Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 3

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



This Essay, like the last one, begins with an addition, and includes many, some made in 1588, some in 1595. It is now nine pages long; at first, in 1580, it was only three—a mere leçon; it began with the passage concerning Bertrand du Guesclin, and ended with that about the Emperor Maximilian; just a string of anecdotes. It was probably written about 1572.

The reflections, the comments, the remarks that now accompany the stories — the note of the moralist — are what constitute the interest of these pages for us. They are somewhat incoherent, but turn for the most part on the lack of wisdom shown in dwelling in the future, in not remaining chez nous.

And we have in this connection the statement for the first time of Montaigne’s great principle—that of Socrates: “Do what is thine to do, and know thyself”; Fay tom faict et te cognoy.

An interesting paragraph is that regarding the desirableness of examining into the actions of princes after their death. We may find here a hint of one of Montaigne’s great characteristics, his reverence for laws, his obedience to legal authority, united with an independence of mind which enables him always to judge of the man apart from the office.

THOSE[2] who accuse men of ever looking eagerly toward future things, and instruct us to lay hold of present possessions and to establish ourselves in them, as having no grip upon what is to come, much less, indeed, than upon what is past, put their finger on the most common of human errors — if we dare give the name of error to what Nature herself impels us to, in the interest of the continuation of her work, (c) impressing upon us this false attitude of mind as well as many others; being more jealous of our doings than of our wisdom. (b) We are never in our true abiding-place, we are always somewhere else. Fear, desire, hope drive us toward the future and deprive us of the perception and consideration of what is; and we waste our time thinking of what will be, when in truth we ourselves shall be no more. (c) Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius.[3]

This great principle is often cited by Plato: “Do what thou hast to do, and know thyself.”[4] Each of these phrases includes, in general terms, our whole duty; and, likewise, each includes its companion. He who would do what it is his duty to do would see that his first lesson is to find out what he is and what is proper to him; and he who knows himself does not see an action as belonging to him which is foreign to him, and he loves and cultivates himself before all else, declining superfluous occupations and futile ideas and suggestions. Ut stultitia etsi adepta est quod concupivit nunquam setamen satis consecutam putat: sic sapientia semper eo contenta est quod adest, neque eam unquam sui pænitet.[5] Epicurus exempts the wise man from forethought and care for the future.[6] (b) Among the laws concerning the dead, that one seems to me very well founded which requires that the acts of princes be closely scrutinised after their death:[7] they are peers but not masters of the laws; since justice has little power over their lives, it is reasonable that it should have control over their reputations and over what belongs to their successors — matters which we often value more than life itself. It is a custom which affords peculiar advantages to those nations by which it is observed, and is desirable in the eyes of all good princes (c) who have cause to complain that the memory of bad princes is treated like their own. We owe submission and obedience equally to all kings, for those are due to the kingly office; but esteem, like affection, we owe to their virtue alone. Let us yield to political necessity so far as to endure them patiently when unworthy, to conceal their vices, to assist with our commendation their unimportant acts so long as their authority needs our support; but when this intercourse is at an end, it is not reasonable to deny to justice and our liberty the expression of our real sentiments, and particularly to refuse to good subjects the glory of having reverently and loyally served a master whose imperfections were so well known to them; for then would posterity be cheated of a useful example. And those who, through respect for some private indebtedness, basely espouse the memory of an unpraiseworthy prince, do private justice at the expense of public justice. Livy says truly,[8] that the speech of men brought up under a monarchy is always full of foolish boasting and worthless witness, each one equally exalting his king to the utmost degree of supreme worth and greatness. One may blame the great courage of those two soldiers who answered Nero to his face; the one, being asked why he wished him ill: “I loved you when you deserved it; but since you have become a parricide, an incendiary, a mountebank, and a coachman, I hate you as you deserve”; the other, being asked why he wished to kill him: “Because I see no other remedy for your constant evil deeds.”[9] But what sound understanding can blame the public and universal testimonies to his tyrannical and degrading conduct, which were borne after his death, and will be for all time, against him and all evil-doers like him?[10]

