IN THE YEAR OF CHRIST 1571 Michael Montaigne, aged 38, on his birthday, the day preceding the Calends of March, already long wearied of the servitude of the law-courts, and of public offices, has retired, with faculties still entire, to the arms of the learned virgins, there to pass in all quiet and security, such length of days as remain to him, of his already more than half-spent years, if so the fates permit him to finish this abode and these sweet ancestral retreats consecrated to his freedom and tranquility and leisure.
Michel de Montaigne had this inscribed, in Latin, above the fireplace in his library. In the adjoining room he would invent the essay, give that form its first masterpieces, and, twenty-one years after retiring to it, Montaigne would die in his circular study.
Soon after he inscribed the obituary of his public self above the fireplace, Montaigne probably began painting inscriptions on the bare, wooden beams of his study. Taken together with the Essays, these inscriptions offer as clear a view as is possible not only into Montaigne’s mind, but into the mind of anyone who has ever lived.
As far as I know this is the first time these have been collected in English.
There are two long beams, A and B, onto each of which four phrases are inscribed on a decorative band. The rest of the inscriptions are divided between the forty-six smaller beams. At least thirteen of the beams have had more than one inscription painted on them, one on top of the other. Where it was possible to read both, they are marked Bottom Layer and Top Layer.
A1 – IVDICIO ALTERNANTE – [I] Remain poised in the balance…
A2 – ΑΚΑΤΑΛΗΠΤΩ – Undecided… (Sextus Empiricus)
A3 – ΟΥΔΕΝ ΜΑΛΛΟΝ – One thing being no more than another, (Sextus Empiricus)
A4 – ΑΡΡΕΠΩΣ – [I am] without inclination. (Sextus Empiricus)
B1 – ΟΥ ΚΑΤΑΛΑΜΒΑΝΩ – I do not understand. (Sextus Empiricus)
B2 – ΕΠΕΧΩ – I stop. (Sextus Empiricus)
B3 – ΣΚΕΠΤΟΜΑΙ – I examine. (Sextus Empiricus)
B4 – MORE DVCE ET SENSV – [I take for my guide] the ways of the world and the experiences of the senses.
First Set of Beams
1- Bottom Layer
ΕΙΗ ΜΟΙ ΖΗΝ ΑΠΟ ΤΩΝ ΟΛΙΓΩΝ ΜΗΔΕΝ ΕΧΟΝΤΙ ΚΑΚΟΝ
One lives but a little, shelter yourself from evil.
(Theognis, from Joannes Stobaeus, Greek anthologist of the 5th Century AD)
1- Top Layer
EXTREMA HOMINI SCIENTIA VT RES SVNT BONI CONSVLERE CÆTERA SECVRVM. ECCL.
The ultimate wisdom of man is to consider things as good, and for the rest to be untroubled. Ecclesiastes
Note- these words do not exist in either Ecclesiastes or Ecclesiasticus, but as Montaigne does frequently, probably represent his distillation of that book’s spirit.
2- Bottom Layer
ΑΥΤΑΡΚΕΙΑ ΠΡΟΣ ΠΑΣΙΝ ΗΔΟΝΗ ΔΙΚΑΙΑ
Autonomy is the only just pleasure.
(Sotades, from Stobaeus)
2- Top Layer
COGNOSCENDI STVDIVM HOMINI DEDIT DEVS EIVS TORQVENDI GRATIA. ECCL.1.
God gave to man the desire for knowledge for the sake of tormenting him. Ecclesiastes 1
Note- This is a paraphrase of Eccl. 1.13, which in Ecclesiasticus runs:
Et proposui in animo meo quaerere et investigare sapienter de omnibus quae fiunt sub sole. Hanc occupationem pessimam dedit Deus filiis hominum ut occuparentur in ea.
I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky. It is a heavy burden that God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
Montaigne uses this paraphrase in Of Presumption and the Apology for Raymond Sebond.
3- Bottom Layer
ΜΑΚΑΡΙΟΣ ΟΣ ΤΙΣ ΟΥΣΙΑΝ ΚΑΙ ΝΟΥΝ ΕΧΕΙ
Happy is he who has fortunes and reason.
(Menander- Mon. 340, from Stobaeus)
3- Top Layer
ΤΟΥΣ ΜΕΝ ΚΕΝΟΥ ΑΣΚΟΥΣ ΤΟ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΔΠΣΤΗΣΙ ΤΟΥΣ Δ’ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΥΣ ΤΟ ΟΙΗΜΑ
As the wind puffs out empty wineskins, so pride of opinion, foolish men.
