The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XX

Chapter XX. Of the force of imagination. Edit

"Fortis imaginatio generat casum," say the schoolmen.

     ["A strong imagination begets the event itself."--Axiom. Scholast.]

I am one of those who are most sensible of the power of imagination:
every one is jostled by it, but some are overthrown by it. It has a very
piercing impression upon me; and I make it my business to avoid, wanting
force to resist it. I could live by the sole help of healthful and jolly
company: the very sight of another's pain materially pains me, and I
often usurp the sensations of another person. A perpetual cough in
another tickles my lungs and throat. I more unwillingly visit the sick
in whom by love and duty I am interested, than those I care not for, to
whom I less look. I take possession of the disease I am concerned at,
and take it to myself. I do not at all wonder that fancy should give
fevers and sometimes kill such as allow it too much scope, and are too
willing to entertain it. Simon Thomas was a great physician of his time:
I remember, that happening one day at Toulouse to meet him at a rich old
fellow's house, who was troubled with weak lungs, and discoursing with
the patient about the method of his cure, he told him, that one thing
which would be very conducive to it, was to give me such occasion to be
pleased with his company, that I might come often to see him, by which
means, and by fixing his eyes upon the freshness of my complexion, and
his imagination upon the sprightliness and vigour that glowed in my
youth, and possessing all his senses with the flourishing age wherein I
then was, his habit of body might, peradventure, be amended; but he
forgot to say that mine, at the same time, might be made worse. Gallus
Vibius so much bent his mind to find out the essence and motions of
madness, that, in the end, he himself went out of his wits, and to such a
degree, that he could never after recover his judgment, and might brag
that he was become a fool by too much wisdom. Some there are who through
fear anticipate the hangman; and there was the man, whose eyes being
unbound to have his pardon read to him, was found stark dead upon the
scaffold, by the stroke of imagination. We start, tremble, turn pale,
and blush, as we are variously moved by imagination; and, being a-bed,
feel our bodies agitated with its power to that degree, as even sometimes
to expiring. And boiling youth, when fast asleep, grows so warm with
fancy, as in a dream to satisfy amorous desires:--

         "Ut, quasi transactis saepe omnibu rebu, profundant
          Fluminis ingentes, fluctus, vestemque cruentent."

Although it be no new thing to see horns grown in a night on the forehead
of one that had none when he went to bed, notwithstanding, what befell
Cippus, King of Italy, is memorable; who having one day been a very
delighted spectator of a bullfight, and having all the night dreamed that
he had horns on his head, did, by the force of imagination, really cause
them to grow there. Passion gave to the son of Croesus the voice which
nature had denied him. And Antiochus fell into a fever, inflamed with
the beauty of Stratonice, too deeply imprinted in his soul. Pliny
pretends to have seen Lucius Cossitius, who from a woman was turned into
a man upon her very wedding-day. Pontanus and others report the like
metamorphosis to have happened in these latter days in Italy. And,
through the vehement desire of him and his mother:

          "Volta puer solvit, quae foemina voverat, Iphis."

Myself passing by Vitry le Francois, saw a man the Bishop of Soissons
had, in confirmation, called Germain, whom all the inhabitants of the
place had known to be a girl till two-and-twenty years of age, called
Mary. He was, at the time of my being there, very full of beard, old,
and not married. He told us, that by straining himself in a leap his
male organs came out; and the girls of that place have, to this day, a
song, wherein they advise one another not to take too great strides, for
fear of being turned into men, as Mary Germain was. It is no wonder if
this sort of accident frequently happen; for if imagination have any
power in such things, it is so continually and vigorously bent upon this
subject, that to the end it may not so often relapse into the same
thought and violence of desire, it were better, once for all, to give
these young wenches the things they long for.

Some attribute the scars of King Dagobert and of St. Francis to the force
of imagination. It is said, that by it bodies will sometimes be removed
from their places; and Celsus tells us of a priest whose soul would be
ravished into such an ecstasy that the body would, for a long time,
remain without sense or respiration. St. Augustine makes mention of
another, who, upon the hearing of any lamentable or doleful cries, would
presently fall into a swoon, and be so far out of himself, that it was in
vain to call, bawl in his ears, pinch or burn him, till he voluntarily
came to himself; and then he would say, that he had heard voices as it
were afar off, and did feel when they pinched and burned him; and, to
prove that this was no obstinate dissimulation in defiance of his sense
of feeling, it was manifest, that all the while he had neither pulse nor

'Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary
effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of
imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and
more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think
they see what they do not see.

