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Here for twenty years, save when he is running up to Paris “on business," sits a little squat-figured, undignified man; he is past forty now, and no longer fond of violent exercises; he dresses in plain white or black; he is quick and hasty-tempered, in so much that his servants get out of his sight when he begins to call them “calves”; he is easily irritated by little things, such as the fall of a tile, or the breaking of a thing; he sits down to dinner late, because he does not like to see a crowd of dishes on the table; he is fond of wine, but is not intemperate; he is awkward, and unable to do things which other men do; cannot dance or sing; cannot mend a pen, saddle a horse, or carve meat, and his awkwardness makes him uncomfortable. He has all the virtues, he says, except two or three; never makes enemies, never does any man injury; makes it his rule to keep things comfortable about him; is extremely kind-hearted, and eminently selfish. He is lacking in the domestic faculty; cares little about his wife, and does not pretend to care at all for babies; and he is always interfering with servants, so that they hate him. As regards his reading, it is without method, desultory; he takes up his books one after the other, and browses among them, reading Latin histories for chief pleasure. He evidently has no real love for poetry or power of criticism, because we find him turning from Ovid and Virgil and admiring the miserable centos in vogue at the time.
Do you want to know more about him ? Read the « Essays.” There you will find every page with some allusion to himself. You will be pleased to learn that he prefers white wine to red; that he loves to rest with his legs raised; that he likes scratching his ear, with other interesting details.
It is all, in fact, as I said before, about himself. There is the man, with his appearance, his manners, his habits, and his baggage of thoughts. And because it is a real man, ten times as real as Rousseau's pretended self, therefore it is an immortal book. The main interests of life lie in the commonplace; the great thoughts of a genius are too much for most of us; we like the easy wanderings of a mind of our own level; we follow the speculations of one who is not far removed from ourselves with pleasure, if not with profit. Like him, we doubt; like him, we know nothing; like him, we have no disposition to be martyrs; like him, we long after something that we have not got, something that we cannot understand; like him, we feel that it is an extremely disagreeable necessity, this of death.
Like ourselves, but yet superior. His mind differing in degree from ours, not in kind; larger, broader, keener. It is impossible that truth should be better studied in a successive series of observations, although he is never able to show the relations of one to another. They have, indeed, no natural relations to him. He feels himself in a labyrinth full of uncertainty, doubt, and perplexity, wanders aimlessly along, turning from path to path, plucking flowers as he goes, and careless about finding any clew. His mottoes, cut upon the rafters of his library, show his mind, in which uncertainty is the leading characteristic. An uncertainty which chimed in with the miserable condition of affairs in the world; when burnings, tortures, civil wars, horrid plagues, were the commonest accidents of life, and man's intellect, man's reason, man's kindly nature, seemed powerless to arrest the dreadful miseries wrought by king and priest. Religion? It is a need. Truth? Who knows what it is ? Government? It means protection. Life? It means disappointment, disease, fear of death. Science? A bundle of contradictions. Love? It means falsehood and infidelity. And then men quarrel as to whether Montaigne was a Christian. It is exasperating to find the question so much as raised. What were these two banners under which men were ranged, of Huguenot and Catholic ? Some poor artisans, like Bishop Briconnet's weavers of Meaux, might greatly dare for liberty's sake; to the men of culture the rival parties were but two political sides. Montaigne belonged to that side which represented, in his eyes, order and law; he was, therefore, a Catholic. Like all the men of his own time, he had a creed, a kind of pill, to be taken when it might be wanted. The time had gone by when such men as Rabelais and Dolet hoped to bring the world to Deism; the scholars had accepted the inevitable position of orthodoxy, and, while giving all their activity and interest to heathenism, were zealous supporters of the lifeless creed. Montaigne a Christian? Compare his morality with that of the Gospels; read how the dread of death is breathed in every page of his book; remember how he says that to pretend to know, to understand aught beyond the phenomenal, is to make the handful greater than the hand can hold; the armful larger than the arms can embrace; the stride wider than the legs can stretch — "a man can but see with his eyes and hold with his grasp.” Try then to remember that we are not in the nineteenth century, but in the sixteenth; that Montaigne died in the act of adoration, and cease to ask whether the man was a Christian. Christian? There was no better Christian than Montaigne in all his century.