(Socrates in Stobaeus- Florilgium: Of Arrogance)
4- Bottom Layer
ΟΥΠΟΤΕ ΦΗΣΩ ΓΑΜΟΝ ΕΥΦΡΑΙΝΕΙΝ ΠΑΕΟΝ Η ΛΥΠΕΙΝ
Never say that marriage brings more joys than tears.
(Euripides- Alcestis 147, from Stobaeus)
4- Top Layer
OMNIVM QVÆ SVB SOLE SVNT FORTVNA ET LEX PAR EST. ECCL.9.
Everything under the sun follows the same law and the same destiny. Ecclesiastes 9.
Note- This reference to Ecclesiastes 9.3 shows up in a slightly modified form in Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.2:
Tout ce qui est sous le ciel, dit le sage, court une loy et fortune pareille.
Ecclesiasticus has this as:
Hoc est pessimism inter omnia, quae sub sole fiunt, quia eadem cunctis eveniunt.
ΟΥ ΜΑΛΛΟΝ ΟΥΤΩΣ ΕΧΕΙ Η ΕΚΕΙΝΩΣ Η ΟΥΔΕΤΕΡΟΣ
It is no more in this way than in that, or in neither.
(Aulus Gellius, via Henricius Stephanus’ 1562 annotated edition of Sextus Empiricus)
Note- This shows up in Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.5 referring to the Pyrrhonistsas:
Leurs façons de parler sont, ‘Je n’etablis rien: II n’est non plus ainsi qu’ainsin, ou que ny l’un ny l’autre’…
Their manners of speaking are: ‘I establish nothing; it is no more thus than thus or than neither one nor the other…
6- Bottom Layer
DVRVM SED LEVIVS FIT PATIENTIA QVIDQVID CORRIGERE EST NEFAS
It is hard!; but that which we are not permitted to correct is rendered lighter by patience.
(Horace- Odes 1.24.19)
6- Top Layer
NVLLIVS VEL MAGNÆ VEL PARVÆ EARVM RERVM QVAS DEVS TAM MVLTAS FECIT NOTITIA IN NOBIS EST. ECCL.3.
The notion of everything, large and small, of all the innumerable creatures of God, is to be found within us. Ecclesiastes 3[.1]
ΟΡΩ ΓΑΡ ΗΜΑΣ ΟΝΤΑΣ ΑΛΛΟ ΠΛΑΝ
ΕΙΔΩΛ ’ ΟΣΟΙΠΕΡ ΖΘΜΕΝ Η ΚΟΥΦΗΝ ΣΚΙΑΝ
For I see that we are but phantoms,
all we who live, or fleeting shadows.
(Sophocles- Ajax, 125-6, in Stobaeus- Of Arrogance)
O MISERAS HOMINVM MENTES O PECTORA CÆCA QUALIBVS IN TENEBRIS VITÆ QVANTISQ. PERICLIS DEGITVR HOC ÆVI QVODCVNQ. EST
O wretched minds of men! O blind hearts! in what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life whatever its duration.
(Lucretius- De Natura Rerum: II.14)
9- Bottom Layer
ΕΝ ΤΩ ΦΡΟΝΕΙΝ ΓΑΡ ΜΗΔΕΝ ΗΔΙΣΤΟΣ ΒΙΟΣ
ΤΟ ΜΕ ΦΡΟΝΕΙΝ ΓΑΡ ΚΑΡΤ ’ ΑΝΩΔΥΝΟΝ ΚΑΚΟΝ
To not think at all is the softest life,
Because not thinking is the most painless evil.
(Sophocles, from Erasmus)
9- Top Layer
ΚPΙΝΕΙ ΤΙΣ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΠΘΠΟΤΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΝ ΜΕΓΑΡ
ΟΝ ΕΞΑΛΕΙΦΕΙ ΠΡΟΦΑΣΙΣ Η ΤΥΧΟΥΣ ’ ΟΛΟΝ
What man will account himself great,
Whom a chance occasion destroys utterly?
(Euripides- Lost work, in Stobaeus- Of Arrogance)
[OMNIA CVM CÆLO TERRAQVE MARIQVE SVNT NIHIL AD SVMMAM SVMMAI TOTIVS]
All things, together with heaven and earth and sea, are nothing to the sum of the universal sum.
(Lucretius- De Natura Rerum, VI.678-9)
Note- this inscription was restored according to a memory of what it said, after the replacement of the original beam. This is quoted in Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.5.
VIDISTI HOMINEM SAPIENTEM SIBI VIDERI MAGIS ILLO SPEM HABEBIT INSIPIENS. PROV.26.
