Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 17

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



I sometimes wonder whether Montaigne wrote his title at the head of his sheet of paper, and then, pausing a moment and thinking of first one and then another thing in connection with it, caught suddenly a thought that he wished to put in words and began the Essay. Or did he sit with pen near at hand and jot down from time to time an interesting passage in the book he was reading, or the memory or fancy or reflection that came to his mind; and when a few pages were thus brokenly written, did he then choose his title from some one of the many last subjects touched upon?

At all events we hear nothing of ambassadors till half-way through the Essay, and then to very little purpose; but the first sentence of the first paragraph, and the second paragraph are of much interest, — much importance, one may say, — as furnishing some of those details with regard to Montaigne’s own mind and manners, which aid us to form our conception of him. The Essay is truly of the proceedings of Montaigne, rather than of ambassadors.

The special ambassadorial proceeding that it treats of is the dissimulation and even concealment of the truth which ambassadors sometimes practise toward their masters.

I OBSERVE in my travels this practice — in order always to learn something from intercourse with others, which is one of the best schools possible[1] — of always leading those with whom I am conversing to talk of the things they know best:

Basti al nocchiero ragionar de’ venti,
Al bifolco dei tori, et le sue piaghe
Conti’l guerrier, conti’l pastor gli armenti.[2]

For it most frequently happens, on the contrary, that every one prefers to discourse of the occupations of another rather than his own, deeming that it is so much fresh reputation gained; witness Archidamus’s rebuke to Periander, that he abandoned the fame of a good doctor to acquire that of a wretched poet.[3] (c) See how diffusely Cæesar holds forth to make us understand his inventions for building bridges and engines of war,[4] and how concise he is, in comparison, when he is speaking of his professional functions, of his valour, and regarding the management of his troops. His exploits sufficiently prove him to be an excellent captain; he desires to make himself known as an excellent engineer, a somewhat alien matter. A man of the legal profession, being taken not long since to see a study supplied with all sorts of books of his own calling and of every other kind, found there nothing to talk about. But he paused to comment severely and magisterially upon a barricade placed on the winding staircase of the study, which a hundred officers and common soldiers see every day without note and without displeasure. The elder Dionysius was a very great commander in war, as befitted his position; but he laboured to obtain commendation chiefly for his poetry;[5] which indeed he knew little about.

(a) Optat ephippia bos piger optat arare caballus.[6]

(c) By such procedure you never attain any thing worth while. (a) Thus the architect, the painter, the shoemaker should always be thrown back, each on his own interests. And in this connection, when reading history, which is everybody’s subject, I am wont to consider who the writers of it are: if they are persons who practise no other profession than letters, I attend mainly to their style and language; if they are physicians, I believe them more readily in what they tell us of the temperature, of the health and constitution of princes, of wounds and diseases; and, if jurists, there must be studied in them the controversies about rights, the laws, the foundations of governments, and such matters; if theologians, affairs of the church, ecclesiastical censures, dispensations, and marriages; if courtiers, manners and ceremonial; if military men, such things as pertain to their profession, and, chiefly, accounts of the exploits in which they have personally taken part; if ambassadors, diplomatic practices, private information, usages,[7] and the ways to carry them on. For this reason, that which I should have passed over in another without pausing, I have noted and weighed in the history of the Seigneur de Langey,[8] who was very well informed in such matters. It is what follows his report of those fine reasonings of the Emperor Charles the Fifth before the consistory at Rome,[9] in the presence of the Bishop of Maçon and the Seigneur de Velly, our ambassadors, wherein he had introduced many insulting remarks about us, and among other things had said that, if his officers and soldiers had no more loyalty and no more knowledge of military art than those of the king[10] had, he would at once, with a rope about his neck, go to him to ask mercy (and it seems that he believed something of this: for two or three times later in his life it chanced that he repeated these same words); and he challenged the king to fight with him in their shirts, with sword and dagger, on board a boat.) The said Seigneur de Langey, continuing his story, adds that the said ambassadors, in preparing a despatch to the king concerning these matters, concealed the greater part of them from him, and even said nothing of the two foregoing passages. Now, I find it very strange that it should be in the power of an ambassador to decide concerning the warnings he should give to his master, even when they were of such consequence, coming from such a personage, and uttered in so large an assembly. And it would have seemed to me the duty of the servant to represent things faithfully, in their entirety, just as they happened, so that the master should be free to command, to judge, and to choose; for to twist or conceal the truth, for fear lest he take it otherwise than he ought and lest it drive him to some ill-advised course of action, and meanwhile to leave him in ignorance of his affairs — that would have seemed to me to belong to him who makes the law, not to him who receives it; to the administrator and master of discipline, not to him who ought to deem himself inferior, not in authority only, but in wisdom and good counsel. However this may be, I should not desire to be served in that fashion in my small concerns. (c) We are so ready to withdraw ourselves from another’s command on any pretext, and to encroach upon mastership; every one aspires so naturally to liberty and authority, that no benefit ought to be so dear to the superior, coming from those who serve him, as should be their simple and sincere obedience.

The function of command is perverted when one obeys from choice, not from subordination.[11] And P. Crassus, whom the Romans deemed five times happy,[12] when he was consul in Asia, having ordered a Greek engineer to bring him the larger of two beams[13] he had seen at Athens, for use in some battering ram which he proposed to make, the engineer, being entitled, he thought, by his own knowledge, took the liberty of choosing otherwise, and brought the smaller, which, by the judgement of his art, was the most suitable. Crassus, having listened patiently to his reasons, had him soundly whipped, considering the importance of discipline greater than the importance of the work.

But, on the other hand, it is to be considered that such hard-and-fast obedience is due only to precise and predetermined commands. Ambassadors have a freer office which, in several respects, is entirely at their disposal. They do not simply execute the will of their master, but they likewise, by their advice, shape and direct it. I have seen in my time men in high command rebuked for having rather obeyed the words of the king’s letters than the exigencies of the business they had in hand. Those who understand such matters still blame the custom of the kings of Persia in giving so short a span to the powers of their agents and lieutenants that for the merest trifles they had to recur to their instructions — the consequent delay, in so vast an extent of dominion, having often caused serious injury to affairs. And when Crassus wrote to a professional man, and informed him of the use he proposed to make of the beam, did he not seem to consult with him, and to invite him to give his own opinion?

  1. Cf. the old proverb: Table vaut escole notable — Table-talk is an excellent schoolmaster.
  2. Let the pilot be content to speak of the winds, the labourer of his bulls; and let the warrior tell of his wounds, the shepherd of his flocks. — An Italian translation of Propertius, II, 1.43, which Montaigne found in Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversation.
  3. See Plutarch, Apothegms of the Lacedæmonians.
  4. See De Bello Gallico, IV, 17.
  5. See Diodorus Siculus, XV, 6. Montaigne speaks of this more at length in the essay “Of Presumption,” Book II, chap. 17.
  6. The slow ox desires saddle and bridle; the horse desires to plough. — Horace, Epistles, I, 14.43.
  7. Les menees, intelligences, et pratiques.
  8. Guillaume du Bellay.
  9. See du Bellay, V.
  10. Of France.
  11. See Aulus Gellius, I, 13.24.
  12. See Ibid.: Quod esset ditissimus, quod nobilissimus, quod eloguentissimus, quod jurisconsultissimus, quod pontifex maximus.
  13. Deus mas de navire.