Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 4

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



The title indicates the theme of this short Essay; it opens by declaring that “the mind when disturbed and excited” must have “some object to seize and work upon”; and thus we quarrel with even inanimate things — not only with inanimate things, but with the gods, with God himself. Man, and also the brute beasts, when inwardly moved, direct themselves to definite objects; and if circumstances do not furnish the emotions with a true object for their exercise, they create for themselves false objects; witness lap-dogs and the like; witness the blows and kicks given by children, and grown-up children, to inanimate things; Witness inane curses. For another class of actions, due to unconscious bewilderment, consider-the tearing of the hair, the beating of the breast, the knocking one’s head against a wall, the defiance of the gods and of Fortune; all the déréglements of our human intelligence.

A GENTLEMAN of our day, who was terribly subject to gout, being urged by his physicians to abstain altogether from salt meats, was wont to reply jocosely that in the paroxysms and torture of the disease, he wanted to have something to lay the blame on; and that, storming and cursing at one time about sausage, at another about tongue, and again about ham, he felt greatly relieved. But in all seriousness, as, when the arm is raised to strike, it annoys us if the blow meets no object but is wasted on the air; and as, to make a view pleasant to the eye, it must not be lost and spread out to the dim horizon, but should have rising ground to limit it within a reasonable distance, —

(b) Ventus ut amittit vires, nisi robore densæ
Occurrant silvæ spatio diffusus inani,[1]

(a) so it would seem that the mind, when disturbed and excited, goes astray of itself, if we do not give it something to lay hold of; and it must always be supplied with some object to seize and work upon. Plutarch says,[2] speaking of those who become attached to monkeys and little dogs, that the affectionate part of us, in this way, for lack of a legitimate object, fashions a false and frivolous one rather than remain useless. And we see that the mind, when most excited, deceives itself, setting up a false and fanciful object, even contrary to its own belief, rather than not act against something. (b) So the anger of wild animals drives them to attack the stone or the spear which has wounded them, and to take vengeance on themselves with their own teeth for the pain they suffer.

Pannonis haud aliter post ictum sævior ursa,
Cum jaculum parva Lybis amentavit habena,
Se rotat in vulnus, telumque irata receptum
Impetit, et secum fugientem circuit hastam.[3]

(a) What causes do we not invent for the misfortunes that befall us! What do we not take offence at, rightly or wrongly, in order to have something to spar with! It was not those fair locks that you are tearing, or the whiteness of that breast which in anger you beat so cruelly, that killed your beloved brother with a miserable bit of lead; turn your wrath elsewhere.

(c) Livy, speaking of the Roman army in Spain after the loss of the two brothers, its great captains, says: Flere omnes repente et offensare capita.[4] That is a common custom. And the philosopher Bion — did he not remark facetiously of that king who in his grief tore out his hair, “Does he think that baldness is a cure for grief?”[5] (a) Who has not seen men chew and swallow cards and gulp down dice, by way of revenge for the loss of their money? Xerxes (c) whipped the Hellespont, and branded it, and caused numberless insults to be heaped upon it, and (a) sent a challenge to Mount Athos;[6] and Cyrus delayed a whole army for several days, that he might avenge himself on the river Gyndus for the alarm he had had in crossing it;[7] and Caligula destroyed a very beautiful house because of the suffering[8] his mother had endured in it. (c) In my youth it was said by the common people that one of our neighbouring kings, having received a scourging at God’s hands, swore to be revenged upon him, and decreed that for ten years no one should pray to or speak of him, and that, so long as he himself had authority, no one should believe in him; the intention of which tale was not so much to depict the folly as the vain-glory natural to the nation of which it was told. These vices are always found together, but such actions are due, in truth, rather more to presumption than to stupidity. (a) Augustus Cæsar, having been beaten about by a storm at sea, undertook to brave the god Neptune, and, in the celebration of the games in the Circus, had his statue removed from its place among the other gods, as his revenge upon him.[9] In which he was even less excusable than those already spoken of, and less than he himself was later, when, Quintilius Varus having lost a battle in Germany, he went about in rage and despair, beating his head against the wall and shouting, “Varus, give me back my soldiers!”[10] For they go beyond all degrees of folly — since impiety is added to it — who attack God himself,[11] or Fortune, as if she had ears open to our clamour; (c) after the manner of the Thracians, who, when it thunders or lightens, begin to shoot arrows at the sky in a titanic sort of revenge, in order to bring God to reason. (a) Now, as that poet of old says, quoted by Plutarch,

Point ne se faut courroucer aux affaires;
Il ne leur chaut de toutes nos cholères.[12]

(b) But we shall never say enough in derision of the disorderliness of our mind.

  1. As a wind loses its strength, meeting with no opposition from a dense forest, and is dissipated in the void. — Lucan, III, 362.
  2. In the Life of Pericles.
  3. So the Pannonian bear, the fiercer after being wounded by the Libyan lance hurled at her by its slender thong, turns upon the wound and furiously assaults the shaft lodged in her, and circles about the dart that flees with her. — Lucan, VI, 220.
  4. All burst into tears and beat their heads. — Livy, XXV, 37. The two brothers were Publius and Cneius Scipio.
  5. See Cicero, Tusc. Disp., III, 26.
  6. See Herodotus, VII, 35; Plutarch, Of the Cure of Anger.
  7. See Herodotus, I, 189.
  8. The text reads pour le plaisir, but this is thought to be an unquestionable misprint. See Seneca, De Ira, III, 22.
  9. See Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 16.
  10. See Ibid., 23.
  11. In the editions of 1580-1588, the text reads: à Dieu mesmes à belles injures; the last phrase was omitted in 1595.
  12. Amyot’s translation of a passage in Plutarch, Of the tranquillity of the mind.
    Need is not to be vexed by happenings;
    All our anger affects them not.