Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 12

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



This Essay was built up from the two examples of escape from danger which made the whole of it in 1580.

The second and third paragraphs, the one beginning “Many very warlike nations,” and the other “Regarding the Scythians,” were inserted in 1595, and break the continuity of thought.

The last sentence was added in 1588, and is one of the indications of Montaigne’s experience as a soldier.

THE rule of firmness and steadiness does not require that we should not protect ourselves, so far as is in our power, from the evils and misfortunes which threaten us, nor, consequently, from the fear of their taking us by surprise. On the contrary, all honourable means of securing ourselves from harm are not only permissible, but praiseworthy. And the character of steadiness is shown[1] mainly by bearing patiently and unshaken the misfortunes for which there is no remedy; so that there is no agility, no motion, which, when armed, we should think ill of, if it serves to ward off the blow about to crush us.

(c) Many very warlike nations use flight in their encounters as their chief means of advantage, and show their backs with more danger to their enemies than their faces. The Turks retain something of this habit, and Socrates, in Plato,[2] makes sport of Laches, who had defined fortitude, “to stand fast in one’s place against the foe.” — “What,” he says, “would it be cowardice, then, to beat them by giving way?” And he cites Homer, who praises Æneas for skill in flight. And because Laches, on further consideration, admits the existence of such a custom among the Scythians, and indeed generally among all peoples that fight on horseback, he cites further the example of the Lacedæmonian foot-soldiers (the nation especially trained to fight shoulder to shoulder[3]), who, on the day of Platæa, being unable to break into the Persian phalanx, decided to scatter and fall back, so that, by having it believed that they had fled, they might cause that mass to break and melt away in pursuing; by which means they obtained the victory.

Regarding the Scythians, it is said that, when Darius set forth to subjugate them, he sent to their king many reproaches because he found him always falling back and avoiding an encounter. To which Indathyrses (for so he was named) replied, that it was not because he was afraid of him or of any man alive; but that it was his nation’s way of fighting, as they had neither tilled fields, nor cities, nor houses to defend, and had not to fear that the enemy could make any profit from these; but if he was so hungry for a taste of them, let him come to look at their ancient places of burial, and he would find his fill of people to talk to.[4]

(a) None the less, in a cannonade, when one is directly exposed to it, as the hazards of war often bring about, it is unbecoming to start at the threat of the shot, since, by reason of its impetus and speed, we know it to be inescapable; and there is many a man who, by lifting his hand or lowering his head, has at least given his comrades ground for laughter. Yet it is true that on the Emperor Charles the Fifth’s expedition against us in Provence,[5] the Marquis de Guast, having gone to reconnoitre the town of Arles, and having stepped out from the shelter of a windmill under cover of which he had approached, was espied by the Seigneur de Bonneval and the Seneschal of Agenois, who were walking on the walls of the amphitheatre.[6] They having pointed him out to the Seigneur de Villier, commissary of artillery, he aimed a culverin at him so exactly at the right moment that, if the said marquis, seeing him light the match, had not jumped aside, it was thought certain that he would have been hit. And likewise, a few years earlier, when Lorenzo de Medicis, Duke of Urbino, father of the Queen-Mother,[7] was besieging Mondolpho, a fortified place in Italy, in the region called the Vicariate, seeing the match touched to a gun aimed in his direction, it was well that he ducked,[8] for otherwise the ball, which merely grazed the top of his head, would doubtless have hit him in the stomach. To say the truth, I do not believe that such motions are made with intention; for what judgement can you form as to high or low aim in so sudden a matter? And it is much easier to believe that fortune smiled upon their fright, and that another time such action would be quite as likely to throw them in front of the blow as to avoid it. (b) If the flashing report of a musket strikes my ears without warning, in a place where I have no reason to expect it, I can not help starting violently — which I have seen happen to others who are better men than I. (c) Nor do the Stoics[9] hold that the soul of their sage can resist the first visions and fancies that occur to him; rather, they admit that from a natural subjection he may be affected by a loud noise in the sky, or of a falling building, for example, to the point of pallor and paralysis, as well as to other expressions of emotion, provided that his thought remains entrenched and whole, and that the seat of his judgement suffers no injury or change, and that he gives no countenance to his fright and suspense. With him who is no sage, it is the same as to the first point, but altogether different as to the second. For in him the impression of perturbations is not superficial, but penetrates to the seat of his reason, infecting and corrupting it; he judges according to them and adapts himself to them. See the state of the Stoic sage well and fully set forth: —

Mens immota manet; lacrime volvuntur inanes.[10]

The Peripatetic sage is not free from agitations, but he governs them.

  1. Et le jeu de la constance se joue.
  2. See Laches.
  3. De pied ferme.
  4. See Herodotus, IV, 126, 127.
  5. In the invasion of 1536. See du Bellay, VII.
  6. Sus le theatre aux arenes.
  7. Catherine de Medicis, widow of Henri II, and mother of François II, Charles IX, and Henri III. See Guicciardini, XIII.
  8. Bien luy servit de faire le cane.
  9. This passage (to the end of the chapter), added after 1588, is a close imitation of Aulus Gellius, XIX, 1. But Montaigne probably took it from the summary given by St. Augustine in De Civ. Dei, IX, 4, where the verse of Virgil also is found.
  10. His mind remains unshaken; useless are her flowing tears. — Virgil, Æneid, IV, 449.