an highe riche and even to the clouds-raised piece, the descent whereof had it been somewhat more pleasant or easie, or the ascent reaching a little further, it had been excusablee and to be borne with-all; but it was such a steepie downe-fall, and by meere strength hewen out of the maine rocke, that by reading of the first six words, me thought I was carried into another world: whereby I perceive the bottome whence I came to be so low and deep, as I durst never more adventure to go through ; for, if I did stuffe any one of my discourses with those rich spoiles, it would manifestly cause the sottishnesse of others to appeare. To reprove mine owne faults in others, seemes to me no more insufferable than to reprehend (as I doe often) those of others in my selfe: They ought to be accused every where, and have all places of Sanctuarie taken from them; yet do I know how over boldly, at all times I adventure to equall my selfe unto my filchings, and so march hand in hand with them, not without a fond hardie hope, that I may perhaps be able to bleare the eyes of the Judges from discerning them. But it is as much for the benefit of my application, as for the good of my invention and force. And I doe not furiously front, and bodie to bodie wrestle with those old champions: it is but by flights, advantages, and false offers I seek to come within them, and if I can, to give them a fall. I do not rashly take them about the necke, I doe but touch them, nor doe I go so far as by my bargains I would seeme to doe; could I but keepe even with them, I should then be an honest man; for I seek not to venture on them, but where they are strongest.

To doe as I have seen some, that is, to shroud themselves under other armes, not daring so much as to show their fingers ends unarmed and to botch up all their works (as it is an easie matter in a common subject, namely for the wiser sort) with ancient inventions, here and there hudled up together. And in those who endeavoured to hide what they have filched from others, and make it their owne, it is first a manifest note of injustice, then a plaine argument of cowardlinesse; who having nothing of any worth in themselves to make show of, will yet under the countenance of others sufficiencie goe about to make a faire offer: Moreover (oh great foolishnesse) to seek by such cosening tricks to forestall the ignorant approbation of the common sort, nothing fearing to discover their ignorance to men of understanding (whose praise only is of value) who will soon trace out such borrowed ware. As for me, there is nothing I will doe lesse. I never speake of others, but that I may the more speake of my selfe.

This concerneth not those mingle-mangles of many kinds of stuffe, or as the Grecians call them Rapsodies, that for such are published, of which kind I have (since I came to yeares of discretion seen divers most ingenious and wittie; amongst others, one under the name of Capilupus; besides many of the ancient stampe. These are wits of such excellence, as both here and elsewhere they will soone be perceived, as our late famous writer Lipsius, in his learned and laborious work of the Politikes: yet whatsoever come of it, for so much as they are but follies, my intent is not to smother them no more than a bald and hoarie picture of mine, where a Painter hath drawne not a perfect visage, but mine owne. For, howsoever, these are but my humors and opinions, and I deliver them but to show what my conceit is, and not what ought to be beleeved. Wherein I ayme at nothing but to display my selfe, who peradventure (if a new prentiship change me) shall be another to morrow.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On the Education of Children’, Essays, translated by John Florio.


How Knoweth He By the Virtue of His Understanding the Inward and Secret Motions?

‘Presumption is our natural and original infirmity. Of all creatures man is the most miserable and frail, and therewithall the proudest and disdainfullest. Who perceiveth and seeth himself placed here, amidst their filth and mire of the world, fast tied and nailed to the worst, most senseless, and drooping part of the world, in the vilest corner of the house, and farthest from the heavens coape, with those creatures, that are the worst of the three conditions,  and yet dareth imaginarily place himself above the circle of the moon, and reduce heaven under his feet. It is through vanity of the same imagination, the he dare equal himself to God, that he ascribeth divine conditions unto himself, that he selecteth and separateth himself from out of the rank of other creatures; to which his fellow-brethren and compeers, he cuts out and shareth their parts, and alloteth them what portions of means or forces he thinks good. How knoweth he by the virtue of his understanding the inward and secret motions of beasts? By what comparison from them to us doth he conclude the brutishness ascribed unto them? When I am playing with my cat, who knows whether she have more sport in dallying with me, than I have in gaming with her? We entertain one another with mutual apish tricks, if I have my hour to begin or to refuse, so hath she hers. Plato in setting forth the golden age under Saturn, amongst other chief advantages that man had then, reporteth the communication he had with beasts, of whom enquiring and and taking instruction, he knew the true qualities, ad differences of every one of them: by, and from whom he got an absolute understanding and perfect wisdom, whereby he led a happier life than we can do. Can we have a better proof to judge of man’s impudency, touching beasts? … It is a matter of divination to guess in whom the fault is, that we understand not another. For we understand them no more than they us. By the same reason, may they as well esteem us beasts, as we them.’

Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond, translated by John Florio, (1603).


‘There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all [original italics] satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.’

Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860.


‘BUT now thou askest me and sayest, “How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?” and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: “I wot not.”

For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for thing that befalleth.’

The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Evelyn Underhill.


‘I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions and modifications… So if the extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable.’

Thomas Nagel, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, The Philosophical Review, 83. (1974).

The Diversities and the Contradictions

‘A man should not rivet himself too fast to his own humours and temperament. Our chief talent is the power of suiting ourselves to different ways of life. To be tied and bound of necessity to one single way is not to live but to exist. The best minds are those that are most voracious and most supple. Here is an honourable testimony to the elder Cato: ‘His versatile genius was so equally adapted to everything that, whatever he happened to be doing, you would say he was born to do that thing alone.’ If it were in my power to mould myself as I would, there is no form, however good, in which I should wish to be so fixed that I could not depart from it.’

‘Life is an unequal, irregular, and multiform movement. Incessantly to follow one’s own track, to be so close a prisoner to one’s own inclinations that one cannot stray from them, or give them a twist,is to be no friend to oneself, still less to be one’s master; it is to be one’s slave.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Three Kinds of Relationships’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘Montherlant points to Shakespeare as a supreme example of a man who renounces nothing, accepting all… “A healthy soul, with that basic simplicity which both distinguishes and makes possible great things, will always be flexible, copious and vigorous enough to reconcile in a higher and joyous unity, most of these so-called contradictions which give pause to the many spineless creatures we see around us.”…The virtues he sees in Shakespeare are essentially those he seeks for himself, when he prays: “Let me live all the lives, the diversities, and the contradictions in the world intensely…Do everything, in order to experience everything; experience everything, in order to understand everything; understand everything in order to express everything: how great will our reward be when we look at ourselves and see ourselves as the mirror of creation and think of God as made in the image of man.” – To be truly human is to “comprehend all the movements of men”.’

Jonathan R. Price, ‘Montherlant’s Exemplar’, Yale French Studies, 1964.


See also:

A Very Finite and Fixed Creature

‘Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.’

T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and Classicism.

‘That delightful inscription with which the Athenians commemorated Pompey’s visit to their city is in agreement with my view: ‘You are a god only in so far as you recognize yourself to be a man.’ The man who knows how to enjoy his existence as he ought has attained an absolute perfection, like that of the gods. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the proper use of our own, and go out of ourselves because we do not know what is within us. So it is no good our mounting on stilts, for even on stilts we have to walk with our own legs; and upon the most exalted throne on the world it is still our own bottom that we sit on.The finest lives are, in my opinion, those which conform to the common and human model in an orderly way, with no marvels and extravagances.’

Montaigne, ‘On Experience’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world.’

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.

Some Instinct towards Inhumanity

‘I hardly ever capture an animal alive that I do not set it free in the fields. Pythagoras would buy them from fisherman and fowlers, to do the same. Natures that are bloodthirsty towards animals show a native propensity towards cruelty. At Rome after the people had inured themselves to watching the slaughter of animals, they went on to men and gladiators. Nature herself, I fear, implants in men some instinct towards inhumanity.’

