Montaigne's Essays/Book I/Chapter XXIX

Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio
The Nine and Twentieth Chapter: Of Moderation

As if our sense of feeling were infected, wee corrupt by our touching, things that in themselves are faire and good. We may so seize on vertue, that if we embrace it with an over greedy and violent desire, it may become vitious. Those who say, 'There is never excesse in vertue, because it is no longer vertue if any excesse be in it,' doe but jest at words.

   Insani sapiens nomen ferat, æquus iniqui,
   Vltra quam satis est, virtutem si petat ipsam. -- Hor. i. Epi. vi. 15.
   A wise man mad, just unjust, may I name,
   More than is meet, een vertue if he claime.

Philosophy is a subtile consideration. A man may love vertue too much, and excessively demeane himselfe in a good action. Gods holy worde doth apply it selfe to this byase: Be not wiser than you should, and be soberly wise. I have seene some great men, blemish the reputation of their religion, by shewing themselves religious beyond the example of men of their quality. I love temperate and indifferent natures. Immoderation towards good, if it offend me not, it amazeth, and troubleth me how I should call it. Neither Pausanias his mother, who gave the first instruction, and for her sonnes death brought the first stone: Not Posthumius the Dictator, that brought his own sonne to his end, whom the heat and forwardnesse of youth, had haply before his ranke, made to charge his enemies, seeme so just as strange unto me. And I neathe r love to perswade or follow so savage and so deare a vertue. The Archer that overshoots his marke, doth no otherwise than he that shooteth short. Mine eics trouble me as much in climbing up toward a great light, as to goe downe into the darke. Callicles in Plato saith, the extremitie of Philosophy to bee hurtfull: and perswades no man to wade further into it than the bounds of profit: And that taken with moderation, it is pleasant and commodious, but in the end it makes a man wilde and vicious, disdainfull of religion and of common lawes: an enemie of civill conversation; a foe to humane sensualitie and worldly pleasures: incapable of all politike administration; and unfit to assist others or to helpe himselfe: apt to be without revenge buffeted, and baffled. He saith true: for in her excesse, she enthralleth our naturall liberties, and by an importunate wile, diverts us from the faire and plaine path, which nature traceth out for us. The love we beare to women is very lawful; yet doth Divinitie bridle and restraine the same. I remember to have read in Saint Thomas, in a place where he condemneth marriages of kinsfolkes in forbidden degrees, this one reason amongst others: that the love a man beareth to such a woman may be immoderate; for, if the wedlocke, or husbandlike affection be sound and perfect, as it ought to be, and also surcharged with that a man oweth to alliance and kindred; there is no doubt but that surcease may easily transport a husband beyond the bounds of reason. Those Sciences that direct the manners of men, as Divinitie and Philosophy, medleth with all things. There is no action so private and secret may be concealed from their knowledge and jurisdiction. Well doe they learne that search and censure their libertie. It is women who communicate their parts as much as a man list to wantonize with them: but to phisicke them bashfulnesse forbids them. I will then in their behalfe teach husbands this, if there be any too much flesht upon them: which is, that the verie pleasures they have by the familiaritie of their wives, except moderately, used, they are reproved: and not only is that, but in any other unlawfull subjects, a man may trespasse in licentiousnesse, and offend in excesse. Those shamelesse endearings, which the first heat suggests unto us in that sportfull delight, are not only undecently, but hurtfully employed towards our wives. Let them at least learne impudence from another hand. They are ever broad-waking when we need them. I have used no meanes but naturall and simple instruction. Marriage is a religious and devout bond: and that is the reason the pleasure a man hath of it should be a moderate, staied and serious pleasure, and mixed with severitie, it ought to bee a voluptuousnesse somewhat circumspect and conscientious. And because it is the chiefest of generation, there are that make a question, whether it be lawfull to require them of copulation, as well when we have no hope of children, as when they are over-aged, or big with childe. It is an homicide, according to Plato. Certaine Nations (and amongst others, the Mahometane) abhorre Conjunction with women great with childe. Many also with those that have their monethly disease. Zenobia received her husband but for one charge which done, all the time of her conception she let him go at random, and that past, she gave him leave to begin againe: a notable and generous example of marriage.