I am not satisfied whether those pleasant ligatures--[Les nouements
d'aiguillettes, as they were called, knots tied by some one, at a
wedding, on a strip of leather, cotton, or silk, and which, especially
when passed through the wedding-ring, were supposed to have the magical
effect of preventing a consummation of the marriage until they were
untied. See Louandre, La Sorcellerie, 1853, p. 73. The same
superstition and appliance existed in England.]--with which this age of
ours is so occupied, that there is almost no other talk, are not mere
voluntary impressions of apprehension and fear; for I know, by
experience, in the case of a particular friend of mine, one for whom I
can be as responsible as for myself, and a man that cannot possibly fall
under any manner of suspicion of insufficiency, and as little of being
enchanted, who having heard a companion of his make a relation of an
unusual frigidity that surprised him at a very unseasonable time; being
afterwards himself engaged upon the same account, the horror of the
former story on a sudden so strangely possessed his imagination, that he
ran the same fortune the other had done; and from that time forward, the
scurvy remembrance of his disaster running in his mind and tyrannising
over him, he was subject to relapse into the same misfortune. He found
some remedy, however, for this fancy in another fancy, by himself frankly
confessing and declaring beforehand to the party with whom he was to have
to do, this subjection of his, by which means, the agitation of his soul
was, in some sort, appeased; and knowing that, now, some such
misbehaviour was expected from him, the restraint upon his faculties grew
less. And afterwards, at such times as he was in no such apprehension,
when setting about the act (his thoughts being then disengaged and free,
and his body in its true and natural estate) he was at leisure to cause
the part to be handled and communicated to the knowledge of the other
party, he was totally freed from that vexatious infirmity. After a man
has once done a woman right, he is never after in danger of misbehaving
himself with that person, unless upon the account of some excusable
weakness. Neither is this disaster to be feared, but in adventures,
where the soul is overextended with desire or respect, and, especially,
where the opportunity is of an unforeseen and pressing nature; in those
cases, there is no means for a man to defend himself from such a
surprise, as shall put him altogether out of sorts. I have known some,
who have secured themselves from this mischance, by coming half sated
elsewhere, purposely to abate the ardour of the fury, and others, who,
being grown old, find themselves less impotent by being less able; and
one, who found an advantage in being assured by a friend of his, that he
had a counter-charm of enchantments that would secure him from this
disgrace. The story itself is not, much amiss, and therefore you shall
have it.

A Count of a very great family, and with whom I was very intimate, being
married to a fair lady, who had formerly been courted by one who was at
the wedding, all his friends were in very great fear; but especially an
old lady his kinswoman, who had the ordering of the solemnity, and in
whose house it was kept, suspecting his rival would offer foul play by
these sorceries. Which fear she communicated to me. I bade her rely
upon me: I had, by chance, about me a certain flat plate of gold, whereon
were graven some celestial figures, supposed good against sunstroke or
pains in the head, being applied to the suture: where, that it might the
better remain firm, it was sewed to a ribbon to be tied under the chin; a
foppery cousin-german to this of which I am speaking. Jaques Pelletier,
who lived in my house, had presented this to me for a singular rarity.
I had a fancy to make some use of this knack, and therefore privately
told the Count, that he might possibly run the same fortune other
bridegrooms had sometimes done, especially some one being in the house,
who, no doubt, would be glad to do him such a courtesy: but let him
boldly go to bed. For I would do him the office of a friend, and, if
need were, would not spare a miracle it was in my power to do, provided
he would engage to me, upon his honour, to keep it to himself; and only,
when they came to bring him his caudle,--[A custom in France to bring the
bridegroom a caudle in the middle of the night on his wedding-night]--
if matters had not gone well with him, to give me such a sign, and leave
the rest to me. Now he had had his ears so battered, and his mind so
prepossessed with the eternal tattle of this business, that when he came
to't, he did really find himself tied with the trouble of his
imagination, and, accordingly, at the time appointed, gave me the sign.
Whereupon, I whispered him in the ear, that he should rise, under
pretence of putting us out of the room, and after a jesting manner pull
my nightgown from my shoulders--we were of much about the same height--
throw it over his own, and there keep it till he had performed what I had
appointed him to do, which was, that when we were all gone out of the
chamber, he should withdraw to make water, should three times repeat such
and such words, and as often do such and such actions; that at every of
the three times, he should tie the ribbon I put into his hand about his
middle, and be sure to place the medal that was fastened to it, the
figures in such a posture, exactly upon his reins, which being done, and
having the last of the three times so well girt and fast tied the ribbon
that it could neither untie nor slip from its place, let him confidently
return to his business, and withal not forget to spread my gown upon the
bed, so that it might be sure to cover them both. These ape's tricks are
the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that
such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse
science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence. And,
certain it is, that my figures approved themselves more venereal than
solar, more active than prohibitive. 'Twas a sudden whimsey, mixed with
a little curiosity, that made me do a thing so contrary to my nature; for
I am an enemy to all subtle and counterfeit actions, and abominate all
manner of trickery, though it be for sport, and to an advantage; for
though the action may not be vicious in itself, its mode is vicious.

