In this wonderfully long and meandering essay, Montaigne first writes about his own poor memory, and how it can be beneficial, at times, to have a bad memory. Then he complains of talkative people, and finally of liars. He talks about two different types of liars, and illustrates with some personal as well as royal examples.
I have a worse memory than any man I know. ‘My other faculties are all sufficiently ordinary … but in this, I think myself very rare and singular, and deserving to be thought famous’. Plato was certainly right when he called the memory ‘a great and powerful goddess’.
In my country, when someone wants to say someone has no sense, they sometimes say ‘he has no memory’. When I complain of my own defective memory, people do not believe me – they think I am calling myself a fool. They do not differentiate then, between memory and understanding. This is unfair; experience daily shows us, in fact, that a strong memory often goes hand in hand with weak judgment. My friends also do me a disservice when they bring my friendship into question over the issue of my weak memory. Truth is I ‘am so perfect in nothing as in friendship’. But when I forget a request or a promise made, or I forget to say or do or conceal something, they sometimes think this is because I don’t care for them. It should be enough that I feel the misery and inconvenience of neglecting something important to my friend, without being accused of malice for it. Malice couldn’t be more contrary to my personality.
However, I derive some comfort from my weakness. First, this weakness has helped me avoid a worse one, namely, ambition, an intolerable defect in those who take on public affairs. Also, Nature has strengthened my other faculties to compensate for the weakness in memory. If I had had the ideas and opinions of others ever-present with me through the benefits of a good memory, I would have let my judgment and reasoning depend upon their reports, without every bothering to work things out for myself. Also, I would have been talkative. The memory contains much more information, after all, than the intellect. If my memory had been faithful to me I could have ‘deafened all my friends with my babble’. I have observed in several close friends whose memories ‘supply them with an entire and full view of things’, that they ‘begin their narrative so far back, and crowd it with’ so much useless information, that even if the story in itself is good, they destroy it, so you are left either cursing the ‘strength of their memory or the weakness of their judgment’. And it’s impossible to cut them off or make them get to the point once they have started. Its like with horses; ‘there is nothing wherein the force of a horse is so much seen as in a round and sudden stop’. Even those of my talkative friends who are being quite precise seem to be unable to stop, because, while they are searching for a good line to conclude with, they go on randomly, straggling about on trivialities ‘as men staggering upon weak legs’. Worst of all are the old men who remember the stories of their past well, but forget how often they have already told them. This can be very tiring.
There is another advantage to my weak memory: I remember less the injuries that I have received. Maybe I should keep a list of injuries or have a prompter, like the ruler Darius, who, so as not to forget the injuries caused to him by the Athenians, ordered one of his employees to whisper into his ear at every mealtime, ‘Sir, remember the Athenians’. Remembering less also has the advantage that the places I revisit and the books I reread ‘smile upon me with a fresh novelty.’
It’s not without good reason that they say, ‘he who has not a good memory should never take upon him the trade of lying’. The grammarians distinguish between an untruth (something we say that is false but that we believe to be true) and a lie. The definition of a lie in Latin, from which our French is taken, is to say something that we know in our conscience to be untrue.
I’m going to discuss two types of liars now
a. The ones who make up completely what they say. That is, they wholly invent stories and events that never took place.
b. Those who change and disguise a true story.
The second type, who change true stories, will find it difficult to avoid being trapped at one time or another, because “the real truth of the thing, having first taken possession of the memory, and being there lodged … it will be difficult that it should not represent itself to the imagination, and shoulder out falsehood’. The false version doesn’t have as much of a ‘sure and settled footing’ in the memory as the other, true version. The ‘first true knowledge’ may thus make the liar forget those that are untrue and made up by him.
Those that completely invent a story have no ‘true version’ of the tale to ‘jostle their invention’ and so there is ‘less danger of tripping’. Still, the made-up story can easily escape the memory. I’ve had funny experiences of this type of liar, with men who change their speech according to the situation in which they are speaking, and according to the person they address. They tell one person one story and another a different one. And when their listeners ‘confer notes’ and discover the lie, they are ridiculously trapped, ‘for what memory can be sufficient to retain so many different shapes as they have forged upon one and the same subject?’ I have known people who try to gain the reputation of being great storytellers, of the type described above, but ‘they do not see that if they have the reputation of it, the effect can no longer be.’
‘In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice.’ All we have is our word. We should take ‘the horror and gravity’ of this fact very seriously. I sometimes see parents reprimand their children for innocent mistakes. In my opinion, only lying (and obstinacy, which is of a lower form) should be punished. Otherwise, these qualities increase as the children grow up, ‘after a tongue has once got the knack of lying, ‘tis not to be imagined how impossible it is to reclaim’. We sometimes see, indeed, honest men enslaved to this vice. My tailor, for instance, is an honest lad who never tells the truth, even if the truth is to his advantage. If falsehood had, like truth, only one face, we would be on better terms, because then whatever he told me, I would assume the contrary is true. But no, ‘the reverse of a truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite’. The Pythagoreans see good as being certain and finite, and evil being uncertain and infinite. ‘There are a thousand ways to miss the white, there is only one to hit it’.
And how much less sociable is false speaking than silence?
- King Francis boasted that he had outwitted the ambassador to the Duke of Milan, a man who was very famous for his own wit. The ambassador had been sent to apologise on behalf of the Duke for this reason:
The King, in order to maintain some intelligence about goings-on in Milan, had sent a representative to be with the Duke. In effect, he was an ambassador, this man, but he was to pretend to be an ordinary man, residing there for his own reasons. A Milanese helper of the King, Merveille, was selected for this role. He was given letters of recommendation and other credentials, and the Duke took him into his court. Presumably, his true role was discovered, because the Duke held a sham two-day trial where he accused Merveille of murder. Then, he had him beheaded.
The King made inquiries, and the Duke’s ambassador arrived, with a long falsified story of what had occurred. He insisted that the Duke had never considered Merveille anything other than a private gentleman in Milan on his own business. The King pressed him with several ‘objections and demands’. For example, he asked why the execution had been done at night, as if by stealth. The ‘poor confounded ambassador’ stumbled, and said that the Duke had too much respect for the King to perform it in the day. It can be guessed that this ambassador was admonished when he went home, ‘for having so grossly tripped in the presence of so delicate a nostril as King Francis’.
- Pope Julius sent a messenger to the King of England, urging him to wage war against the French King Francis. The King’s reaction was hesitant; he worried about putting enough resources together to attach such a powerful king as Francis. The ambassador replied that he too had thought of these difficulties, and told the Pope about them. This response was ‘so directly opposite to the thing propounded and the business he came about, which was immediately to incite him to war’ that the King reasoned that the ambassador was clearly on the side of the French. He told Pope Julius of his suspicion, and on his return, the ambassador’s home was confiscated, and he only just escaped losing his head.