Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Of Lyers by Montaigne. Of Truth by Bacon

I have the collected essays in 3 Volumes of Montaigne's Essays translated by John Florio published by Dent in the Everyman's Library Edition. Each volume is second hand bought separately. Two of them are in their original dust jackets from the 30's and the 60's. The other is without a dust jacket and shows a faded spine but a pristine orange board. This leads me to consider that Montaigne may be more honoured as a mark of culture on your book shelves than he is read. Clearly I inculpate myself.
Naturally one means to read him but somehow though one might occasionally dip, immersion eludes. The essay form is a favourite with me. I was reared on it. In school we had a book of them called Senior Prose. On the desk here is New Senior Prose a later redaction. On a shelf at hand's stretch is Essays of Today put out by the Educational Company of Ireland no date but in pencil underneath one of those valentines that people used to write in schoolbooks for their pals. is 20th. March 1926. Elsewhere here and there are volumes of Hazlitt, Chesterton, Belloc, Addison, Steele etc. Here's something for you:
Except for some fine works of art, which seem to be there by accident, the city of Brussels is like a bad Paris, a Paris with everything noble cut out, and everything nasty left in. No one can understand Paris and its history who does not understand that its fierceness is the balance and justification of its frivolity. It is called a city of pleasure; but it may also very specially be called a city of pain.
(from HUMANITY: AN INTERLUDE by G.K.C.) available from G.K.C.
You want to read on. What of this though:
There is no man living, whom it may lesse beseeme to speake of memorie, than my selfe, for to say truth, I have none at all: and am fully perswaded that no mans can be so weake and forgetfull as mine. All other parts are in me common and vile, but touching memorie, I thinke to carrie the prise from all other, that have it weakest, nay and to gaine the reputation of it, besides the naturall want I endure (for truely considering the necessite of it, Plato hath reason to name it A great and mighty Godesse.
(from Of Lyers: Essays, Bk.1; John Florio trans.)

Charles Cotton offers a version of this opening which is trimmed a little and lacks the little ironic exclamation for to say truth (vraiment?)
There is not a man living whom it would so little become to speak from memory as myself, for I have scarcely any at all, and do not think that the world has another so marvellously treacherous as mine. My other faculties are all sufficiently ordinary and mean, but in this I think myself very rare and singular, and deserving to be thought famous. Besides the natural inconvenience I suffer by it (for certes, the necessary use of memory considered, Plato has reason when he called it a great and powerful goddess),

Next is Cohen's translation from his selection of essays in a Penguin collection. It reads nicely, smoothly, if without the vigour of Florio's. Whether that virtue be a result of Elizabethan diction or not it is hard to tell but for the modern reader the Cohen cog is more friendly. I am unable to judge which of them is truer to the v.o. which makes my assessment not quite pointless but vanishingly close to it.

There is no man so unsuited for the task of speaking about memory as I am, for I find scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe there is another man in the world so hideously lacking in it. All my other faculties are poor and ordinary, but in this I think I am most rare and singular, and deserve to gain name and fame thereby.
Beside the natural inconvenience that I suffer on this account – for assuredly, considering how necessary it is, Plato was right in calling memory a great and powerful goddess -

One notices two elements of irony, to speak truely and the introduction of Plato in an essay on liars. As Montaigne knew well Plato was an advocate of ballot rigging in the Republic and in general was sceptical about the possibility of attainment of truth in the matter of ethical conduct when guided by mere opinion. In Plato's cave lies are the truth, ontologically speaking.

The central conceit of the opening section is based on his claim that his memory was poor but that must be doubted as his educational achievements demonstrate in an era when rote learning was perforce the central pillar of education. Besides, the internal evidence of quotations and references to history show that this canard quacks. Montaigne had a well stocked mind full of classical learning and his 1200 volumes, on the shelves of cunning joinery that ran round his tower, to check his recollection. What a liar writes on lying is to be doubly doubted.

Of Truth

WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labour, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men's thoughts, that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself.
from Bacon's Essays.

Here is Bacon and his inductive method in deictic mode moving from a classical instance to drawing down other exemplars and concluding with a generalization. It is clear and crisp with an acerbic tang. Consider those bloodless discoursing wits. Bacon concludes with a reference to Montaigne which is a masterly stroke of courtier slyness. It's dubiety resists withdrawal, an innocent insult.

And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason, why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace, and such an odious charge? Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man. Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.

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