Amasis, King of Egypt, having married Laodice, a very beautiful Greek
virgin, though noted for his abilities elsewhere, found himself quite
another man with his wife, and could by no means enjoy her; at which he
was so enraged, that he threatened to kill her, suspecting her to be a
witch. As 'tis usual in things that consist in fancy, she put him upon
devotion, and having accordingly made his vows to Venus, he found himself
divinely restored the very first night after his oblations and
sacrifices. Now women are to blame to entertain us with that disdainful,
coy, and angry countenance, which extinguishes our vigour, as it kindles
our desire; which made the daughter-in-law of Pythagoras--[Theano, the
lady in question was the wife, not the daughter-in-law of Pythagoras.]--
say, "That the woman who goes to bed to a man, must put off her modesty
with her petticoat, and put it on again with the same." The soul of the
assailant, being disturbed with many several alarms, readily loses the
power of performance; and whoever the imagination has once put this trick
upon, and confounded with the shame of it (and she never does it but at
the first acquaintance, by reason men are then more ardent and eager, and
also, at this first account a man gives of himself, he is much more
timorous of miscarrying), having made an ill beginning, he enters into
such fever and despite at the accident, as are apt to remain and continue
with him upon following occasions.

Married people, having all their time before them, ought never to compel
or so much as to offer at the feat, if they do not find themselves quite
ready: and it is less unseemly to fail of handselling the nuptial sheets,
when a man perceives himself full of agitation and trembling, and to
await another opportunity at more private and more composed leisure, than
to make himself perpetually miserable, for having misbehaved himself and
been baffled at the first assault. Till possession be taken, a man that
knows himself subject to this infirmity, should leisurely and by degrees
make several little trials and light offers, without obstinately
attempting at once, to Force an absolute conquest over his own mutinous
and indisposed faculties. Such as know their members to be naturally
obedient, need take no other care but only to counterplot their

