Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 24

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



It is pleasant to think of Montaigne and Jacques Amyot (1503-1593), “evêque d’Auxerre,” talking together; pleasant, not because Amyot was “grand aumosnier de France,” but because he was the famous translator of Plutarch, the writer of whom Montaigne says in a later Essay (“Business To-morrow”), “I give … the palm to Jacques Amyot over all our French authors, not only for simplicity and purity of language wherein he surpasses all others,” and for this and for that; “but especially I am grateful to him for having culled out and chosen a book so worthy and so opportune, to make a present of it to his country. We ignoramuses had been lost if this book had not lifted us out of the mire.” We see that in the whole course of the Essays Montaigne felt himself indebted to Amyot.

So Jacques Amyot was talking to him (one would like to know when and where) about “one of our princes.” This particular prince of Amyot’s story was François, duc de Guise, surnamed le Balafré, who was assassinated in 1563, and whose death we have already heard of in the second Essay. Here we learn how, the year before, he escaped assassination (by a Protestant) by “sermonising” his would-be murderer. This story is followed by a long translation from Seneca of the similar story of Augustus, which Corneille has celebrated in his Cinna. These two stories are intended to “point the moral,” that the rightest path is the safest: “The safest way … is, in my opinion, to throw oneself on the side in which there is the most uprightness” and justice. A characteristic conclusion for Montaigne to reach.

But in reaching this conclusion, Montaigne has taken a most wandering course, and has discussed the share that fortune has in the success of medicine, of poetry and painting, and of military enterprises; so large a share that he believes (as his title says): in “different results of the same counsel.” The passage about medicine is amusing; it is the first of his repeated Molière-like outbursts against the medical profession.

The title does not fit closely to the rest of the Essay, the greater part of which was added in 1588, and which is occupied with the uselessness of attempting to prevent conspiracies by punishments, and with the torment a ruler must suffer who is suspicious of those about him.

The passage connected with these thoughts, beginning, “Those who teach princes watchful distrust,” probably refers to Henri III and Henri IV. The noble lines, “Courage … displays itself … as nobly in a doublet as in armour,” seem a forerunner of those of Lowell (Commemoration Ode):

Life may be given in many ways,
And loyalty to truth be
As bravely in the closet as the field.

Montaigne himself also says in the preceding paragraph, “Valour is not shown in war alone.”

On a later page there is a striking account of a scene Montaigne witnessed “when a child” (in 1548, when he was 15 years old). The “great city” was Bordeaux; and the poor gentleman who was killed was named Moneins.

The passage on the next page connects itself with the fact that in May, 1585 (during Montaigne’s mayoralty), there was a great review of all the “citizens’ companies” of Bordeaux; an occasion of possible excitement and perhaps danger.

The last pages of the Essay are filled with three stories from ancient history; and it winds up with a highly philosophical maxim — not very easy to put in practice.