2 COUGUSTINE BIRRELL's "Obiter Dicta,” published in 1884, decided Se conclusively in the mind of England and America that, no El matter what he may do at the bar or in parliament, he belongs not to law or to public life, but to literature. The book was the work of a pupil of Charles Lamb who believed with his master that the surest way to serve is to begin by pleasing. The superiority of Carlyle and the intensity of Ruskin had made giving pleasure seem a matter of minor importance or of no importance at all. These great men, each of whom was in his own way as certainly a prophet as Isaiah or Ezekiel, set what, for men of less intellect and no inspiration, was a bad example. As a result of stereotyped imitation of it, the world became weary of the artificial fervor of the mere Mahdis of inspiration. Being so, it was ready to receive Birrell and give him a hearing when, instead of crying aloud in the street of Nineveh, he renounced sackcloth and ashes for himself and his read. ers by quoting Dr. John Brown's story of the Scotch dog whose master said in explaining his gravity: «Oh, sir, life is full of sairiousness to him — he can just never get eneugh o' fechtin.) »
The world cannot escape its fighters, and though it must needs be that the offense of fechtin comes, the woe pronounced on those by whom it cometh, is sairiousness,- perhaps due to the movement of the soul, but frequently connoting indigestion, physical and intellectual.”
Birrell would have none of such seriousness. He thought it worth while to please, and he has succeeded so well that in the sixteen years since he began writing, he has won a well-assured place among those whose essays are certain to survive and become classics.
He was born January 19th, 1850, at Wavertree, near Liverpool, and educated at Cambridge, graduating with honors in law and history in 1872. He was called to the bar in 1875, and in 1889 returned to Parliament from West Fife. He has done noteworthy work as a writer of biography and on legal subjects, but his special field is essay writing. ON DOCTOR BROWN'S DOG-STORY
R. JOHN Brown's pleasant story has become well known, of
the countryman who, being asked to account for the grav
ity of his dog, replied: «Oh, sir! life is full of sairiousness to him — he can just never get eneugh o' fechtin'.” Something of the spirit of this saddened dog seems lately to have entered into the very people who ought to be freest from it-our men of letters. They are all very serious and very quarrelsome. To some of them it is dangerous even to allude. Many are wedded to a theory or period, and are the most uxorious of husbands — ever ready to resent an affront to their lady. This devotion makes them very grave, and possibly very happy after a pedantic fashion. One remembers what Hazlitt, who was neither happy nor pedantic, has said about pedantry:
« The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature. The common soldier mounts the breach with joy, the miser deliberately starves himself to death, the mathematician sets about extracting the cube root with a feeling of enthusiasm, and the lawyer sheds tears of delight over Coke upon Lyttleton. He who is not in some measure a pedant, though he may be a wise, cannot be a very happy man.”
Possibly not; but then we are surely not content that our authors should be pedants in order that they may be happy and devoted. As one of the great class for whose sole use and be. half literature exists,— the class of readers,— I protest that it is to me a matter of indifference whether an author is happy or not. I want him to make me happy. That is his office. Let him discharge it.
I recognize in this connection the corresponding truth of what Sydney Smith makes his Peter Plymley say about the private virtues of Mr. Perceval, the Prime Minister :
«You spend a great deal of ink about the character of the present Prime Minister. Grant all that you write -- I say, I fear that he will ruin Ireland, and pursue a line of policy destructive to the true interests of his country; and then you tell me that he is faithful to Mrs. Perceval, and kind to Master Perceval. I should prefer that he whipped his boys and saved his country.”