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.”1

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.”2

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.”3

1 “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.

2 [“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.]

3 ”’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 Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11