The indocile liberty of this member is very remarkable, so importunately
unruly in its tumidity and impatience, when we do not require it, and so
unseasonably disobedient, when we stand most in need of it: so
imperiously contesting in authority with the will, and with so much
haughty obstinacy denying all solicitation, both of hand and mind. And
yet, though his rebellion is so universally complained of, and that proof
is thence deduced to condemn him, if he had, nevertheless, feed me
to plead his cause, I should peradventure, bring the rest of his
fellow-members into suspicion of complotting this mischief against him,
out of pure envy at the importance and pleasure especial to his
employment; and to have, by confederacy, armed the whole world against
him, by malevolently charging him alone, with their common offence. For
let any one consider, whether there is any one part of our bodies that
does not often refuse to perform its office at the precept of the will,
and that does not often exercise its function in defiance of her command.
They have every one of them passions of their own, that rouse and awaken,
stupefy and benumb them, without our leave or consent. How often do the
involuntary motions of the countenance discover our inward thoughts, and
betray our most private secrets to the bystanders. The same cause that
animates this member, does also, without our knowledge, animate the
lungs, pulse, and heart, the sight of a pleasing object imperceptibly
diffusing a flame through all our parts, with a feverish motion. Is
there nothing but these veins and muscles that swell and flag without the
consent, not only of the will, but even of our knowledge also? We do not
command our hairs to stand on end, nor our skin to shiver either with
fear or desire; the hands often convey themselves to parts to which we do
not direct them; the tongue will be interdict, and the voice congealed,
when we know not how to help it. When we have nothing to eat, and would
willingly forbid it, the appetite does not, for all that, forbear to stir
up the parts that are subject to it, no more nor less than the other
appetite we were speaking of, and in like manner, as unseasonably leaves
us, when it thinks fit. The vessels that serve to discharge the belly
have their own proper dilatations and compressions, without and beyond
our concurrence, as well as those which are destined to purge the reins;
and that which, to justify the prerogative of the will, St. Augustine
urges, of having seen a man who could command his rear to discharge as
often together as he pleased, Vives, his commentator, yet further
fortifies with another example in his time,--of one that could break wind
in tune; but these cases do not suppose any more pure obedience in that
part; for is anything commonly more tumultuary or indiscreet? To which
let me add, that I myself knew one so rude and ungoverned, as for forty
years together made his master vent with one continued and unintermitted
outbursting, and 'tis like will do so till he die of it. And I could
heartily wish, that I only knew by reading, how often a man's belly, by
the denial of one single puff, brings him to the very door of an
exceeding painful death; and that the emperor,--[The Emperor Claudius,
who, however, according to Suetonius (Vita, c. 32), only intended to
authorise this singular privilege by an edict.]--who gave liberty to let
fly in all places, had, at the same time, given us power to do it. But
for our will, in whose behalf we prefer this accusation, with how much
greater probability may we reproach herself with mutiny and sedition, for
her irregularity and disobedience? Does she always will what we would
have her to do? Does she not often will what we forbid her to will, and
that to our manifest prejudice? Does she suffer herself, more than any
of the rest, to be governed and directed by the results of our reason? To
conclude, I should move, in the behalf of the gentleman, my client, it
might be considered, that in this fact, his cause being inseparably and
indistinctly conjoined with an accessory, yet he only is called in
question, and that by arguments and accusations, which cannot be charged
upon the other; whose business, indeed, it is sometimes inopportunely to
invite, but never to refuse, and invite, moreover, after a tacit and
quiet manner; and therefore is the malice and injustice of his accusers
most manifestly apparent. But be it how it will, protesting against the
proceedings of the advocates and judges, nature will, in the meantime,
proceed after her own way, who had done but well, had she endowed this
member with some particular privilege; the author of the sole immortal
work of mortals; a divine work, according to Socrates; and love, the
desire of immortality, and himself an immortal demon.

Some one, perhaps, by such an effect of imagination may have had the good
luck to leave behind him here, the scrofula, which his companion who has
come after, has carried with him into Spain. And 'tis for this reason
you may see why men in such cases require a mind prepared for the thing
that is to be done. Why do the physicians possess, before hand, their
patients' credulity with so many false promises of cure, if not to the
end, that the effect of imagination may supply the imposture of their
decoctions? They know very well, that a great master of their trade has
given it under his hand, that he has known some with whom the very sight
of physic would work. All which conceits come now into my head, by the
remembrance of a story was told me by a domestic apothecary of my
father's, a blunt Swiss, a nation not much addicted to vanity and lying,
of a merchant he had long known at Toulouse, who being a valetudinary,
and much afflicted with the stone, had often occasion to take clysters,
of which he caused several sorts to be prescribed him by the physicians,
acccording to the accidents of his disease; which, being brought him, and
none of the usual forms, as feeling if it were not too hot, and the like,
being omitted, he lay down, the syringe advanced, and all ceremonies
performed, injection alone excepted; after which, the apothecary being
gone, and the patient accommodated as if he had really received a
clyster, he found the same operation and effect that those do who have
taken one indeed; and if at any time the physician did not find the
operation sufficient, he would usually give him two or three more doses,
after the same manner. And the fellow swore, that to save charges (for
he paid as if he had really taken them) this sick man's wife, having
sometimes made trial of warm water only, the effect discovered the cheat,
and finding these would do no good, was fain to return to the old way.

