Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 1

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



The earlier Essays of Montaigne, written before 1580, — especially those of the first book, — are much less interesting than the later ones; they are greatly inferior in substance and in form. Many of them, indeed, do not deserve the name of Essays, a title subsequently invented by Montaigne: they are only what had been called leçons by his literary precursors — short compilations on one or another subject, with little or no addition of original thought, and demanding no sustained effort on the part of the author or the reader.

That Montaigne placed this Essay at the opening of his volume does not indicate necessarily that it was the first he composed (some of those that follow are unquestionably earlier in date): its position may be due to a different cause. In its first form when published in 1580, this Essay was scarcely more than half as long as it became later; it concluded with the thought: “Truly man is a marvellously volatile, various, and wavering creature.” And another expression of this idea — which was a dominant conception in his mind at the time of his first making himself known to the public — is found at the conclusion of the last Essay of the edition of 1580 (Book II, chapter 37): C'est la plus générale forme que nature ait suiuv que la variété. This theme runs as a Leit-motif through the two books: and it is a not improbable hypothesis, suggested by M. Villey, that he intentionally opened and closed their pages with it.

It was perhaps ten years later that Montaigne returned to this Essay, preparing it for a new edition, and he inserted in the middle of it a personal sentence regarding his own tendency toward la miséricorde et le pardon, indicating by this personal touch confidence in his public, given him by the character of the reception of the Essays on their first appearance.

And this, the first expression in the Essays of Montaigne’s own nature, should not be passed over lightly. By this time — 1588 — he had seen much of the world and of the conditions of his own country. He had spent a year in Italy, he had been for four years mayor of Bordeaux, he was in relation with the chief personages of the day, and it is probable that he had served in the royalist army. The effect of all this experience of life and men had caused him to recognize that, in contrast to the pervading ferocity of the times, he had une merveilleuse lascheté vers la miséricorde et le pardon. The word lascheté is significant. It did not have in Montaigne’s mouth at all the modern sense of a lack of courage, but it did have the meaning of a lack of vigor, a certain mollesse of nature. He had read in Seneca’s De Clementia that “all good men will manifest clemency and gentleness, but they will avoid pity [misericordia], for it is the weakness of a small soul giving way at the sight of other’s ills.” It is not in praise of himself that Montaigne speaks of this quality in himself; it is only one of the touches of that Selbst-Porträt which he painted in in the Essays, and in painting it, depicted human nature.

This apparent reminiscence of Seneca is only the first of hundreds. The Essays are more or less permeated throughout by his thoughts. In the earlier ones Montaigne repeatedly expresses his deep admiration for him personally and for his writings. Plutarch and Seneca, he says in the Essay “Of Books,” are the books qui me servent plus ordinairement. Of all the works of Seneca, he best likes his Letters. Later, his admiration diminishes; he finds in him a certain artificiality, and comparing him (for a second time) to Plutarch, he says that the one touches more the reader's esprit, the other his entendement, a phrase difficult of translation.

THE most usual way to soften the hearts of those we have offended, when, having vengeance in their hand, they hold us at their mercy, is to move them (c) by submission (a) to commiseration and pity; defiance, courage, and resolution — means altogether different — have sometimes served the same purpose. Edward, Prince of Wales,[1] who so long governed our Guienne, a personage whose qualities and whose fortune show many notable characteristics of greatness, having been much harmed by the Limousins and having taken their city by force, could not be stayed by the outcries of the people and of the women and children given over to slaughter, crying for mercy and throwing themselves at his feet; until, as he went on through the city, he became aware of three French gentlemen who, with incredible valour, withstood alone the power of his victorious army. The sight of such notable courage and the respect that it aroused primarily blunted the edge of his wrath, and beginning with those three, he shewed mercy to all the other inhabitants of the city.[2] Scanderbeg, Prince of Epirus,[3] pursuing one of his own soldiers, to put him to death, this soldier, having tried by every sort of humble expression and supplication to soften him, determined, in the last extremity, to await him, sword in hand. This action of his cut short his master’s rage, who, seeing him play so honourable a part, received him into favour. The incident may suffer another interpretation by those who have not heard of this prince’s prodigious strength and bravery. The Emperor Conrad the Third, having besieged Guelph, Duke of Bavaria, would vouchsafe no milder conditions — whatever base and dastardly terms of satisfaction were offered him — than to permit the gentlewomen who were besieged with the duke to go forth on foot, their honour secure, with whatever they could carry on their persons. And they, in greatness of heart, bethought them to take upon their backs their husbands and children and the duke himself. The emperor received such keen delight from witnessing the adroitness[4] of their courage, that he wept for joy, and quenched the bitterness of the mortal and capital hatred he had cherished against the duke, and thenceforth treated him and his courteously.[5]