I can but regret that in so immaculate a polity as the Lacedæmonian there should have been introduced such an insincere ceremony at the death of their kings. All the federated states and their neighbours, and all the Helots, men and women pell-mell, slashed their foreheads as evidence of their grief, and declared amid their cries and lamentations that this king, whatever he had been, was the best of all their kings, ascribing to rank the praise which belonged to merit, and that which belongs to the highest merit, to the lowest degree.[11] Aristotle, who touches on all subjects, questions about the saying of Solon, that “no one before he is dead can be said to be happy,” whether even the man who has lived and died as he could wish can be called happy if his renown grow less, if his posterity be wretched. While we are alive, we are by anticipation wherever we choose; but having ceased to be, we have no communication with what is; and therefore Solon had better have said that man is never happy, since he is so only after he has ceased to exist.[4][12]

Vix radicitus e vita se tollit, et eiicit:
Sed facit esse sui quiddam super inscius ipse,
Nec removet satis a projecto corpore sese et

(a)[14] Bertrand du Guesclin died at the siege of the castle of Rancon, near Le Puy in Auvergne.[15] The besieged, having surrendered later, were compelled to carry the keys of the citadel on the dead man’s body. Barthelemys d’Alviano, commanding the army of the Venetians, having met death during their wars in La Bresse, and his body having to be taken back to Venice through Verona, a hostile territory, most of the army were of opinion that they should ask the Veronese for a safe-conduct for their march; but Theodore Trivulzio demurred, and chose rather to pass through by force, at the risk of a fight, “as it was not fitting,” he said, “that he who had never in his life dreaded his enemies, being dead, should show fear of them.”[16]

(b) In a similar matter, in fact, the Greek law provided that he who asked the enemy for a dead body, in order to bury it, by so doing renounced the victory, and therefore it was not permissible for him to erect a trophy: to him of whom the request was made, it was a proof of success. Thus Nicias lost the advantage he had clearly won over the Corinthians;[17] and, on the other hand, Agesilaus confirmed his very questionable victory over the Bœotians.[18]

(a) These acts might appear strange, had it not been the accepted practice in all ages, not only that we extend our care for ourselves beyond this life, but also to believe that very often the favours of Heaven accompany us to our grave and continue to our bones; of which there are so many ancient examples, to say nothing of our own time, that there is no need for me to enlarge upon the subject. Edward I, King of England, having experienced in the long wars between himself and Robert, King of Scotland, how great an advantage his presence gave to his affairs, having always been victorious in whatever he undertook in person, when he was dying, compelled his son to swear solemnly that, when dead, his body should be boiled, — in order to separate the flesh from the bones, — and the flesh buried; and as for the bones, that they should be preserved, to be carried with him [the king] and the army whenever it should happen that there was war with the Scotch; as if destiny had linked victory inevitably to his bones. (b) Jean Vischa,[19] who embroiled Bohemia in defence of the heresies of Wyclif, ordered that his body should be flayed after death, and a drum be made of his skin, to be borne in war with his enemies, believing that it would help to continue the successes he had won in the wars waged by him against them. Certain Indian peoples in like manner carried into battle against the Spaniards the bones of one of their leaders, from consideration of the good fortune he had had in his lifetime.[20] And other nations in that same part of the world bear with them in war the bodies of the brave men who have fallen in their battles, to give them good luck and encourage them. (a) The first of these instances indicates a retention in the tomb only of the reputation acquired by past deeds; but the last would conjoin therewith the power of continued action.

The act of Captain Bayard is of a finer description, who, feeling himself to be mortally wounded by a shot from an arquebus, and being urged to withdraw from the battle, replied that he would not begin at the end of his life to turn his back to the enemy; and having fought as long as his strength lasted, feeling that he was fainting and about to fall from his horse, he bade his servant lay him at the foot of a tree, but in such wise that he would die facing the enemy, as he did.[21] I must add this other example, which is as remarkable for the sort of thing under consideration as any of the preceding. The Emperor Maximilian, great-grandfather of the present King Philip,[22] was a prince endowed to the full with noble qualities, among others with singular physical beauty. But among his humours was this one, — quite the opposite of that of most princes, who, for the transaction of the most important affairs, make a throne of their close-stool, — that he never had a servant so familiar that he would allow him to see him in his closet: he would go apart to make water, being as modest as a maid in not exhibiting, to a physician or anybody else, the parts which we are wont to keep hidden. (b) I myself, who am so brazen of speech, am none the less naturally inclined to this same modesty: except under great pressure of necessity or of passion, I rarely put before another’s eyes the organs and the acts which our manners ordain shall be kept out of sight; I constrain myself more about this than I think very fitting for a man, and especially for a man of the opinions I profess. (b) But he[23] reached such a pitch of superstition that he expressly ordered in his testament that they should put drawers on him when he was dead. He should have added a codicil to the effect that he who should put them on should be blindfolded.[24]