JACQUES AMYOT, grand almoner of France, told mé one day this story to the honour of a prince of ours,[1] — and ours he was, by very good titles, although he was of foreign descent, — that, during our first troubles, at the siege of Rouen, that prince, having been warned by the queen-mother of a conspiracy against his life, and distinctly informed by her letters of the leader in its conduct, who was a gentleman of Anjou or Le Mans, — at that time, with this end in view, frequently with the prince’s household, — he told no one of this warning, but the next day, walking on Mont Sainte-Catherine, from which our guns were trained on Rouen (for it was at the time that we were laying siege to it), having by his side the said lord almoner and another bishop, he descried the gentleman he had been told of, and had him summoned before him. When he was in his presence, observing that he was already turning pale and trembling from his conscience sounding the alarm, “Monsieur So-and-so,” said the prince, “you suspect why I have sent for you, and your face shews it. You have nothing to conceal from me, for I am so fully acquainted with this affair of yours, that you would only make your plight the worse by trying to cover it. You are aware of this and that thing [which were points[2] of the most secret parts of the plot]; do not, on your life, fail to confess to me the truth about this whole project.” When the unfortunate man found that he was caught and convicted, — for every thing had been revealed to the queen by one of the confederates, — he could only, with clasped hands, implore the prince’s pardon and mercy, at whose feet he would have thrown himself; but he prevented him from so doing, and went on to say: “Look you — have I ever offended you? have I injured any of your associates by private enmity? It is not three weeks since I first knew you: what motive can have impelled you to undertake my death?” To this the gentleman replied, in a trembling voice, that no private reasons had moved him, but the general interest of his party’s cause; and that certain persons had persuaded him that it would be a pious deed to make away with so powerful an enemy of their form of faith by any means whatsoever. “Now,” pursued the prince, “I propose to shew you how much milder is the form of faith which I follow than that which you profess. Yours induced you to kill me without hearing me, having received no injury at my hands; and mine commands me to forgive you, convicted as you are of having desired, without cause, to kill me. Now go, take yourself off, and let me never see you here again; and, if you are wise, henceforth in your undertakings take better men than those for your advisers.”

The Emperor Augustus, being in Gaul,[3] received reliable warning of a conspiracy that Lucius Cinna was brewing against him. He determined to be revenged, and to that end summoned a council of his friends for the next day. But the intervening night he passed in great disquiet, reflecting that he was about to put to death a young man of good family and a nephew of the great Pompey; and in his dejection conceived several contrary arguments. “How then!” he exclaimed; “shall it be said that I live on in fear and alarm, and that I let my murderer go his way unharmed? Shall he go free, having aimed at my life, which I have brought safely through so many civil wars, so many battles by sea and land, and after I have established universal peace throughout the world? Shall he be absolved, when he had plotted, not simply to murder me, but to sacrifice me?” For the intention was to kill him as he was offering some sacrifice. Then, having been quiet for a time, he began again, in a louder voice, and apostrophised himself: “Why do you live, if it seems to so many people important that you should die? Is there to be no end to your vengeances and your cruelties? Is your life worth so much harm being done to preserve it?”

Livia, his wife, perceiving his perplexities, said to him: “Will feminine counsels be entertained? Do what physicians do: when the usual remedies are of no avail, they try contrary ones. By severity you have hitherto in no wise profited. Lepidus followed Salvidienus; Murena, Lepidus; Cepio, Murena; Egnatius, Cæpio. Begin to try how mildness and clemency will succeed with you. Cinna is convicted — pardon him; henceforth he will be unable to injure you, and it will redound to your glory.”

Augustus was well pleased to have found an advocate of his own inclination, and having thanked his wife and countermanded his friends whom he had summoned to take counsel, ordered that Cinna, quite alone, should be brought before him; and having sent every one from the room and given Cinna a seat, he addressed him thus: “In the first place, Cinna, I ask you to listen quietly: do not interrupt me; I will give you time to reply at your leisure. You know, Cinna, that, having found you in the camp of my enemies, — you not having simply made yourself my enemy, but being so by birth, — I protected you; I put all your property in your hands, and, in short, made you so well-to-do and so at ease, that the victors are envious of the situation of the vanquished. The office in the priesthood which you asked of me, I granted you, having refused it to others whose fathers had always fought by my side. After being so indebted to me, you have proposed to kill me.” At these words Cinna exclaimed that such a wicked thought was far from him. “You are not keeping the promise that you made me, Cinna,” Augustus continued; “you assured me that I should not be interrupted. Yes, you have proposed to kill me, at such a place, on such a day, with such companions, and in such a manner.” Seeing that he was appalled by this information, and that he was silent, no longer because of his bargain to say nothing, but from his crowding thoughts, “Why,” he added, “do you do it? Is it to be emperor? Today it is ill with public affairs, if I am the only obstacle to your attaining supreme power. You can not even defend your own family, and you lately lost a lawsuit against a mere freedman.[4] What! have you no resources or power in any other matter than to attack the emperor? I renounce the office, if I alone stand in the way of your hopes. Do you think that Paulus or Fabius, that the Cossæans and the Servilians will tolerate you? and so great a throng of nobles — not noble in name alone, but who honour their nobility by their valour?” After many other remarks (for he talked to him for more than two full hours), “Now, go,” he said; “I give to you, Cinna, a traitor and parricide, the life that I gave you before as a foe. Let friendship this day begin between us: let us see which of us is the more loyal, I who have given you your life, or you who have accepted it.” And so he parted from him. Some time after, he gave him the consulship, lamenting that he [Cinna] had not dared to ask it of him. He was regarded by him [Augustus] thenceforth as a devoted friend, and was made by him his sole heir. Now, after this incident, which happened to Augustus in his fortieth year, there was never any conspiracy or enterprise against him, and he received the due reward of this clemency on his part. But our prince had not the same fortune; for his mildness was unable to protect him from falling afterward into the net of a similar treason.[5] So vain and idle a thing is human circumspection! and amid all our plans, our counsels and precautions, fortune always retains the control of events.

