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Of Experience
by [?]

Estienne de la Boetie; thus translated by Cotton:

“So in a running stream one wave we see
After another roll incessantly,
And as they glide, each does successively
Pursue the other, each the other fly
By this that’s evermore pushed on, and this
By that continually preceded is:
The water still does into water swill,
Still the same brook, but different water still.”

There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon any other subject; we do nothing but comment upon one another. Every place swarms with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity. Is it not the principal and most reputed knowledge of our later ages to understand the learned? Is it not the common and final end of all studies? Our opinions are grafted upon one another; the first serves as a stock to the second, the second to the third, and so forth; thus step by step we climb the ladder; whence it comes to pass that he who is mounted highest has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one.

How often, and, peradventure, how foolishly, have I extended my book to make it speak of itself; foolishly, if for no other reason but this, that it should remind me of what I say of others who do the same: that the frequent amorous glances they cast upon their work witness that their hearts pant with self-love, and that even the disdainful severity wherewith they scourge them are but the dandlings and caressings of maternal love; as Aristotle, whose valuing and undervaluing himself often spring from the same air of arrogance. My own excuse is, that I ought in this to have more liberty than others, forasmuch as I write specifically of myself and of my writings, as I do of my other actions; that my theme turns upon itself; but I know not whether others will accept this excuse.

I observed in Germany that Luther has left as many divisions and disputes about the doubt of his opinions, and more, than he himself raised upon the Holy Scriptures. Our contest is verbal: I ask what nature is, what pleasure, circle, and substitution are? the question is about words, and is answered accordingly. A stone is a body; but if a man should further urge: “And what is a body?”–“Substance”; “And what is substance?” and so on, he would drive the respondent to the end of his Calepin.

[Calepin (Ambrogio da Calepio), a famous lexicographer
of the fifteenth century. His Polyglot Dictionary
became so famous, that Calepin became a common
appellation for a lexicon]

We exchange one word for another, and often for one less understood. I better know what man is than I know what Animal is, or Mortal, or Rational. To satisfy one doubt, they give me three; ’tis the Hydra’s head. Socrates asked Menon, “What virtue was.” “There is,” says Menon, “the virtue of a man and of a woman, of a magistrate and of a private person, of an old man and of a child.” “Very fine,” cried Socrates, “we were in quest of one virtue, and thou hast brought us a whole swarm.” We put one question, and they return us a whole hive. As no event, no face, entirely resembles another, so do they not entirely differ: an ingenious mixture of nature. If our faces were not alike, we could not distinguish man from beast; if they were not unlike, we could not distinguish one man from another; all things hold by some similitude; every example halts, and the relation which is drawn from experience is always faulty and imperfect. Comparisons are ever-coupled at one end or other: so do the laws serve, and are fitted to every one of our affairs, by some wrested, biassed, and forced interpretation.