The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, by Michel de Montaigne

Chapter 53

Of a Saying of Caesar

If we would sometimes bestow a little consideration upon ourselves, and employ the time we spend in prying into other men’s actions, and discovering things without us, in examining our own abilities we should soon perceive of how infirm and decaying material this fabric of ours is composed. Is it not a singular testimony of imperfection that we cannot establish our satisfaction in any one thing, and that even our own fancy and desire should deprive us of the power to choose what is most proper and useful for us? A very good proof of this is the great dispute that has ever been amongst the philosophers, of finding out man’s sovereign good, that continues yet, and will eternally continue, without solution or accord:

“Dum abest quod avemus, id exsuperare videtur
Caetera; post aliud, quum contigit illud, avemus,
Et sitis aequa tenet.”

[“While that which we desire is wanting, it seems to surpass all the
rest; then, when we have got it, we want something else; ’tis ever
the same thirst”— Lucretius, iii. 1095.]

Whatever it is that falls into our knowledge and possession, we find that it satisfies not, and we still pant after things to come and unknown, inasmuch as those present do not suffice for us; not that, in my judgment, they have not in them wherewith to do it, but because we seize them with an unruly and immoderate haste:

“Nam quum vidit hic, ad victum qux flagitat usus,
Et per quae possent vitam consistere tutam,
Omnia jam ferme mortalibus esse parata;
Divitiis homines, et honore, et laude potentes
Aflluere, atque bona natorum excellere fama;
Nec minus esse domi cuiquam tamen anxia corda,
Atque animi ingratis vitam vexare querelis
Causam, quae infestis cogit saevire querelis,
Intellegit ibi; vitium vas efficere ipsum,
Omniaque, illius vitio, corrumpier intus,
Qux collata foris et commoda quomque venirent.”

[“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for
subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already
prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth,
honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet
that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and
home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw
that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which
were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own
imperfections.”— Lucretius, vi. 9.]

Our appetite is irresolute and fickle; it can neither keep nor enjoy anything with a good grace: and man concluding it to be the fault of the things he is possessed of, fills himself with and feeds upon the idea of things he neither knows nor understands, to which he devotes his hopes and his desires, paying them all reverence and honour, according to the saying of Caesar:

“Communi fit vitio naturae, ut invisis, latitantibus
atque incognitis rebus magis confidamas,
vehementiusque exterreamur.”

[”’Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most
confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things
unseen, concealed, and unknown.”— De Bello Civil, xi. 4.]

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09