We call physicians lucky when they attain some good result, as if there were no art but theirs which can not sustain itself unaided, and whose bases are too weak to be leaned on with its whole weight, and as if it alone needed to have chance and fortune lend a hand in its operations. I believe the worst or the best of it that you choose, for we have, God be praised! no commerce together. I am different from other men: for I despise it heartily at all times; but when I am ill, instead of arranging a compromise, I begin still more to hate it and fear it, and I reply to those who urge me to take physic, that they may at least wait until I have recovered my health and my strength, and have more power to sustain the working and the hazards of their draught. I let Nature do her work, assuming that she is supplied with teeth and claws to defend herself from the assaults that are made upon her, and to maintain this contexture of which she dreads the dissolution. I fear lest in thus aiding her, when she is in close grapple, struggling with the disease, we aid her adversary instead, and burden her with new work.

Now I say that, not in medicine alone, but in many arts more certain, fortune plays a large part. The poetic impulses which carry away him who begets them, and snatch him out of himself — why shall we not ascribe them to his good luck, since he himself confesses that they surpass his ability and his powers, and recognises them as coming from elsewhere than himself, and as being in no wise under his control; just as orators say that they have not under their control those exceptional emotions and agitations which impel them beyond their purpose? It is the same in painting — that at times there escape from the painter’s hand strokes surpassing his conception and his knowledge, which draw forth his own admiration and astonish him. But fortune shows even more clearly the share that she has in all these works by the charms and beauties which are found therein, not only without the intention, but even without the knowledge of the workman. A competent reader often discovers in another’s writings other perfections than those which the author has consciously imparted to them,[6] and lends to them a richer meaning and aspect.

As for military undertakings, every one can see how large a part fortune has in them. Even in our councils and our deliberations, it is certain that there is an admixture of chance and good luck; for all that our wisdom can do does not amount to much; the more keen and more alert it is, the more weakness it detects in itself, and distrusts itself so much the more. I am of Sylla’s opinion,[7] and when I scrutinise closely the most glorious exploits of war, I see, so it seems to me, that those who conduct them employ in them deliberation and advice only as a matter of form, and the larger part of the enterprise they abandon to fortune; and from the trust they have in her aid, they often go beyond the bounds of all judgement. There result chance outbursts of energy and unlooked-for spasms of wrath[8] in their deliberations, which impel them most frequently to make the choice apparently least well founded, and which swell their courage beyond reason; whence it has happened that several great captains of old, in order to give weight to these rash counsels, declared to their soldiers that they were suggested by some inspiration, by some sign or prognostic. Here is the reason why, in this uncertainty and perplexity caused by our inability to see and choose what is most fitting for the difficulties that the varying casualties and circumstances of every event bring with them, the safest way, even if no other consideration suggested it to us, is, in my opinion, to throw oneself on the side on which are the most uprightness and justice; and when one is in doubt as to the shortest road, to take always the straight one;[9] just as in the two examples which I have set forth there is no doubt that it was nobler and more generous in him who had received the wrong to forgive it, than if he had done otherwise. If for the first[10] there was ill success, it should not be attributed to that good intent of his; and we do not know whether, had he taken the contrary course, he would have escaped the end to which his destiny summoned him; and then he would have lost the glory of such humane conduct.

