Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 15

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



The subject of this Essay has so little to do with our own day that the first sentence is the only one of general interest. This sentence is an admirable expression of Montaigne’s esteem for moderation, his constant desire to maintain the mean. He recognises, as Shakespeare does, that

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied.
(Romeo and Juliet.)

Elsewhere, in the “Apology” (Book II, chapter 12), he says, speaking of the limits and boundary lines of all knowledge, “An extreme degree has a wrong quality as with virtue.”

And again, in the Essay “Of Moderation” (Book I, chapter 30), “We can so hold virtue as to render it sinful.”

VALOUR, like the other virtues, has its limits, which being overstepped, we find ourselves followers of vice; in such wise that, in its own region, a man may give way to rashness, obstinacy, and foolishness, if he does not well know their boundaries, the lines of which are, in truth, not easy to discover. From this consideration arises the custom we have in time of war, of punishing with death those who persist in defending a stronghold which, according to military rules, can not be held. Otherwise, with the hope of impunity, there would be no hovel that might not delay an army. The Constable de Montmorency, at the siege of Pavia,[2] having been appointed to cross the Ticino and establish himself in the Faubourg St. Antoine, being hindered by a tower at the end of a bridge which persisted in contesting the way, had every one in it hanged. And afterward, accompanying my lord the dauphin in his expedition beyond the Alps, having taken by force the castle of Villano, and all those in it having been torn to pieces by the fury of the soldiers, save only the captain[3] and the ensign, he caused them also to be hanged and strangled for the same reason. As Captain Martin du Bellay, when Governor of Turin in that same region, likewise did to Captain de St. Bony, all his soldiers having been massacred on the taking of that place.[4] But inasmuch as the judgement of the strength or weakness of the place is based on the estimate and counterpoise of the besieging forces (for a man might justifiably hold out against two culverins who would be mad to await the assault of thirty cannon), and even takes into the account the greatness of the victorious prince, his reputation, the respect due to him, there is danger that the scales may be weighted overmuch on this side. And it happens in these same conditions that some men have so high an opinion of themselves and their powers that, as it does not seem comprehensible to them that any thing is worthy to make head against them, they put every one to the sword wherever they meet with resistance, so long as their good fortune lasts; as we see by the forms of summons and defiance which the Eastern princes, and their successors who still remain, are accustomed to use — proud and haughty and full of an unmannerly tone of command. (c) And in the region where the Portuguese cut into the Indies, they found nations with this universal and inviolable law, that every enemy vanquished by the king in person, or by his lieutenant, is outside all terms of ransom or pardon.[5] (b) Thus every one who can, must especially beware of falling into the hands of a hostile, victorious, well-armed judge.

  1. On est puny pour s’opiniastrer à une place sans raison. — [Place = place forte.]
  2. See du Bellay, II. Montmorency was not made constable till fifteen years later, but had been made a marshal three years before.
  3. The word “capitaine,” as used by Montaigne, denotes simply a commander of troops. The brothers du Bellay (both of whom wrote memoirs) were at one time or another at the head of troops. See du Bellay, VIII.
  4. Ibid., IX.
  5. See Goulard, Histoire du Portugal, XIV, 15.