The fool has more hope of wisdom than the man who calls himself wise. Proverbs 26
Note- The source is Proverbs 26.12:
Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit?
there is more hope of a fool than of him.
12- Bottom Layer
NEC NOVA VIVENDO PROCVDITVR VLLA VOLVPTAS
No new delight may be forged by living on.
(Lucretius- De Natura Rerum III.1081)
12- Top Layer
SICVT IGNORAS QVOMODO ANIMA CONIVNGATVR CORPORI SIC NESCIS OPERA DEI. ECCL.11 .
You who know nothing of how the soul marries the body, you therefore know nothing of God’s works. Ecclesiastes 11[.5]
ΕΝΔΕΧΕΤΑΙ ΚΑΙ ΟΥΚ ΕΝΔΕΧΕΤΑΙ
It is possible and it is not possible.
(Sextus Empiricus- Hypotyposes)
The good is admirable.
(Plato, via Sextus Empiricus)
Note- This turns up in On Physionomy.
A man of clay.
(Saint Paul, via Erasmus)
Note- in Erasmus’ Adages this shows up as:
Κεραμεύς ανθρωπος, homo fictilis, id est mollis, imbecillis, fragilis.
Man of clay, moldable man, that is soft, stupid, fragile.
Second Set of Beams
16- Bottom Layer
Η ΔΕΙΣΙΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΑ ΚΑΘΑΠΕΡ ΠΑΤΡΙ ΤΩ ΤΥΦΩ ΠΕΙΘΕΤΑΙ
Impiety follows pride like a dog. [lit.: ‘like a father is followed’]
(Socrates, from Stobaeus)
16- Top Layer
NOLITE ESSE PRVDENTES APVD VOSMETIPSOS. AD ROM.12.
Be not wise in your own conceits.
(Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 12.)
Note- Laterally beneath (i.e. not painted beneath) the Latin inscription is just visible a smaller Greek one:
‘Η δεισιδαιμονια καθαπερ πατρι τω τυφω πειθεται.
Superstition obeys conceit as a father.
which is attributed to Socrates in Stobaeus- Apophthegmata, s. 22. By placing it beneath Paul, Montaigne is clearly trying to imply a connection between the two men. Given the number of revisions and overpaintings, it seems clear that the inscriptions have a complex and meaningful spatial relationship to one another.
In Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.5:
…ce que dict ce mot grec ancient, que la superstition suyt l’orgueil, et luy obeit comme à son pére.
This is perhaps what the ancient Greek maxim says, that superstition follows pride and obeys it as if pride were its father.
17- Bottom Layer
SVMMVM NEC METVAM DIEM NEC OPTEM
Neither fear nor desire [your] last day.
(Martial- Epigrams, X.47)
Note- quoted in Essays II.37.
17- Top Layer
ΟΥ ΓΑΡ ΦΡΟΝΕΙΝ Ο ΘΕΟΣ ΜΕΓΑ Α ΑΛΛΟΝ Η ΕΩΓΤΟΝ
God permits no one but Himself to magnify Himself.
(Herodotus- VII.10, from Stobaeus)
Note- quoted in Apology for Raymond Sebond.
18- Bottom Layer
QVO ME CVNQVE RAPIT TEMPESTAS DEFEROR HOSPES
I shelter where the storm drives me.
(Horace- Epistles I.i.14)
18- Top Layer
NESCIS HOMO HOC AN ILLVD MAGIS EXPEDIAT AN ÆQVE VTRVMQVE. ECCL.11.
You are unaware if your interest is here rather than there, or if they are alike in value. Ecclesiastes, 11.
Note- this echoes Ecclesiasticus 11.6:
Mane semina semen tuum et vespere ne cesset manus tua; quia nescis quid magis oriatur hoc aut illuf et si utrumque simul melius erit.
In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening don’t withhold your hand; for you don’t know which will prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both will be equally good.
HOMO SVM HVMANI A ME NIHIL ALIENVM PVTO
I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me.
NE PLVS SAPIAS QVAM NECESSE EST NE OBSTVPESCAS. ECCL.7.
Be not overwise lest you become senseless. Ecclesiastes 7[.16].
SI QVIS EXISTIMAT SE ALIQVID SCIRE NONDVM COGNOVIT QVOMODO OPORTEAT ILLVD SCIRE. I.COR.8.
If any man thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing. First letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 8[.2].
SI QVIS EXISTIMAT SE ALIQVID ESSE CVM NIHIL SIT IPSE SE SEDVCIT. AD GAL.6.