We see in histories very many men moved by this sort of dread, of which the larger number have followed the method of forerunning, by vengeance and by punishments, the conspiracies against them; but I see very few to whom this remedy has been of use — witness so many Roman emperors. He who finds himself in this danger should not hope much either from his strength or from his vigilance; for how difficult is it to shield oneself against an enemy who wears the mask of the most assiduous friend we have, and to know the inward desires and thoughts of those who are about us. It avails him little to employ foreign soldiers for his guard, and to be constantly surrounded by a hedge of armed men — he who holds his own life cheap can always make himself master of another’s.[11] And then this constant suspicion, which makes the prince doubt every one, must wonderfully torment him. (b) For this reason, Dion, being warned that Callipus was watching for the means of bringing about his death, was never minded to search into the matter, saying that he liked better to die than to live in this wretched plight of having to guard himself, not only against his foes, but against his friends as well.[12] A feeling which Alexander shewed forth much more vividly and more courageously by deed, when, having been warned by a letter from Parmenion that Philip, his favourite physician, had been bribed by Darius’s money to poison him, at the same moment that he gave Philip the letter to read, he drank off the draught that he [Philip] had handed him.[13] Was not this giving expression to the determination that, if his friends wished to kill him, he consented to their doing so?[14] This prince is the supreme pattern of venturesome deeds; but I know not any feature in his life which shewed, from so many points of view, more firmness, or a more honourable beauty. They who teach princes such watchful distrust, under colour of teaching them [to regard only] their safety, teach them their ruin and their shame. Nothing noble is done without risk. I know a man (c) of very valorous and enterprising spirit by nature, (b) whose good fortune is marred every day by such arguments as this: “Let him be surrounded by his friends; let him listen to no reconciliation with his former foes; let him stand apart and not trust himself to stronger hands, whatever promise may be made to him, whatever advantage he may see therein.” (c) I know another who has forwarded his fortunes beyond all hope by having taken directly contrary advice. The courage of which they seek the glory so eagerly displays itself, when there is need, as nobly in a doublet as in armour; in the study as in camp; with the hand at the side as with hand upraised.[15]

(b) Prudence, so sensitive and so circumspect, is the mortal enemy of lofty actions. (c) Scipio, to discover the intentions of Syphax, ventured to leave his army, abandoning Spain, still insecure after his recent conquest, and crossed over to Africa in two small barks, trusting himself on hostile territory, to the power of a barbarian king, to an unknown faith, without any pledge, without hostage, under the sole security of the mightiness of his own courage, of his good fortune, and of the promise of his lofty hopes.[16] Habita fides ipsam plerumque fidem obligat.[17] (b) On the other hand, an ambitious and distinguished life must give way little to suspicions, and must hold a tight rein on them;[18] fear and distrust attract crime and invite it. The most suspicious of our kings[19] assured his transactions chiefly through having voluntarily abandoned and entrusted his life and liberty to the hands of his enemies, showing that he had entire confidence in them, to the end that they might have the same in him. To his legions when they had mutinied and risen in arms against him, Cæsar opposed only the authority of his countenance and the haughtiness of his speech, and counted so fully on himself and his fortune that he did not fear to give himself up and entrust himself to a seditious and rebellious army.