Montaigne, ‘On Cruelty’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘Overall, it must be said that those who kill or harm living creatures, or set them up to fight each other for their own pleasure, are no better than wild beasts themselves… If you can look on any sentient being without compassion, you are less than human.’

Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated by Meredith McKinney.

No Other Charm than their Variety and Strangeness

‘As I was observing the way in which a painter in my employment goes about his work, I felt tempted to imitate him. He chooses the best spot, in the middle of each wall, as the place for a picture, which he elaborates with all his skill; and the empty space all round he fills with grotesques; which are fantastic paintings with no other charm than their variety and strangeness. And what are these things of mine, indeed, but grotesque and monstrous bodies, pierced together from sundry limbs, with no definite shape, and with no order, sequence, or proportion except by chance?’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Friendship’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘It is the sure mark of a shallow and ignorant person to be drawn to odd curiosities and delight in unusual explanations.’

‘One day, Count Suketomo took shelter from the rain under the eaves of the gate of Toji Temple, where cripples had gathered. Observing how strange and deformed they were with their warped and twisted limbs, some turned right back on themselves, it struck him that they were all quite unique and extraordinary, and should be more deeply appreciated. But as he continued to gaze at them his interest quickly waned, and he began to find them ugly and disgusting. There is actually nothing better than straightforward, unexceptional things, he decided. He had recently developed a pleasure in potted plants, and particularly enjoyed acquiring those that were twisted in unusual ways, but when he went home and saw them it struck him that this was no different from his interest in the cripples. They lost all charm for him, and he had every one dug up and thrown away. Precisely so.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated by Meredith McKinney.

All the Tall Tales People Tell about Such Things

‘It is perhaps not without reason that we consider credulity and the readiness to be persuaded to be signs of simplicity and ignorance. For once I was taught, I think, that belief is like an impression made upon the mind, and that the softer and less resistant the mind, the easier it is to impress something upon it… The emptier a mind is, and the less counterpoise it has, the more easily it sinks under the weight of the first argument. That is why children, the common people, women and the sick are particularly apt to be led by the ears. But then, on the other hand, it is a stupid presumption to go about despising and condemning as false anything that seems to us improbable; this is a common fault in those who think they have more intelligence than the crowd. I used to be like that once, and if I heard talk of ghosts walking, or prognostications of future events, of enchantments or sorceries, or some other tale that I could not swallow, I would pity the poor people who were taken in by such nonsense. And now I find that I was at least as much to be pitied myself: not that experience has shown me anything that transcends my  former beliefs, though this has not been for lack of curiosity; but reason has taught me that to condemn anything so positively as false and impossible is to claim that our own brains have the privilege of knowing the bounds and limits of God’s will, and of our mother nature’s power.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘That is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘The tales told by the common folk are simply astonishing to hear. People of refinement never tell tales of the strange and marvellous. Nevertheless, this does not mean one should necessarily disbelieve the stories of the miraculous power of the gods and buddhas, or legends of their manifesting in earthly form. It is foolish to be credulous of all the tall tales people tell about such things, but there is no point in doubting everything you hear either. As a rule, you should accept such stories at face value, neither believing everything nor ridiculing it all as nonsense.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated by Meredith McKinney.

The Spirit Weakens

‘Tis indeed the only comfort I find in my old age, that it mortifies in me several cares and desires wherewith my life has been disturbed; the care how the world goes, the care of riches, of grandeur, of knowledge, of health, of myself.’

Montaigne, ‘All Things have their Season’, Essays, translated by Charles Cotton.

‘It is indeed in youth that we make our mistakes. In age, on the other hand, the spirit weakens, we become indifferent and apathetic and nothing rouses us. The heart grows naturally calm, so that we no longer act in futile ways but instead tend to our bodies live free of discontent and try to avoid troubling others. Age has more wisdom than youth, just as youth has more beauty than does age.