(b) Either of these methods would readily prevail with me, for I have a wonderful propensity toward mercy and mildness; so much so that I believe I should more instinctively yield to compassion than to admiration. Yet pity is a vicious sentiment, according to the Stoics:[6] they would have us succour the afflicted, but not be bowed down in sympathy with them.[7] (a) Now these examples seem to me the more apt, inasmuch as we see in them these souls, when assailed and tested in these two ways, encounter the one without being shaken, and bend under the other. It may be said that to give way to commiseration and pity is the sign of an easy-going, kindly, and weak disposition; whence it happens that the feebler natures, as those of women and children and the common people, are most subject to this; but that, holding tears and prayers in contempt, to yield only to veneration for the sacred impersonation of courage is the sign of a strong and inflexible soul, which holds in admiration and honour virile and unyielding vigour. However, in less generous souls, astonishment and admiration may give birth to a like effect; witness the Thebans, who, having brought a capital charge against their captains for continuing to hold office beyond the time prescribed and preordained, absolved, not without much ado, Pelopidas, who bowed his head beneath the weight of such charges, and employed only entreaties and supplications to save himself. Whereas, on the contrary, in regard to Epaminondas, who eloquently recounted his achievements and taunted the people with them in a haughty and arrogant fashion, they had not the courage even to take the ballots in their hands, and the meeting broke up, greatly praising the high-heartedness of this personage.[8] (c) Dionysius the elder, having taken the city of Reggio after extreme delays and difficulties, and therein the commander, Phyton, a man of great worth, who had very obstinately defended the city, determined to make use of the, occasion for an example of terrible vengeance. First, he told him that, on the day before, he had caused his son and all his kindred to be drowned. To which Phyton replied only that they were more fortunate than himself by one day. Then he caused him to be stripped and seized by the executioners and dragged through the city, scourging him most ignominiously and cruelly all the while, and in addition heaping violent and contumelious words upon him. But his courage never failed, or his self-possession; but, on the contrary, with steadfast mien, he continually declared in a loud voice the honourable and glorious cause of his death — that he would not surrender his country into the hands of a tyrant, whom he threatened with speedy punishment by the gods. Dionysius, reading in the eyes of his soldiers that, instead of being roused by the defiant words of this conquered foe in scorn of their leader and his triumph, they were becoming softened by their amazement at such rare courage, and were on the point of mutiny and even of snatching Phyton from the hands of the officials, consequently caused his martyrdom to come to an end, and sent him away secretly to be drowned in the sea.[9] (a) Truly man is a marvellously volatile, various, and wavering creature; it is difficult to base a stable and uniform judgement upon him. Look at Pompey, who pardoned the whole city of the Mamertines, against which he was greatly roused, in view of the courage and magnanimity of the citizen Zeno, who took upon himself alone the public misdeed, and sought no other favour than to bear alone the penalty of it.[10] And Sylla’s host, having displayed the like courage in the city of Perugia, gained nothing thereby, either for himself, or for others.[11] (b) And, directly contrary to my first examples, the bravest of men, and the most merciful to the vanquished, Alexander, having forced the city of Gaza after many great difficulties, found there Betis, who was in command, of whose valour he had seen marvellous proofs during the siege, all covered with blood and wounds, still fighting in the midst of a number of Macedonians, who attacked him pell-mell.[12] Alexander, irritated by so costly a victory (for among other mischances he had received two fresh wounds on his body), cried out to him: “You shall not die as you have desired, Betis; be assured that you must suffer every kind of torture that can be invented for a prisoner.” The other, with a countenance not only undismayed, but arrogant and haughty, said no word in reply to these threats. Whereupon Alexander, seeing his proud and persistent silence, cried: “Bends he not the knee? Has no sound of entreaty escaped him? Truly I will con- quer this silence, and if I cannot extort a word from him, at least I will extort groans.” And, his wrath becoming frenzy, he ordered that his heels should be pierced, and a cord passed through them, and had him dragged thus, alive, torn, and dismembered, at the tail of a cart.[13] May it be that courage was so natural and common a thing to him [Alexander] that, because he did not wonder at it, he thought less highly of it? (c) or that he considered it to belong so peculiarly to himself, that he could not endure seeing it at this height in another without the irritation of an emotion of envy? or that the natural impetuosity of his wrath could not brook opposition? In truth, if it could have been checked, we must believe that it would have been so in the capture and desolation of the city of Thebes, upon seeing so many valiant men destroyed, and having no longer any means of defence, cruelly put to the sword. For full six thousand were killed there, of whom not one was seen to take flight or ask quarter; on the contrary, they sought, some here some there through the streets, to defy their victorious enemies, provoking an honourable death. Nor was one seen who did not strive on to his last breath to avenge himself, and with the weapons of despair to console his own death with the death ah some enemy. Yet the grievousness of their valour found no pity, and one day’s length did not suffice to slake his vengeance. The carnage lasted till the last drop of blood was shed, and stopped only at those who were unarmed, — old men, women, and children, — to make of them thirty thousand slaves.[14]

  1. The “Black Prince,” son of Edward III. See Froissart, ed. of 1559, I, 289.
  2. Froissart, on the contrary, says that he showed mercy only to the three gentlemen.
  3. Scanderbeg [Iskander Beg, i. e., Prince Alexander] was an Albanian hero (1404-1466). Montaigne probably had in mind a passage in a work of Paulus Jovius, Commentarii ... e la vita di Scanderberg, translated into French in 1544.
  4. La gentillesse.
  5. See Jean Bodin, Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (Proemium). It was the siege of Weinsberg, in 1140.
  6. See Seneca, De Clementia, V.
  7. Mais non pas qu'on flechisse et compatisse avec eux.
  8. See Plutarch, How far a man may praise himself.
  9. See Diodorus Siculus, XIV, 29.
  10. See Plutarch, Political Precepts, where the citizen is called Stheno.
  11. Ibid. The city was Præneste. The mistake was made by Amyot in the first edition of his translation (1572), where Montaigne found it. It was corrected in Amyot’s edition of 1574. In the first edition (1580) the Essay ended here.
  12. Qui le chamailloient de toutes parts.
  13. See Quintus Curtius, IV, 6.
  14. See Diodorus Siculus, XXVII, 4.