(c) Stetit aggere fulti
Cespitis, intrepidus vultu; meruitque timeri
Nil metuens.[20]

(b) But it is quite true that this stout self-assurance can not be exhibited to the full and sincerely except by those to whom the idea of death and of the worst that may after all happen causes no terror; for to shew it forth tremblingly, and, while in doubt and uncertainty, to aid in an important pacification, avails nothing. It is an excellent means of gaining the heart and good-will of another, to meet him with submission and trust, provided it be done freely and not compelled by any necessity, and with the obligatory condition that we bring thither a serene and pure confidence, our countenance at least clear of all sign of distrust. I saw in my boyhood a gentleman who governed a large city hard pressed by the commotion of a frenzied populace. To suppress the turmoil at the beginning, he decided to go out from a very safe place where he was, and to meet this rebellious mob, which turned out ill for him, and he was miserably killed; but it does not seem to me that his mistake lay so much in the having gone out, for which his memory is commonly reproached, as in the having adopted the course of submission and mildness, and in the having sought to soothe that fury rather by flattering than by commanding, and by beseeching rather than by remonstrating; and I consider that a gracious severity, with a military word of command full of security and confidence, befitting his rank and the dignity of his office, would have had better issue, at least, with greater honour and becomingness. There is nothing less to be hoped for from that monster when thus aroused than humanity and tractableness;[21] it is much more accessible to[22] respect and fear. I should blame him also because, having formed a resolution, which was to my mind rather brave than rash, of throwing himself, powerless and unarmed,[23] into that tempestuous sea of madmen, he should have held it to the end, and should not have dropped the character he had assumed,[24] whereas when, on a closer view, he became fainthearted,[25] and the submissive and flattering bearing he had assumed was then exchanged even for an air of terror, his voice and his eyes filled with consternation and repentance, and he, seeking to slink away and hide, inflamed their passions and called them down upon himself.

It was proposed to hold a general muster of different bodies of troops under arms[26] (it is the place for secret revengements, and there is no place where they can be managed with greater security). There were public and notorious symptoms that it boded no good to some persons to whom fell the principal and necessary duty of reviewing them. Many different suggestions were put forward, it being a difficult matter and one of much weight, on which much depended. My opinion was that, above all things, giving any indication of this suspicion should be avoided; and that we should be there, and mingle with the rank and file, with head erect and open countenance; and that, instead of cutting out anything (which the other opinions favoured most), we should, on the contrary, urge the officers to notify the troops to make their volleys full and gallant,[27] in honour of those present, and not to spare their powder. This served to gratify the suspected troops, and engendered thenceforth a mutual and useful confidence between us and them.[28]

(a) The course that Julius Cæsar took appears to me the finest that can be. First, he tried, by clemency, to make himself beloved even by his enemies, contenting himself with regard to the conspiracies that were revealed to him by simply making it known that he had been warned about them. That done, he adopted the very noble resolution of awaiting, without dread and without solicitude, whatever might happen to him, taking no thought for himself, and committing himself to the keeping of the gods and of fortune; for surely, that was his frame of mind when he was killed.[29]

(b) A stranger said and proclaimed everywhere that he could inform Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, of a way to scent out and discover with absolute certainty the schemes that his subjects hatched against him, if he would give him a round sum of money. Dionysius, having notice of this, had him brought before him, to enlighten him about an art so essential to his preservation. The stranger told him that there was no other art in it than that he should order a talent to be given him, and should boast of having learned an extraordinary secret from him. Dionysius thought this device excellent, and had six hundred crowns counted out to him. It was not likely that he had given so large a sum to an unknown man except as recompense for very useful instruction;[30] and that repute served to keep his enemies in fear. For this reason, princes wisely make public the information they receive of secret plots devised against their lives, in order to have it believed that they are well warned, and that nothing can be undertaken without their smelling it.[31] (c) The Duke of Athens did many foolish things in establishing his new tyranny over Florence; but the most notable was this: that, having received the first notice of the factious combinations which the people were forming against him from Mattheo di Morozo, one of the conspirators, he had him put to death, in order to suppress this information, and to avoid its being perceived that any one in the city was weary of his sway.[32]