(c) Cyrus’s behest to his children, that neither they nor any other person should see or touch his body after his soul had departed,[25] I attribute to some religious emotion of his; for both his biographer and himself, among their great qualities, gave indications throughout the whole course of their lives of a peculiar regard and veneration for religion. (b) I was not pleased with the tale told me by a great prince, of a kinsman of mine, a man well known both in peace and in war: it was to the effect that, when dying, very old, at court, and suffering extreme pain from stone, he employed all his last hours in arranging, with eager care, the honours and the ceremony of his burial, and urged all the nobles who visited him to promise to be present at his funeral. He made an urgent entreaty to this same prince, my informant, who saw him during these last hours, that he would order his household to attend, alleging many precedents and arguments to prove that it was a thing due to such a man as he was; and he seemed to die content, having extorted that promise and having provided according to his desire for the arrangement and order of his parade. I have rarely known such persistent inanity. The other opposite crotchet (of which I am not lacking in examples near home) seems to me akin to this — namely, the taking great pains and being excited about this last matter to be arranged, — one’s funeral train, — and reducing it to some peculiar and unaccustomed degree of parsimony, to one servant and a lantern. I hear people praise this whim, and the injunction of Marcus Æmilius Lepidus,[26] who forbade his heirs to go through the ceremonial which was customary on such occasions. Is it, indeed, moderation and frugality to avoid expense and luxury, the use and knowledge of which are beyond our ken? An easy reform that, and not costly. (c) If there were need to make rules about this matter, I should be of opinion that in this, as in all the acts of our lives, each man should make the rule correspond to the amount of his fortune. The philosopher Lycon wisely instructed his friends to put his body where they should think best, and, as to his obsequies, to let them be neither superfluous nor mean.[27] I would leave it simply to custom to regulate this ceremonial,[28] (b) and I shall trust myself to the discretion of any one into whose hands I shall fall in charge. (c) Totus hic locus est contemnendus in nobis, non negligendus in nostris.[29] And, as was said like a saint by a saint: Curatio funeris, conditio sepulturæ, pompa exequiarum, magis sunt vivarum solatia quam subsidia mortuorum.[30] Thus, when Crito asked Socrates, in his last hour, how he wished to be buried, Socrates answered: “As you please.”’[31] (b) If I had to occupy myself more about this, it would seem to me more spirited[32] to imitate those persons who, while living and breathing, entertain themselves about the order and honourableness of their burial, and who take pleasure in seeing in marble their dead features. Happy they who can rejoice and gratify their minds by insensibility, and live in their death!

(c) I am almost moved to irreconcilable hatred against every sort of popular domination, although it seems the most natural and equitable, when I remember the inhuman injustice of the Athenian people in putting to death without mercy, and refusing even to hear in their own defence, the gallant officers who had just beaten the Lacedæmonians in the naval battle near the Arginusæ Islands, — the most hotly contested and the hardest battle that the Greeks ever fought on the sea, — because they [the officers] had followed up such opportunities as the laws of war offered them rather than stay to collect and bury their dead. And the behaviour of Diomedon makes this punishment the more odious: he was one of the condemned — a man of noteworthy excellence both military and political; he, coming forward to speak after having heard the decree of condemnation, and finding only then an opportunity to be heard without interruption, instead of taking advantage of it to the profit of his own cause and to lay bare the patent iniquity of so barbarous a judgement, expressed only solicitude for the salvation of his judges, beseeching the gods to turn that judgement to their advantage; and lest, by the non-performance of the vows that he and his companions had made in gratitude for their eminent good-fortune, they[33] might draw down upon themselves the wrath of the gods, he told them what those vows were; and without other words, and without discussion, he went boldly to his doom.[34] Some years later fortune punished them with a taste of the same sauce;[35] for Chabrias, the captain-general of their naval force, having had the upper hand in the battle against Pollis, the Spartan admiral, off the island of Naxos, lost the whole fruit, absolutely and completely,[36] of his victory (which was of great importance to their affairs), in order not to incur the ill-fortune of the foregoing instance; and, in order not to lose a few dead bodies of his friends which were floating on the sea, he allowed a multitude of living enemies to sail away unharmed, who afterward made them pay dear for that ill-timed superstition.

