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Extract from :
A Comparison of the Subject Matter and Thought of Montaigne's and Bacon's Essays
by Elizabeth H. Ratté
"From the previous study of the temperament, education and interests of each essayist, it may be inferred that their individual characteristics and attitudes will result in much differentiation in the form, tone, and subject matter of their essays. It is well to remember, however, that they have one essential trait in common in writing their essays. That is, that they are both recording their thoughts on the main phases and general aspects of life — moral, social, and political.
In reviewing the titles of the essays of each author we find, therefore, that they both write about the following groups of subjects: marriage and single life, parents and children, education, friendship, wisdom, beauty, youth and age, custom, innovations, war, government, glory and power, business management, reason and passion, riches, ambition, anger, superstition, love, travel, health, honor and reputation, religious faith and atheism, death, judgment and justice, faction, studies and books, conversation or discourse, and the vicissitude of things.
They are both presenting their philosophy of life to their readers for their benefit in the form of dispersed meditations and counsels. It is also natural that, being both men of good classical education, philosophers at heart, and men of the same century, their ideas and conceptions of certain essential phases of life should agree. But here, for the most part, the likeness and parallelism stops. Essentially, the attitude of each author concerning the aim and purpose of his essays differs greatly.
The outstanding characteristics of the two essayists are well compared in a passage in one of Montaigne's essays. The passage, found in his essay, "Of Books", compares the attributes of two great classic writers, Plutarch and Seneca. I would liken Bacon to Plutarch and Montaigne to Seneca in this description.
"Their instructions are the cream of philosophy, and delivered after a plain and pertinent manner. Plutarch is more uniform and constant ; Seneca more various and undulating. The last toiled, set himself, and bent his whole force to fortify virtue against frailty, fear, and vicious appetites.
The other seems more to slight their power; he disdains to alter his pace, or stand upon his guard. Plutarch's opinions are Platonic, gentle, and accommodated to civil society: those of the other are Stoical and Epicurean, more remote for common use, but more proper for private sanction and more firm."
Of the two Montaigne is decidedly the individualist, insisting on the importance of individual thought and expression in view of the theory that man's greatest task and duty is to know himself. Montaigne did not hesitate to make it known I that while
"everyone looks before him, I look into myself and have no other business but with myself."
Such a statement as this may sound merely like the boasting of an egoist. Even Montaigne realized the danger of his being misunderstood, for he complained,
"I find myself fettered by the laws of ceremony; for it neither permits a man to speak well of himself nor ill."
But what he was really offering was great sincerity and depth of wisdom. He openly admitted what few have been willing to admit — that the true center of our concern in life is our own welfare and interests above all others. Montaigne accepted this fact stoically, nor did he see any reason to try to change this attitude. He firmly believed that the relation of man to himself was of more importance than that of man to other men.
In his opinion it was very necessary that man should cherish his soul and his intellect for himself, lending himself to others but giving himself only to himself. To do this Montaign claimed that
"a wise man ought to withdraw and retire his soul from the crowd, and there keep it at liberty and in power to judge freely of things."
At another time he expressed his opinion of the importance of individuality when he wrote,
"I care not so much what I am in the opinion of others, as what I am in my own: I would be rich of myself, and not by borrowing. Strangers see nothing but outward appearances: they do not see my heart, they see but my countenance."
Expressed in this declarative and outspoken manner, Montaigne's doctrine may appear rather selfish and conceited. But it must be admitted that he has pointed out a very important psychological factor. Correct self-evaluation and self-esteem are necessary to individuality and strength of character. However, the danger in this philosophy was that, as Montaigne withdrew into himself and into the contemplation of the functions of the inner man, he was very apt to forget that man must consider himself as an active member of society.
Now Francis Bacon was very much concerned with the importance of his place in society. His relation to other men and the opinion that they formed of him were very significant facts in his life. Bacon spent his life in active participation in the affairs of his country and he was proud of his accomplishments. In his attempt to make a place for himself in society he was perhaps too willing to give himself away to gain favor or to serve the queen or king.
