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Michel de Montaigne – Minds like silkworms

January 31, 2015

“Who will not say that glosses augment doubts and ignorance, since there’s no book to be found, either human or divine, which the world busies itself about, whereof the difficulties are cleared by interpretation. The hundredth commentator passes it on to the next, still more knotty and perplexed than he found it. When were we ever agreed amongst ourselves: “This book has enough; there is now no more to be said about it”? This is most apparent in the law; we give the authority of law to infinite doctors, infinite decrees, and as many interpretations; yet do we find any end of the need of interpretating? is there, for all that, any progress or advancement towards peace, or do we stand in need of any fewer advocates and judges than when this great mass of law was yet in its first infancy? On the contrary, we darken and bury intelligence; we can no longer discover it, but at the mercy of so many fences and barriers. Men do not know the natural disease of the mind; it does nothing but ferret and inquire, and is eternally wheeling, juggling, and perplexing itself like silkworms, and then suffocates itself in its work; “Mus in pice.“–[“A mouse in a pitch barrel.”]–It thinks it discovers at a great distance, I know not what glimpses of light and imaginary truth: but whilst running to it, so many difficulties, hindrances, and new inquisitions cross it, that it loses its way, and is made drunk with the motion: not much unlike AEsop’s dogs, that seeing something like a dead body floating in the sea, and not being able to approach it, set to work to drink the water and lay the passage dry, and so choked themselves. To which what one Crates’ said of the writings of Heraclitus falls pat enough, “that they required a reader who could swim well,” so that the depth and weight of his learning might not overwhelm and stifle him. ‘Tis nothing but particular weakness that makes us content with what others or ourselves have found out in this chase after knowledge: one of better understanding will not rest so content; there is always room for one to follow, nay, even for ourselves; and another road; there is no end of our inquisitions; our end is in the other world. ‘Tis a sign either that the mind has grown shortsighted when it is satisfied, or that it has got weary. No generous mind can stop in itself; it will still tend further and beyond its power; it has sallies beyond its effects; if it do not advance and press forward, and retire, and rush and wheel about, ’tis but half alive; its pursuits are without bound or method; its aliment is admiration, the chase, ambiguity, which Apollo sufficiently declared in always speaking to us in a double, obscure, and oblique sense: not feeding, but amusing and puzzling us. ‘Tis an irregular and perpetual motion, without model and without aim; its inventions heat, pursue, and interproduce one another:

[Estienne de la Boetie; thus translated by Cotton:]

So in a running stream one wave we see
After another roll incessantly,
And as they glide, each does successively
Pursue the other, each the other fly
By this that’s evermore pushed on, and this
By that continually preceded is:
The water still does into water swill,
Still the same brook, but different water still.

There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon any other subject; we do nothing but comment upon one another. Every place swarms with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity. Is it not the principal and most reputed knowledge of our later ages to understand the learned? Is it not the common and final end of all studies? Our opinions are grafted upon one another; the first serves as a stock to the second, the second to the third, and so forth; thus step by step we climb the ladder; whence it comes to pass that he who is mounted highest has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one.”

(from ‘Of Experience,’ #12 in volume 3 of The Essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne [1570 to 1592], translated by Charles Cotton [1877], available on Gutenberg)

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