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Michel De Montaigne

Reading Books

Language gains in value not so much by being handled and used by vigorous minds, not so much from innovations, as by being put to more forcible and various service, stretching it and bending it; they do not bring words to it but they enrich those they use; they give weight and force to their signification and their use, teaching the language unwonted action, but discreetly and dexterously. But how little this agility is given to all men is seen in so many French writers of this age. They are bold enough and scornful enough not to follow the common path; but lack of invention and discretion is their undoing. There is seen in them only a miserable affectation of singularity, feeble and absurd dissimulations which, instead of uplifting, debase the subject. Provided they can pride themselves on novelty, they care nothing for its effectiveness; to lay hold of a new word, they forsake the usual one, often stronger and more pithy.

I find material enough in our language, but some failure in fashioning it, for there is nothing that might not be done with the terms of hunting and of war, which is a fruitful soil to borrow from; and forms of speech, like plants, are improved and strengthened by trans-planting. I find it sufficiently copious, but not sufficiently pliable and vigorous; it usually succumbs under a powerful conception. If you are hard pressed, you often perceive that it weakens and bends beneath you, and that in its default the Latin comes to your aid, and to others Greek. Of some of these words which I have just selected we perceive the force with greater difficulty because usage and familiarity have in some sort cheapened their charm to us and made it commonplace; as in our ordinary speech, there are to be found excellent phrases and metaphors of which the beauty withers with age and the color is tarnished by too general handling. But this takes nothing from their relish for those who have good perception, nor does it lessen the glory of those ancient authors who, it is probable, first used these words with brilliancy.

Men of learning treat these things with too great refinement, in an artificial manner, different from the common and natural one. My page makes love and understands it; read him Leon Hebreu and Ficino; they speak of him, of his thoughts and his acts, and yet he understands nothing of what they say. I do not recognise in Aristotle the greater part of my ordinary emotions; they have been covered and clothed in a different garment, to be worn by his school. God help them ! Were I of the profession, I would naturalise art as much as they artificialise nature.

To carry out this purpose of mine, it also suits well that I should write in my own house, in an uncivilised region, where no one assists me or stimulates me, where I seldom meet a man who understands the Latin of his Pater Noster and who does not know French even less. I should have done it better elsewhere, but the work would have been less mine; and its chief aim and perfection is to be precisely mine. I should rightly correct an accidental error, of which, since I hasten on heedlessly, I am full; but the imperfections which are common and constant in me it would be disloyal to remove. When some one has said to me, or I have said to myself: `You make too much use of figures of speech; there you have a word of Gascon growth; there you have a hazardous expression' (I eschew none of those that are used on the French streets; they who think to combat usage with grammar make fools of themselves); `there you have an ignorant remark; there a paradoxical one; this other is too simple'; `you often play a part; it will be thought that you say in earnest what you say in an assumed character,'... `Yes,' I answer, `but I correct heedless errors, not those of habit. Do I not commonly talk thus? Does not this represent me to the life? Enough. I have done what I desired to do: every one recognises me in my book and my book in me.'

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