Why cling to a life which cannot last forever, only to arrive at ugly old age? The longer you live, the greater your share of shame. It is most seemly to die before forty at the latest. Once past this age, people develop an urge to mix with others without the least shame in their unsightliness; they spend their dwindling years fussing adoringly over their children and grandchildren, hoping to live long enough to see them make good in the world. Their greed for the things of the world grows ever deeper, till they lose all ability to be moved by life’s pathos and become really quite disgraceful.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

Re-Beginning to Live

‘That which they, report of him [Cato the Elder], amongst other things, that in his extreme old age he put himself upon learning the Greek tongue with so greedy an appetite, as if to quench a long thirst, does not seem to me to make much for his honour; it being properly what we call falling into second childhood. All things have their seasons, even good ones… Eudemonidas, seeing Xenocrates when very old, still very intent upon his school lectures: “When will this man be wise,” said he, “if he is yet learning?

The young are to make their preparations, the old to enjoy them, say the sages: and the greatest vice they observe in us is that our desires incessantly grow young again; we are always re-beginning to live.’

Montaigne, ‘All Things have their Season’, Essays, translated by Charles Cotton.

‘When I see philosophy in a young man, I rejoice; it seems to me fitting, and I think that the young man in question is ingenuous; that he who does not study philosophy is not ingenuous and will never himself be worthy of anything noble or generous. But when I see an older man still philosophizing and not giving it up, such a man, Socrates, seems to me to deserve stripes.’

Aulus Gellius, quoting Plato’s Gorgias, in Attic Nights, Book X.

‘Those who approach the study of letters late in life, after they are worn out and exhausted by some other occupation, particularly if they are garrulous and of only moderate keenness, make themselves exceedingly ridiculous and silly by displaying their would-be knowledge.’

Gellius, Attic Nights, Book XV (Quoted here from Michael Gilleland’s blog Laudator Temporis Acti).

‘Somebody has remarked that if you have not become adept at an art by the time you are fifty you should give up. You do not have the time left to make further efforts worthwhile. People should not laugh at the old. It is painful and off-putting to see old men mixing with society. As a rule, those over fifty are most seemly when they withdraw from all activities and retire to a leisured life, and this is what they ought to do.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

Ugly Truths and How to Deal With Them

‘Ugly men are, and ought to be, ashamed of their existence.’

Walter Bagehot, Milton.

‘A certain samadhi monk of the lotus hall at Retired Emperor Takakura’s tomb one day picked up a mirror and took a good look at his face. The shocking ugliness of his own visage filled him with such despair that he found the very mirror repulsive; for a long time afterwards  he continued to fear mirrors so much that he wouldn’t even touch one, and he avoided the society of others. He secluded himself away, only emerging to take part in the temple’s devotions. I was very struck to hear this story.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

‘Since our persons are not of our own making, when they are such as appear defective or uncomely, it is, methinks, an honest and laudable fortitude to dare to be ugly; at least to keep our selves from being abashed with a consciousness of imperfections which we cannot help, and in which there is no guilt. I would not defend a haggard beau, for passing away much time at a glass, and giving softnesses and languishing graces to deformity. All I intend is, that we ought to be contented with our countenance and shape, so far, as never to give our selves an uneasy reflection on that subject. It is to the ordinary people, who are not accustomed to make very proper remarks on any occasion, matter of great jest, if a man enters with a prominent pair of shoulders into an assembly, or is distinguished by an expansion of mouth, or obliquity of aspect. It is happy for a man, that has any of these oddnesses about him, if he can be as merry upon himself, as others are apt to be upon that occasion: When he can possess himself with such a cheerfulness, women and children, who were at first frighted at him, will afterwards be as much pleased with him. As it is barbarous in others to railly him for natural defects, it is extremely agreeable when he can jest upon himself for them. Madame Maintenon’s first husband was a hero in this kind, and has drawn many pleasantries from the irregularity of his shape, which he describes as very much resembling the Letter Z. He diverts himself likewise by representing to his reader the make of an engine and pully, with which he used to take off his hat. When there happens to be any thing ridiculous in a visage, and the owner of it thinks it an aspect of dignity, he must be of very great quality to be exempt from raillery: The best expedient therefore is to be pleasant upon himself.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, 20 March 1711.