If any man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Letter of Paul to the Galatians, 6[.3].
NE PLVS SAPITE QVAM OPORTET SED SAPITE AD SOBRIETATEM. AD ROM.12.
Be no wiser than is necessary, but be wise in moderation. Letter of Paul to the Romans, 12[.3].
ΚΑΙ ΤΟ ΜΕΝ ΟΥΝ ΣΑΦΕΣ ΟΥΤΙΣ ΑΝΗΡ ΙΔΕΝ ΟΥΔΕΤΙΣ ΕΖΤΑΙ ΕΙΔΩΣ
No one has ever known the truth and no one will know it.
(Xenophanes, in Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empiricus)
ΤΙΣ Δ ’ ΟΙΔΕΝ ΕΙ ΖΗΝ ΤΟΥΘ ’ Ο ΚΕΚΛΗΤΑΙ ΘΑΝΕΙΝ
ΤΟ ΖΗΝ ΔΕ ΘΝΗΣΚΕΙΝ ΕΣΤΙ
Who knows whether that which we call dying is living,
and living is dying?
(Euripides- fragment of the Phrixus, from Stobaeus- Of the Praise of Death)
26- Bottom Layer
ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΟΝ ΤΟ ΔΙΚΑΙΟΤΑΤΟΝ ΠΑΣΤΟΝ Δ ’ ΥΤΙΑΙΝΕΙΝ
Nothing is more beautiful than being just, but nothing is more pleasant than being healthy.
(Theognis, from Stobaeus)
26- Top Layer
RES OMNES SVNT DIFFICILIORES QVAM VT EAS POSSIT HOMO CONSEQVI. ECCL.1.
All things are too difficult for man to understand them. Ecclesiastes 1.
Note- the Vulgate of Ecclesiastes 1.8 has:
Cunctae res difficiles, non potest eas homo explicare sermone.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
ΕΠΕΩΝ ΔΕ ΠΟΛΥΣ ΝΟΜΟΣ ΕΝΘΑ ΚΑΙ ΕΝΘΑ
Wide is the range of man’s speech, this way and that.
(Homer- Iliad 20.249, from Diogenes Laertius)
HVMANVM GENVS EST AVIDVM NIMIS AVRICVLARVM
The whole race of man has overgreedy ears.
(Lucretius- De Natura Rerum IV.598)
QVANTVM EST IN REBVS INANE
How great is the worthlessness of things.
PER OMNIA VANITAS. ECCL.1.
All is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1.
Note- the complete Vulgate verse of Ecclesiasticus 1.2 runs:
Vanitas vanitatum, dixit Ecclesiastes: vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Third Set of Beams
SERVARE MODVM FINEMQVE TENERA NATVRMQVE SEQVI
To keep within due measure and hold fast the end and follow nature.
(Lucan- Pharsalia II.381-2)
Note- this is a record of what this very short beam once said, it has since been replaced and left uninscribed.
QVID SVPERBIS TERRA ET CINIS. ECCL.10.
Earth and ashes, wherefrom your pride? Ecclesiastes 10
Note- probably a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 10.9:
Whoever carves out stones may be injured by them. Whoever splits wood may be endangered thereby.
VAE QVI SAPIENTES ESTIS IN OCVLIS VESTRIS. ESA.5.
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes. Isaiah 5[.21]
34- Bottom Layer
MORES CVIQVE SVI FINGVNT FORTVNAM
Character is fate. [lit. ‘To each the destiny his character makes.’]
(Cornelius Nepos, from Erasmus- Adages)
34- Top Layer
FRVERE IVCVNDE PRÆSENTIBVS CÆTERA EXTRA TE. ECCL.3.
Enjoy pleasantly present things, others are beyond thee. Ecclesiastes 3[.22]
ΠΑΝΤΙ ΛΟΓΩ ΑΟΓΟΣ ΙΣΟΣ ΑΝΤΙΚΕΙΤΑΙ
To every opinion an opinion of equal weight is opposed.
(Sextus Empiricus- Hypotyposes)
Note: this is almost certainly the source for the phrasing of Isaac Newton’s famous Lex III:
Actioni contrario semper & aequalem esse reactionem: sive corporam duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse aequales & in partes contrarias dirigi.
To every reaction there is always opposed an equal reaction: or, the mutual action of two bodies on each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.
NOSTRA VAGATVR IN TENEBRIS NEC CÆCA POTEST MENS CERNERE VERVM
Our mind wanders in darkness, and, blind, cannot discern the truth.