Plato borroweth the narration of some needy and hunger-starven Poet of this sport. That Jupiter one day gave his wife so hot a charge, impatient to stay till she came to bed, hee laid her along upon the floors; and by the vehemence of his pleasure forgot the urgent and weighty resolutions lately concluded upon with the other gods of his celestiall court; boasting he found it as sweet at that time as he had done when first he spoiled her of her virginitie by stealthe and unknowne to their parents. The Kings of Persia, called for their wives when they went to any solemne feast, but when much drinking and wine began to beat them in good earnest, they sent them to their chambers, seeing they could no longer refrain, but must needs yeeld to sensualitie lest they should be partakers of their immoderate lust, and in their stead sent for other women, whom this duty of respect might not concern. All pleasures and gratifications are not well placed in all sorts of people. Epaminondas had caused a dissolute young man to be imprisoned: Pelopidas intreated him, that for his sake he would set him at libertie, but he refused him, and yeelded to free him at the request of an harlot of his, which likewise sued for his enlargement; saying, it was a gratification due unto a Courtizan, and not to a Captaine. Sophocles being partner with Pericles in the Pretorship, seeing by chance a faire boy to passe by: 'Oh what a beauteous boy goeth yonder!' saith he to Pericles: 'That speech were more fitting another than a Pretor,' answered Pericles, 'who ought not only to have chaste hands, but also unpolluted eies.' Ælius Verus the Emperour, his wife complaining that he followed the love of other women, answered, he did it for conscience sake, for so much as marriage was a name of honour and dignity, and not of foolish and lascivious lust. And our Ecclesiasticall Historie hath with honour preserved the memorie of that wife which sued to be devorced from her husband, because she would not second and consent to his over-insolent and lewde embracements. To conclude, there is no voluptuousuesse so just, wherein excesse and intemperance is not reproachfull unto us. But to speake in good sooth, is not a man a miserable creature? He is scarce come to his owne strength by his naturall condition, to taste one only compleate, entire and pure pleasure, but he laboreth by discourse to cut it off: he is not wretched enough, except by art and study he augment his miserie.

   Fortunæ miseras auximus arte vias. --Propert. iii. El. vi. 32.
   Fortunes unhappie ill,
   We amplifie by skill.

Humane wisdome doth foolishly seeke to be ingenious in exercising her selfe to abate the number and diminish the pleasure of sensualities that pertaine to us: as it doth favorably and industriously in employing her devises, to paint and set a luster on evils, before our eies, and therewith to recreate our sense. Had I beene chiefe of a faction, I would have followed a more naturall course, which to say true, is both commodious and sacred, and should peradventure have made my selfe strong enough to limite the same. Although our spirituall and corporall Physitians: as by covenant agreed upon betweene them, finde no way of recoverie, nor remedies for diseases of body and minde, but by torment, griefe and paine, watching, fasting, haire-shirts, farre and solitarie exile, perpetuall prison, roddes and other afflictions, have therefore beene invented: But so, that they be truly afflictions, and that there be some stinging sharpnesse in them: And that the successe be not as Gallios was, who having beene confined to the ile of Lesbos, newes came to Rome, that there he lived a merry life; and what the Senate had laid upon him for a punishment, redounded to h s commodity: whereupon they agreed to revoke him home to his owne house and wife, strictly enjoyning him to keepe the same, thereby to accommodate their punishment to his sense and feeling. For he to whom fasting should procure health and a merrie heart, or he to whom a posion should be more healthy than meat, it would be no longer a wholesome receipt, no more than drugs in other medicines, are of no effect to him that takes them with appetite and pleasure. Bitternesse and difficultie are circumstances fitting their operation. That nature which should take Reubarbe as familiar, should no doubt corrupt the use of it; it must be a thing that hurts the stomacke, if it shal cure it: and here the common rule failes, that infirmities are cured by their contraries: for one ill cureth another. This impression hath some reference to this other so ancient, where some thinke they gratifie both heaven and earth by killing and massaging themselves, which was universally embraced in all religions. Even in our fathers age; Amurath at the taking of Isthmus, sacrificed six hundred young Greecians to his fathers soule; to the end their bloud might serve as a propitiation to expiate the sinnes of the deceased. And in the new countries discovered in our daies yet uncorrupted, and virgins, in regard of ours, it is a custome well nigh received everie where. All their idolles are sprinkled with humane bloud, not without divers examples of horrible crueltie. Some are burnt alive, and half roasted drawne from the fire, that so they may pull out their hearts and entrails; othersome, yea women, are fleade quicke, and with their yet-bleeaing skins, they invest and cover others. And no lesse of examples of constant resolution. For these wretched sacrifiable people, old men, women and children, some daies before, goe themselves begging their almes, for the offering of their sacrifice, and all of full glee, singing, and dancing with the rest, they present themselves to the slaughter. The Ambassadours of the Kings of Mexico, in declaring and magnifying the greatnesse of their Master to Fernando Cortez, after they had told him that he had thirtie vassals, whereof each one was able to levie a hundred thousand combatants, and that he had his residence in the fairest and strongest Citie under heaven, added, moreover, that he had fiftie thousand to sacrifice every yeare: verily some affirme that they maintaine contiuall warres with certaine mightie neighbouring Nations, not so much for the exercise and training of their youth, as that they may have store of prisoners taken in warre to supply their sacrifices. In another province, to welcome the said Cortez, they sacrificed fiftie men at one clap. I will tell this one storie more: Some of those people having beene beaten by him, sent to know him, and to intreat him of friendship. The messengers presented him with three kinds of presents, in this manner: Lord, if thou be a fierce God, that lovest to feed on flesh and bloud, here are five slaves, eat them, and we will bring thee more: if thou be a gently mild God, here is incense and feathers; but if thou be a man, take these birds and fruits, that here we present and offer unto thee.