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.

Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.

‘While we are young, we have all manner of ambitious plans for the future – to make a success of ourselves in life, achieve grand things, learn skills, study. But there seems plenty of time to fulfil our wishes, and we dawdle on the way, letting ourselves be distracted by the passing concerns of everyday life, so that we grow old in fact not having done much. Regret them as we might there is no regaining our lost years, and, like a wheel running ever faster downhill, debility overtakes us, while we have succeeded in learning no skill and never achieved the success we dreamed of in life.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.

And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.

He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.

And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.

But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

Constantine Cavafy, ‘The Old Man’, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Here:

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.

For the Tiny Remainder

‘We inevitably waste most of each day in eating and drinking, defecating, sleeping, talking and walking about. For the tiny remainder of our time, we do worthless things, speak worthless words, think worthless thoughts. And not only do we pass the moments in this way, but whole days, whole months, pass thus – a lifetime. This is supreme folly…Lose for a moment your grasp of the passing instant and you are as good as dead. You ask why time should be son precious? It is so that you may concentrate the mind on banishing all idle thoughts, refrain from engaging in worldly matters and meditate if this is what you choose, or perform austerities if that is your chosen path.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated Meredith McKinney.

‘Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life except and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has gone by is not ours.

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare,a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.