In actual life he found the temptations to make himself appear great and prosperous in the eyes of his fellowmen too great to overcome. In this respect he was weak; but in his philosophy, as expressed in his essays, he was very dogmatic concerning the place of man in society and man's mission in life for the improvement of society.
Bacon wittily warned against selfishness, suggesting the need of a greater mission and authority than ourselves. In the relationship of man to society Bacon was interested in the ethical side of the matter. The following passage is also a good example of Bacon's didactic manner in writing the essays. "The power to do good is the true and lawful end of aspiring", he said.
"Merit and good works is the end of man's motion; and the consciousness of the same is the accomplishment of man's rest. For, if a man can be a partaker of God's theater, he shall likewise be a partaker of God's rest."
Not only should good works be our aim in life, but also we should play an active part in "God's theater." He realized that good intentions or well formulated ideals are not sufficient; they must be put into action to do any good. It is interesting to note at this point that Bacon led a life of tremendous activity both politi-cal and literary. His ambition and desire to accomplish great things was astounding. He said bravely, like a man set out to conquer the world,
"I have taken all knowledge to be my province."
Compare with this Montaigne's attitude while holding the office of magistrate, when he remarked, "I had no care but to conserve and to continue, which are silent and insensible effects". The desire to improve or to make progressive changes was not in Montaigne's nature. The reason for Montaigne's lack of worldly ambition is to be found in one of the predominant traits of his character. Montaigne was a skeptic. His famous phrase, "Que sais-je ?" resounds throughout his essays. The uncertainty of man's judgment was a thing at once tremendous and terrifying in Montaigne's eyes.
He filled his whole essay called "Apology for Raymond Sebond" with discussions on the vanity of human reason. At no time does Montaigne show faith in man as a power within himself. In a quotation from Pliny he agrees that"this only is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that nothin is more miserable or more proud than man." The only hope for man, as he saw it, was to turn to God for guidance; for
"men can not have principles if not revealed to them by the divinity; of all the rest the beginning, the middle, and the end nothing is but dream and vapour."
It is no wonder that Montaigne lacked desire for worldly success ! He had no trust in his judgment nor in any other man's judgment. There was little delight for him in man's institutions, and he was continually deploring the inconsistency and frailty of his country's laws. At one time he exclaimed,
"Do but consider the form of this justice that governs us; it is a true testimony of human weakness, so full it is of error and contradiction !"
In spite of all the fault that he found with the weakness of human reason, Montaigne did not set out to better matters, but seemed to accept that things had to be as they were. Since neither he nor any other man had the clarity of judgment or of understanding to see things as they really were or to manage them to the greatest advantage, Montaigne believed in leaving everything to fortune. In one of his essays he wrote,
"The stress and main of business I have ever referred to heaven: good and evil fortune are, in my opinion, two sovereign powers: it is folly to think that human providence can play the part of fortune. I moreover affirm that our wisdom itself, and wisest consultations, for the most part commit themselves to the conduct of chance."
Man's efforts, then, in regard to worldly success and riches are vain and useless. It is not surprising that, with this attitude of resignation to fate and of futility of effort, Montaigne was not much concerned with ambitious desires or with ideals of progress. At all times, however, he maintained a lively interest in the problems and strife of his country (as can be seen in the many essays discussing the civil wars in France at that time); yet Montaigne had no desire to be a figure in public life.
What he did definitely believe in and concentrated his efforts on was a full, complete personal life. He even stated that
"It is an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection for man to know how loyally to enjoy his being."
But his guide in enjoying life, as in all things, was moderation In this sense he is a true epicure. To Montaigne moderation was a safe-guard against all evil and crime. In a way it was a refuge for his skeptical and indolent nature. But, fundamentally, moderation was a sincere essential of his moral code, for he believed that
"The virtue of the soul does not consist in flying high, but in walking orderly; its grandeur does not exercise itself in grandeur, but in mediocrity."
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