Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 18

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



Montaigne may say, if he pleases, that he is not un bon naturaliste (natural philosopher), but every page of his writing shows how intimately he knew human nature; and this little disquisition on Fear is full of truths derived, as usual, from his observation of others and of himself. If he did not know (as he says) what were the springs of fear, he well knew what were the effects of the currents of both private fear and public fear. He had “seen” (probably when with the army) many people beside themselves with fear, and he had read of delirious flights into the very mouth of danger, and of trance-like stupidities of inaction, and also of seeming courage, all caused by this strange passion.

And his conclusion from all this is, — and herein he truly shows himself bon naturaliste, — “The thing I am most afraid of is fear.”

A somewhat irrelevant sentence: ”Those who are in extreme dread … of being exiled …” brings vividly before us the fortunes of those days, the causes for fear, for “constant anguish,” of which we know nothing.

Obstupui, steteruntque comæ, et vox faucibus hæsit.[1]

I AM not a good natural philosopher,[2] as the term is, and I do not well know by what authority fear acts in us; but I know this, that it is a strange passion, and physicians say that there is none which more quickly sweeps our judgement from its due place. In truth, I have seen many persons beside themselves with fear; and in the calmest minds it is beyond question that, while the attack lasts, it causes terrible bewilderments. I leave aside the common people, to whom it sometimes presents its grandsires come from their graves wrapped in their windingsheets, sometimes hobgoblins or imps or chimæras. But even among soldiers, where it should least of all find a place, how many times has it transformed a flock of sheep into a squadron of pikemen; reeds and rushes into men-at-arms and lancers; friends into foes, and the white cross into the red![3]

When Monsieur de Bourbon took Rome,[4] a standard-bearer, who was on guard at the gate of the quarter of St. Peter, was so terrified at the first alarum, that he rushed through a breach in a ruined wall, standard in hand, out of the city and straight to the enemy, thinking that he was going into the city; and at last, seeing the troop of Monsieur de Bourbon preparing to meet him, still thinking that it was a sortie on the part of those within the city, he came to himself, and, turning about, reëntered by the same breach through which he had gone forth more than three hundred paces into the open fields. By no means so fortunate was the ensign of Captain Juille, when St. Pol was taken from us by the Comte de Bures and Monsieur du Reu; for being so beside himself with fright as to throw himself with his standard out of the city through a loop-hole, he was cut to pieces by the besiegers.[5] And in the same siege, that was a memorable fear which so seized and contracted and froze the heart of a gentleman, that he fell stark dead in the breach, without a wound.

(b) Similar fear sometimes impels a whole multitude. In one of the encounters of Germanicus with the Germans, two large bodies took, from fright, opposite roads: one fled in the direction from which the other came.[6] (a) Sometimes it gives wings to our heels, as in the first two cases; sometimes it stays our feet and hobbles them, as we read of the Emperor Theophilus, who, in a battle he lost against the Agarenes, was so astounded and stupefied that he could not decide to fly (b) (adeo pavor etiam auxilia formidat)[7] (a) till Manuel, one of the principal officers of his army, having pulled and shaken him as if to wake him from a deep sleep, said to him: “If you don’t come with me, I shall kill you; for it is better that you should lose your life than that, being a prisoner, you should destroy the Empire.”[8]

(c) Fear shows its supreme force when, in its own service, it gives to us the courage which it has stolen from our duty and our honour. In the first regular[9] battle that the Romans lost against Hannibal, under the Consul Sempronius, a body of fully ten thousand foot, seized with panic, and seeing nowhere else to force a passage for their cowardice, rushed at the main body of the enemy, which they cut through by a superhuman effort, with great slaughter of the Carthaginians, purchasing a shameful flight at the same price at which they might have had a glorious victory.

The thing I am most afraid of is fear. And, indeed, it surpasses in sharpness all other calamities. Could there be a keener and more justified emotion than that of Pompey’s friends, who were on his ship and were spectators of that horrible massacre?[10] And yet, fear of the Egyptian vessels which were beginning to draw near so stifled this emotion, that it was noticed that they were occupied only in urging the sailors to hasten, and in saving themselves by rowing, until, when they arrived at Tyre and were free from fear, they were at leisure to turn their thoughts to the loss they had met with, and to give free rein to the lamentations and tears which that other stronger passion had held in check.

Tum pavor sapientiam omnem mihi ex animo expectorat.[11]

Those who have been well thrashed in some encounter, and are still wounded and bleeding, can be led back to the charge the next day; but those who have conceived a sound fear of the foe, those you cannot make even look him in the face. Those who are in extreme dread of losing their property, of being exiled, of being enslaved, live in constant anguish, unable to eat or drink or sleep; while the poor, the exiled, the slaves, often live as happily as any others. And the many people who, finding unendurable the stings of fear, hang or drown themselves, or throw themselves from heights, teach us clearly that fear is more importunate and unbearable than is death. The Greeks recognise another variety of it, which is not due to the wandering of our reason, coming, they say, without apparent cause and by an impulse from above. Whole nations are often seen to be seized by it, and whole armies. Such was that which brought marvellous desolation upon Carthage.[12] Only shrieks and terrified voices were heard; the inhabitants were seen rushing from their houses as at an alarm, and attacking, wounding, and killing one another, as if they were enemies who had come to take possession of their city. Every thing was in confusion and tumult until they had appeased the anger of the gods by prayers and sacrifices. Such conditions were called “panic terrors.”[13]

  1. I was stunned, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck in my throat. — Virgil, Æneid, II, 774.
  2. Bon naturaliste.
  3. The “croix blanche” of France, and the “croix rouge” of Spain.
  4. In 1527. See du Bellay, III.
  5. See du Bellay, VIII, for this and the following episode.
  6. See Tacitus, Annals, I, 63.
  7. So greatly does fear dread even assistance. — Quintus Curtius, III, 2.
  8. See the Annals of Zonaras. This chronicler died in 1130. His work was published at Basle in 1557, but Montaigne used a French translation published in 1560. The essay ended here in 1580 to 1588.
  9. Juste. Montaigne uses the word several times, as here, in the Latin sense. It was the battle of Trebia, in 218 b.c., which Livy describes in Book XXI, 56. Montaigne refers to it again in the Essay, “Of the Custom of wearing Clothes,” Book I, chap. 36.
  10. See Cicero, Tusc. Disp., III, 27.
  11. Then fear expelled all feeling from my breast. — Ennius, apud Cicero, Tusc. Disp., IV, 8. This passage, beginning with “Could there be a keener” (11 lines above), and ending with this line of Ennius, does not appear on the Bordeaux copy of 1588, but there is a mark indicating an interlineation, and a piece of wafer used to affix an additional sheet. The passage as it stands first appeared in 1595.
  12. See Diodorus Siculus, XV, 7.15-17.
  13. See Plutarch, Of Isis and Osiris.