Quæris quo jaceas, post obitum, loco?
Quo non nata jacent.[37]

These other verses restore the sense of repose to a body without a soul: —

Neque sepulchrum, quo recipiat, habeat portum corporis,
Ubi, remissa humana vita, corpus requiescat a malis;[38]

just as nature shows us that many dead things have still occult relations with life. Wine becomes different in the cellar, in accordance with some variations of the seasons of the wine; and the flesh of the deer changes its condition and taste in the salting-house, according to the laws that govern living flesh, so it is said.

  1. Nos affections s'emportent au dela de nous.
  2. The first three pages were added in 1588 or 1595.
  3. Unfortunate is the mind that is troubled about the future. — Seneca, Epistle 98.6.
  4. In the Timæus.
  5. Whilst folly, although she has acquired what she desired, none the less never thinks that she has obtained enough, wisdom, on the con- trary, is always content with whatever happens, and is never displeased by anything. — Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V, 18.
    In the edition of 1596, the following translation is substituted for this Latin passage: Comme la folie, quand on luy octroyera ce qu'elle desire, ne sera pas contente, aussi est la sagesse contente de ce qui est present, ne se desplait jamais de soy.
  6. See Cicero, Tusc. Disp., III, 15.
  7. See Diodorus Siculus, I, 6.
  8. See Book XXXV, 48.
  9. See Tacitus, Annals, XV, 67, 68.
  10. The last phrase, à luy et à tous meschans comme luy, was added in 1595.
  11. See Herodotus, VI, 58.
  12. See the Nicomachæan Ethics, I, 10.
  13. The man who imperfectly uproots himself from life and casts himself out of it, but who unconsciously conceives something of himself to survive, does not sufficiently remove himself from the body that is thrown out, and lays claim to it. — Lucretius, III, 877, 878, 882, 883. The numbering here followed is that adopted by Cyril Bailey in the Oxford texts. Quisquam is an addition of Montaigne’s. The original has Nec instead of Vix in the second line, and, at the end, et illum se fingit, instead of sese et vindicat.
  14. In the first edition of the Essays (1580), this chapter began here.
  15. See Jean Bouchet, Annales d’Aquitaine.
  16. See Guicciardini, Storia d’Italia, XII.
  17. See Plutarch, Life of Nicias.
  18. See Idem, Life of Agesilaus.
  19. Changed to Zischa [Ziska] in 1595. Montaigne’s source for this is uncertain. The fact is mentioned in various sixteenth-century compilations.
  20. See Lopez de Gomara, Histoire Générale des Indes, III, 22.
  21. Bayard was killed at the river Sesia in 1524. See Mémoires du Bellay, book II. These memoirs treat of the events in France from 1513 to the death of King Francis I. They are the work of two brothers, Martin, Seigneur de Langey, and Guillaume, who became Seigneur de Langey on his brother’s death. They consist of ten books, of which the 5th, 6th, and 7th were written by Guillaume, the others by Martin.
  22. Philip II, of Spain.
  23. Maximilian.
  24. In the editions prior to 1588, the chapter ended here.
  25. See Xenophon, Cyropædeia, VIII, 7, 26.
  26. See Livy, Epitome of book XLVIII.
  27. See Diogenes Laertius, Life of Lycon.
  28. Cf. Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 45. The following clause of 1588 is omitted: et sauf les choses requises au service de ma religion si c’est en lieu où il soit besoing de l’enjoindre.
  29. All this matter is to be entirely disregarded for ourselves, but not to be neglected for those dear to us. — Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 45.
  30. The ordering of a funeral, the nature of the burial-place, and the procession are more for the solace of the living than for the succour of the dead. — St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, I, 12.
  31. See Plato, Phædo; Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 43.
  32. Galand.
  33. The judges.
  34. See Diodorus Siculus, XIII, 31, 32.
  35. De mesme pain souppe. See Idem, XV, 9.
  36. Perdit le fruit tout net et contant.
  37. You ask where you will be after death? Where the unborn are. — Seneca, Troades, Act II, ll. 30, 31 (400, 401).
  38. He has no tomb to receive him, no refuge for his body, where, released from human life, it may repose from ills. — Ennius, quoted in Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 44.