Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE - Essays of Montaigne, Vol. 1
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PREFACE - Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Montaigne, Vol. 1 
Essays of Montaigne, vol. 1, trans. Charles Cotton, revised by William Carew Hazlett (New York: Edwin C. Hill, 1910).
Part of: Essays of Montaigne, in 10 vols.
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THE PRESENT publication was on its former appearance in 1877 intended to supply a recognized deficiency in our literature—a library edition of the Essays of Montaigne. With this publication, although my name was on the title-page as that of the editor, I had nothing to do beyond the introductory matter, my late father having undertaken to correct the text and read the proofs. He had associated himself with the Essays since 1842, when he brought out the first edition of his recension of Cotton and Coste. This great French writer deserves to be regarded as a classic, not only in the land of his birth, but in all countries and in all literatures. His Essays, which are at once the most celebrated and the most permanent of his productions, form a magazine out of which such minds as those of Bacon and Shakspeare did not disdain to help themselves; and, indeed, as Hallam observes, the Frenchman’s literary importance largely results from the share which his mind had in influencing other minds, coeval and subsequent. But, at the same time, estimating the value and rank of the Essayist, we are not to leave out of account the drawbacks and the circumstances of the period: the imperfect state of education, the comparative scarcity of books, and the limited opportunities of intellectual intercourse. Montaigne freely borrowed of others, and he has found men willing to borrow of him as freely. He has been the setting-up of many an author; and we trace him in the pages of writers so different and so far apart as Shakspeare, Pascal, Moliere, Rousseau, and Voltaire. He lent himself to plagiarism by the unstinted profusion with which he brought within easy and tempting reach a vast body of serviceable references, by the fresh and impressive lights in which he put the fruits of his studies, and by the comparative obscurity of his Essays in a popular sense. Nor can I think of any one who would have been less surprised at these appropriations or have less resented them than Montaigne himself.
We need not wonder at the reputation which he with seeming facility achieved. He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book stood apart from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the Essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His Essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences. They are richly autobiographical; but the material demands assortment and collation with the particulars elsewhere gatherable. I am by no means satisfied that in his admirable biography Mr. St. John has made as full use of these scattered stores as he might have done.
Of all egotists, Montaigne, if not the greatest, was the most fascinating, because, perhaps, he was the least affected and most truthful. What he did and what he had professed to do, was to dissect his mind, and show us, as best he could, how it was made, and what relation it bore to external objects. He investigated his mental structure as a schoolboy pulls his watch to pieces, to examine the mechanism of the works; and the result, accompanied by illustrations abounding with originality and force, he delivered to his fellow-men in a book—one almost more replete with quotations from other writers than any extant: in matter and thought purely personal more exuberantly full.
Eloquence, rhetorical effect, poetry, were alike remote from his design. He expressly disclaims the possession of learning, an acquaintance with terms, and a knowledge of style. He did not write from necessity, scarcely perhaps for fame. But he lets us understand that the pleasure derived from his voluntary employment was to him an adequate return. He desired to leave France, nay, and the world, something to be remembered by, something which should tell what kind of a man he was—what he felt, thought, suffered—and he succeeded immeasurably, I apprehend, beyond his expectations. This is the secret of his repute and estimation, hardly popularity. His pages are candid and unrestrained to a fault. His book may be said to err on the side of honesty, and he shocks us not unfrequently by the strangely ingenuous frankness of his disclosures. Whatever we may judge the Essays to be as they lie before us, there is the feeling that, had any professional school of criticism existed in France in the author’s time, and its verdict been present to his mind, they might have been more chastened and labored, and, on the contrary, less spontaneous, less conversational, less intimate, less a book constituting in itself a class and a type.
It was reasonable enough that Montaigne should expect for his work a certain share of celebrity in Gascony, and even, as time went on, throughout France; but he professes, at least in one place of the Essays, to doubt whether they would, owing to changes of taste and diction, outlast fifty years; and it is, at any rate, scarcely probable that he foresaw how his renown was to become worldwide; how he was to occupy an almost unique position as a man of letters and a moralist; how the Essays would be read, in all the principal languages of Europe, by millions of intelligent human beings, who never heard of Perigord or the League, and who are in doubt, if they are questioned, whether the author lived in the sixteenth or the eighteenth century. This is true fame. A man of genius belongs to no period and no country. He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.
In order to do full justice to this illustrious writer, it is necessary to take into account the exceptionally and almost heretical or treasonable breadth of his opinions, and his candor and courage in making them public. A comparison has been instituted between him and Voltaire in this respect; and both men occupied a high social position and were in good worldly circumstances. The same indeed may be predicated of La Boetie himself and of Francois Hotman, however dissimilar and unequal; and these indications combine to show that the political principles which arrived at so violent a climax in 1789 had already more than germinated two centuries before. It is in no way remarkable that all great writers should be advocates of personal liberty; but it is so that those who had so clear an interest in the preservation of the status quo, and, in the case of Montaigne, were in such close contact with the court, should have leant without disguise to the anti-monarchical side. Our own Shakespeare was half a republican at heart; but he found it convenient to leave his persons of the drama to speak on his behalf. In France, England, and throughout Europe the same spirit of inquiry and doubt was in progress, destined in different countries to accomplish different results.
The text of these volumes is taken from the first edition of Cotton’s version, printed in 1685-86, and republished in 1693, 1700, 1711, 1738, and 1743. In the earliest impression the errors of the press are corrected merely as far as page 240 of the first volume; and all the editions follow one another. That of 1685-86 was the only one which the translator lived to see. He died in 1687, leaving behind him an interesting and little-known collection of poems, which appeared posthumously, 8vo, 1689.