(Michel de l’Hôpital- Poem: ‘Ad Margaritam, Regis sororem’ )
Note- The only inscription by a contemporary of Montaigne’s, and a sign of the tremendous respect in which he held the statesman.
FECIT DEVS HOMINEM SIMILEM VMBRÆ DE QVA POST SOLIS OCCASVM QVIS IVDICABIT. ECCL.7.
God has made man like a shadow, of which who shall judge after the setting of the sun? Ecclesiastes 7.
Note- there is nothing even remotely close to this in chapter 7, Ecclesiastes or anywhere else in scripture. And yet in Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.5, Montaigne again attributes this to the Bible:
La saincte Parole declare miserables ceux d’entre nous qui s’estiment. Bourbe et cendre, leur dit elle, qu’as tu à te glorfier? Et ailleurs: Dier a faict l’homme semblable à l’ombre; de laquelle qui jugera quand par l’esloignement de la lumiére elle sera esvanouye?
Holy Scripture declares miserable those who think well of themselves: “Dust and ashes,” it says to them, “what have you to glory in?” And elsewhere: “God has made man like the shadow; who can say of it when it will have vanished with the passing of the light?”
SOLVM CERTVM NIHIL ESSE CERTI ET HOMINE NIHIL MISERIVS AVT SVPERBIVS
The only certainty is that nothing is certain, and that nothing is less noble or more proud than man.
(Pliny- Naturalis Historia II.5)
Note- the original text runs:
…solum ut inter ista vel certum sit nihil esse certi nec quicquam miserius homine aut superbius.
…that among all of them this alone is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that there is nothing more proud or more wretched than man.
EX TOT DEI OPERIBVS NIHILO MAGIS QVIDQVAM HOMINI COGNITVM QVAM VENTI VESTIGIVM. ECCL.11.
Of all the works of God nothing is more unknown to any man than the track of the wind. Ecclesiastes 11.
Note- this text does not exist in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 11.4 runs:
Qui observat ventum, non seminat:
et qui considerat nubes, nunquam metet;
He who observes the wind won’t sow;
and he who regards the clouds won’t reap.
and so could conceivably be the inspiration for Montaigne’s inscription.
ΑΛΛΑΟΙΣΙΝ ΑΛΛΟΣ ΘΕΩΝ ΤΕ Κ ’ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΩΝ ΜΕΛΕΙ
Each has his own tastes, Gods and men alike.
(Euripides- Hippolytus 104, from Erasmus)
ΕΦ ’ Ω ΦΡΟΝΕΙΣ ΜΕΓΙΣΤΟΝ ΑΠΟΛΕΙ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΣΕ ΤΟ ΔΟΚΕΙΝ ΤΙΝ ’ ΕΙΝΑΙ
That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin, you who think yourself to be somebody.
(Menander- fragment of the Empipragmene, from Stobaeus- Of Arrogance)
ΤΑΡΑΣΣΕΙ ΤΟΥΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΥΣ ΟΥ ΤΑ ΠΡΑΓΜΑΤΑ
ΑΛΛΑ ΤΑ ΠΕΡΙ ΤΩΝ ΠΡΑΓΜΑΤΩΝ ΔΟΓΜΑΤΑ
That which worries men are not things
but that which they think about them.
(Epictetus- Enchiridion, from Stobaeus- Of Death)
ΚΑΛΟΝ ΦΡΟΝΕΙΝ ΤΟΝ ΘΝΗΤΟΝ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΙΣ ΙΣΑ
It is fitting for a mortal to have thoughts appropriate to men.
(Sophocles- fragment from The Colchians, from Stobaeus- Of Arrogance)
QVID ÆTERNIS MINOREM CONSILIIS ANIMVM FATIGAS
Why with designs for the far future do you weary a mind that is unequal to them?
(Horace- Carmina II.11)
45- Bottom Layer
QVARE IGNORAS QVOMODO ANIMA CONJVGITVR CORPORI NESCIS OPERA DEI. ECCL. 11.
As you are ignorant of the way of the spirit, so you do not know the works of God. Ecclesiastes 11.
Note- The source is Ecclesiastes 11.5, which in the Vulgate runs:
Quomodo ignoras quae sit via spiritus, et qua ratione compingantur ossa in ventre praegnantis, sic nescis opera Dei qui fabricator est omnium.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her who is with child, even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
cf. also Apology for Raymond Sebond: 3.5
45- Top Layer
IVDICIA DOMINI ABYSSVS MVLTA. PS.35.
The judgments of the Lord are as a great deep. Psalm 35
I determine in nothing.
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