(a) I remember to have read at some time the story of some Roman, a person of rank, who, flying from the tyranny of the Triumvirate, had eluded innumerable times the grasp of his pursuers by his crafty devices. It happened one day that a troop of horse, who were commissioned to capture him, passed very close to a thicket in which he was lurking, and failed to discover him. But, at that juncture, reflecting upon the trouble and difficulties he had already endured so long, to save himself from the constant and careful search for him that was made in all directions, and [reflecting upon] the little pleasures that he could hope for in such a life, and how much better it would be for him to go once the way of all flesh,[33] than to live always in this extreme fear, he himself recalled them and betrayed his hiding-place, voluntarily abandoning himself to their cruelty, in order to relieve them and himself from further trouble.[34] To summon the hands of one’s enemies is a somewhat fantastic step;[35] nevertheless do I believe that it would still be better to take it than to remain in perpetual feverish fear of a casualty which has no remedy. Also, since the preparations we can make for that are full of uneasiness and uncertainty, the better way is to make ourselves ready with becoming assurance for whatever may happen, and derive some consolation from the fact that we are not sure that it will happen.

  1. François, duc de Guise (Le Balafré).
  2. Les tenants et aboutissants = tout ce à quoi quelqu’un se tient et se rapporte.
  3. See Seneca, De Clementia, I, 9.
  4. Par le faveur d’un simple libertin.
  5. Francois de Guise was assassinated at the siege of Orleans, in 1563, by Poltrot de Meré.
  6. Celles que l’autheur y a mises et apperçües.
  7. See Plutarch, How a man may praise himself, and Life of Sylla. This clause was added in the second edition (1582).
  8. Il survient des allegresses fortuites et des fureurs estrangeres.
  9. This clause — “and when … straight one” — was added in the second edition (1582).
  10. The duc de Guise.
  11. See Seneca, Epistle 4.8.
  12. See Plutarch, Apothegms of Kings, Life of Dion, and elsewhere.
  13. See Idem, Life of Alexander; Quintus Curtius, III, 6.9. Montaigne probably took it from Witart’s translation of Arrian’s history of Alexander.
  14. In 1588: La vaillance n’est pas seulement à la guerre (Valour is not shewn in war alone); omitted in the Édition Municipale.
  15. This addition on the margin of the Bordeaux copy is in the handwriting of Mlle. de Gournay; but certain words were stricken out in Montaigne’s manner and probably by his hand.
  16. See Livy, XXVIII, 17.
  17. Faith in another often makes reciprocal faith obligatory. — Livy, XXII, 22. It is impossible to reproduce exactly the play upon words permitted in Latin by the two-fold meaning of fides: trust (confidence), and good faith.
  18. A une vie ambitieuse et fameuse il faut, au rebours, prester peu, et porter la bride courte aux soubçons.
  19. Louis XI.
  20. He stood firmly on a grassy mound, undaunted in bearing; and he deserved to be feared, for he feared nothing. — Lucan, V, 316.
  21. Douceur.
  22. Il recevra bien plutost.
  23. En pourpoinct.
  24. Il la devoit avaller toute, et n’abandonner ce personnage.
  25. Il luy advint … de saigner du nez.
  26. Montaigne refers to the review held at Bordeaux in 1585, during his mayoralty.
  27. Gaillardes.
  28. Here ends the 1588 addition, which begins on page 172 supra.
  29. See Suetonius, Life of Cæsar, LXXV.
  30. Apprentissage. See Plutarch, Apothegms of Kings, etc.
  31. De quoy ils ne sentent le vent.
  32. See Villani, Universal History, part II, 1, 12.
  33. Passer une fois le pas.
  34. Montaigne seems to have combined two stories related by Appian.
  35. D’appeller les mains ennemies, c’est un conseil un peu gaillard.