But it was considered imperative to correct Cotton’s translation by a careful collation with the best available French texts; and parallel passages from Florio’s earlier and decidedly very inferior—often almost burlesque—undertaking have occasionally been inserted at the foot of the page. A Life of the Author and all his recovered Letters, five-and-thirty in number, have also been given; but, as regards the correspondence, it can scarcely be doubted that it is in a purely fragmentary state. To do more than furnish a sketch of the leading incidents in Montaigne’s life seemed, in the presence of many biographical enterprises of recent date on the part of French students—the latest being that of MM. Courbet and Royer, 1872-1900—a work of supererogation, at least on the present occasion. The edition cited is, no doubt, an advance on its predecessors; yet, looking at the fact that it was twenty-eight years in the press, a far better result might have been attained and expected. It is in more than one way lamentably imperfect and unsatisfactory.
The besetting sin of both Montaigne’s translators seems to have been a propensity for reducing his language and phraseology to the language and phraseology of the age and country to which they belonged, and, moreover, inserting paragraphs and words, not here and there only, but constantly and habitually, from an evident desire and view to elucidate or strengthen their author’s meaning. The result has generally been unfortunate; and I have, in the case of all these interpolations on Cotton’s part, felt bound, where I did not cancel them, to throw them into the notes, not thinking it right that Montaigne should be allowed any longer to stand sponsor for what he never wrote; and reluctant, on the other hand, to suppress the intruding matter entirely, where it appeared to possess a value of its own.
Nor is redundancy or paraphrase the only form of transgression in Cotton, for there are places in his author which he thought proper to omit, and it is hardly necessary to say that the restoration of all such matter to the text was considered essential to its integrity and completeness. Cotton has farthermore sinned, in my opinion, in introducing whimsical and heterogeneous English colloquialisms of his own time as equivalents for the language of his author; which they by no means are.
The present owner of the copyright interest in the now scarce edition of 1877, having requested me to see the book once more through the press, I have taken the opportunity to introduce as many additions and corrections as possible; I have given the letter of Montaigne to Henry III., not previously found in any English edition; and a facsimile is supplied of that addressed to Henry IV. in 1590, and first printed by M. Achille Jubinal, 8vo, 1850. The other illustrations which accompanied the edition of 1877 have been reproduced, and I have spared no reasonable pains to render the book on its reappearance as satisfactory as possible to English readers.
I found, in fact, that the text of 1877, which my late father kindly undertook to revise, was still disfigured by innumerable errors and misprints, legacies from the antecedent impressions, and originally due to the negligence of Cotton or his imperfect knowledge of French, and that the Letters had been so poorly translated, that it was imperative to do the work over again so far as I had the means; and the English versions of the foreign quotations in the text have been similarly subjected to elaborate revision. The mistakes in the names of persons and places are now rectified to the utmost extent of my power; without permitting myself to hope that all the original carelessness of Montaigne, or his translators, and editors’ faults, are set right,—I entertain the expectation that the book in its present form will prove at least infinitely more worthy of the author than any of its predecessors.
The quotations of Montaigne from ancient and modern authors were agreeable to a fashion not yet entirely abandoned, but probably carried in his case to an unparalleled length. The practice, which we owe, after all, however, to the leisure of his later days (for in the editions of the Essays published in 1580-82-87-88 the extracts are comparatively few), has involved an enormous amount of labor in the process of verification, and has been occasionally aggravated by the difficulty of deciding whether to accept the version printed or left behind by the Essayist, or adapt the text to the standard at present recognized. For he not only resorted, of necessity, to editions current in his day, but occasionally transcribed at random, if he did not in some cases rely on his memory, or copy at second-hand.
In 1875, Michel de Malvezin published Montaigne: son Origine, sa Famille, Bordeaux, 8 vo; and in 1893 M. Paul Bonnefon brought out, also at Bordeaux, a volume, accompanied by numerous illustrations, entitled Montaigne; l’Homme et l’Oeuvre. To the latter I have been considerably indebted. There have been several other monographs, demonstrating the keen interest in this writer; but M. Bonnefon has incorporated their substance, as well as that of the work by Malvezin, in his own extremely painstaking, well-executed, and discriminative book.
It would be no difficult task to form a volume of Montaigneana from the Essays, and Mr. St. John has in a certain measure in his 1858 volumes carried out this idea. But, considering the position and reputation of the author, and the wide, varied, and illustrious circle in which he moved, it takes us by surprise when we note his absence from the innumerable volumes of anecdote produced since 1592. His private life must have been distinguished by some episodes and traits deserving of perpetuation, if they had been only items of gossip, and even scandal. Possibly his name, alike in France and elsewhere, was long insufficiently popular to recommend him to the editors of that class of literature.
The question of selecting a French text on which an English one should be based is so far outside the present enterprise, that my commission, as I have explained, was restricted to an amended reprint of the translation produced in 1877; and that commission I have, from my warm interest in the author, vastly exceeded. But it might form a debatable point, even if an entirely new English version should be hereafter made from the French, how far the editor or translator could or ought to deal with the endless variations in successive issues between 1580 and 1595. For it is the case of an author who wrote a single important work, and whose ample leisure afforded him unsurpassed facilities for altering, adding, eliminating, transposing; and of this opportunity Montaigne assuredly availed himself to the fullest extent.
W. C. H.