‘Beauty is a thing of great recommendation in the correspondence amongst
men; ’tis the first means of acquiring the favour and good liking of one
another, and no man is so barbarous and morose as not to perceive himself
in some sort struck with its attraction. The body has a great share in
our being, has an eminent place there, and therefore its structure and
composition are of very just consideration. They who go about to
disunite and separate our two principal parts from one another are to
blame; we must, on the contrary, reunite and rejoin them. We must
command the soul not to withdraw and entertain itself apart, not to
despise and abandon the body (neither can she do it but by some apish
counterfeit), but to unite herself close to it, to embrace, cherish,
assist, govern, and advise it, and to bring it back and set it into the
true way when it wanders; in sum, to espouse and be a husband to it, so
that their effects may not appear to be diverse and contrary, but uniform
and concurring. Christians have a particular instruction concerning this
connection, for they know that the Divine justice embraces this society
and juncture of body and soul, even to the making the body capable of
eternal rewards; and that God has an eye to the whole man’s ways, and
wills that he receive entire chastisement or reward according to his
demerits or merits. The sect of the Peripatetics, of all sects the most
sociable, attribute to wisdom this sole care equally to provide for the
good of these two associate parts: and the other sects, in not
sufficiently applying themselves to the consideration of this mixture,
show themselves to be divided, one for the body and the other for the
soul, with equal error, and to have lost sight of their subject, which is
Man, and their guide, which they generally confess to be Nature. The
first distinction that ever was amongst men, and the first consideration
that gave some pre-eminence over others, ’tis likely was the advantage of

Now I am of something lower than the middle stature, a defect that not
only borders upon deformity, but carries withal a great deal of
inconvenience along with it, especially for those who are in office and
command; for the authority which a graceful presence and a majestic mien
beget is wanting. C. Marius did not willingly enlist any soldiers who
were not six feet high. The Courtier has, indeed, reason to desire a
moderate stature in the gentlemen he is setting forth, rather than any
other, and to reject all strangeness that should make him be pointed at.
But if I were to choose whether this medium must be rather below than
above the common standard, I would not have it so in a soldier. Little
men, says Aristotle, are pretty, but not handsome; and greatness of soul
is discovered in a great body, as beauty is in a conspicuous stature: the
Ethiopians and Indians, says he, in choosing their kings and magistrates,
had regard to the beauty and stature of their persons. They had reason;
for it creates respect in those who follow them, and is a terror to the
enemy, to see a leader of a brave and goodly stature march at the head of
a battalion.

And Plato, together with temperance and fortitude, requires beauty in the
conservators of his republic. It would vex you that a man should apply
himself to you amongst your servants to inquire where Monsieur is, and
that you should only have the remainder of the compliment of the hat that
is made to your barber or your secretary; as it happened to poor
Philopoemen, who arriving the first of all his company at an inn where he
was expected, the hostess, who knew him not, and saw him an unsightly
fellow, employed him to go help her maids a little to draw water, and
make a fire against Philopoemen’s coming; the gentlemen of his train
arriving presently after, and surprised to see him busy in this fine
employment, for he failed not to obey his landlady’s command, asked him
what he was doing there: “I am,” said he, “paying the penalty of my
ugliness.” The other beauties belong to women; the beauty of stature is
the only beauty of men. Where there is a contemptible stature, neither
the largeness and roundness of the forehead, nor the whiteness and
sweetness of the eyes, nor the moderate proportion of the nose, nor the
littleness of the ears and mouth, nor the evenness and whiteness of the
teeth, nor the thickness of a well-set brown beard, shining like the husk
of a chestnut, nor curled hair, nor the just proportion of the head, nor
a fresh complexion, nor a pleasing air of a face, nor a body without any
offensive scent, nor the just proportion of limbs, can make a handsome

Montaigne, On Presumption, translated by Charles Cotton.