The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter VII

The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter VII. That the intention is judge of our actions.

Chapter VII. That the intention is judge of our actions. Edit

'Tis a saying, "That death discharges us of all our obligations." I know
some who have taken it in another sense. Henry VII., King of England,
articled with Don Philip, son to Maximilian the emperor, or (to place him
more honourably) father to the Emperor Charles V., that the said Philip
should deliver up the Duke of Suffolk of the White Rose, his enemy, who
was fled into the Low Countries, into his hands; which Philip accordingly
did, but upon condition, nevertheless, that Henry should attempt nothing
against the life of the said Duke; but coming to die, the king in his
last will commanded his son to put him to death immediately after his
decease. And lately, in the tragedy that the Duke of Alva presented to
us in the persons of the Counts Horn and Egmont at Brussels,
--[Decapitated 4th June 1568]--there were very remarkable passages, and
one amongst the rest, that Count Egmont (upon the security of whose word
and faith Count Horn had come and surrendered himself to the Duke of
Alva) earnestly entreated that he might first mount the scaffold, to the
end that death might disengage him from the obligation he had passed to
the other. In which case, methinks, death did not acquit the former of
his promise, and that the second was discharged from it without dying.
We cannot be bound beyond what we are able to perform, by reason that
effect and performance are not at all in our power, and that, indeed, we
are masters of nothing but the will, in which, by necessity, all the
rules and whole duty of mankind are founded and established: therefore
Count Egmont, conceiving his soul and will indebted to his promise,
although he had not the power to make it good, had doubtless been
absolved of his duty, even though he had outlived the other; but the King
of England wilfully and premeditately breaking his faith, was no more to
be excused for deferring the execution of his infidelity till after his
death than the mason in Herodotus, who having inviolably, during the time
of his life, kept the secret of the treasure of the King of Egypt, his
master, at his death discovered it to his children.--[Herod., ii. 121.]

I have taken notice of several in my time, who, convicted by their
consciences of unjustly detaining the goods of another, have endeavoured
to make amends by their will, and after their decease; but they had as
good do nothing, as either in taking so much time in so pressing an
affair, or in going about to remedy a wrong with so little
dissatisfaction or injury to themselves. They owe, over and above,
something of their own; and by how much their payment is more strict and
incommodious to themselves, by so much is their restitution more just
meritorious. Penitency requires penalty; but they yet do worse than
these, who reserve the animosity against their neighbour to the last
gasp, having concealed it during their life; wherein they manifest little
regard of their own honour, irritating the party offended in their
memory; and less to their the power, even out of to make their malice die
with them, but extending the life of their hatred even beyond their own.
Unjust judges, who defer judgment to a time wherein they can have no
knowledge of the cause! For my part, I shall take care, if I can, that
my death discover nothing that my life has not first and openly declared.