A woman fancying she had swallowed a pin in a piece of bread, cried and
lamented as though she had an intolerable pain in her throat, where she
thought she felt it stick; but an ingenious fellow that was brought to
her, seeing no outward tumour nor alteration, supposing it to be only a
conceit taken at some crust of bread that had hurt her as it went down,
caused her to vomit, and, unseen, threw a crooked pin into the basin,
which the woman no sooner saw, but believing she had cast it up, she
presently found herself eased of her pain. I myself knew a gentleman,
who having treated a large company at his house, three or four days after
bragged in jest (for there was no such thing), that he had made them eat
of a baked cat; at which, a young gentlewoman, who had been at the feast,
took such a horror, that falling into a violent vomiting and fever, there
was no possible means to save her. Even brute beasts are subject to the
force of imagination as well as we; witness dogs, who die of grief for
the loss of their masters; and bark and tremble and start in their sleep;
so horses will kick and whinny in their sleep.

Now all this may be attributed to the close affinity and relation betwixt
the soul and the body intercommunicating their fortunes; but 'tis quite
another thing when the imagination works not only upon one's own
particular body, but upon that of others also. And as an infected body
communicates its malady to those that approach or live near it, as we see
in the plague, the smallpox, and sore eyes, that run through whole
families and cities:--

          "Dum spectant oculi laesos, laeduntur et ipsi;
          Multaque corporibus transitione nocent."

     ["When we look at people with sore eyes, our own eyes become sore.
     Many things are hurtful to our bodies by transition."
     --Ovid, De Rem. Amor., 615.]

--so the imagination, being vehemently agitated, darts out infection
capable of offending the foreign object. The ancients had an opinion of
certain women of Scythia, that being animated and enraged against any
one, they killed him only with their looks. Tortoises and ostriches
hatch their eggs with only looking on them, which infers that their eyes
have in them some ejaculative virtue. And the eyes of witches are said
to be assailant and hurtful:--

          "Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos."

     ["Some eye, I know not whose is bewitching my tender lambs."
     --Virgil, Eclog., iii. 103.]

Magicians are no very good authority with me. But we experimentally see
that women impart the marks of their fancy to the children they carry in
the womb; witness her that was brought to bed of a Moor; and there was
presented to Charles the Emperor and King of Bohemia, a girl from about
Pisa, all over rough and covered with hair, whom her mother said to be so
conceived by reason of a picture of St. John the Baptist, that hung
within the curtains of her bed.

It is the same with beasts; witness Jacob's sheep, and the hares and
partridges that the snow turns white upon the mountains. There was at my
house, a little while ago, a cat seen watching a bird upon the top of a
tree: these, for some time, mutually fixing their eyes one upon another,
the bird at last let herself fall dead into the cat's claws, either
dazzled by the force of its own imagination, or drawn by some attractive
power of the cat. Such as are addicted to the pleasures of the field,
have, I make no question, heard the story of the falconer, who having
earnestly fixed his eyes upon a kite in the air; laid a wager that he
would bring her down with the sole power of his sight, and did so, as it
was said; for the tales I borrow I charge upon the consciences of those
from whom I have them. The discourses are my own, and found themselves
upon the proofs of reason, not of experience; to which every one has
liberty to add his own examples; and who has none, let him not forbear,
the number and varieties of accidents considered, to believe that there
are plenty of them; if I do not apply them well, let some other do it for
me. And, also, in the subject of which I treat, our manners and motions,
testimonies and instances; how fabulous soever, provided they are
possible, serve as well as the true; whether they have really happened or
no, at Rome or Paris, to John or Peter, 'tis still within the verge of
human capacity, which serves me to good use. I see, and make my
advantage of it, as well in shadow as in substance; and amongst the
various readings thereof in history, I cull out the most rare and
memorable to fit my own turn. There are authors whose only end and
design it is to give an account of things that have happened; mine, if I
could arrive unto it, should be to deliver of what may happen. There is
a just liberty allowed in the schools, of supposing similitudes, when
they have none at hand. I do not, however, make any use of that
privilege, and as to that matter, in superstitious religion, surpass all
historical authority. In the examples which I here bring in, of what I
have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbidden myself to dare to alter
even the most light and indifferent circumstances; my conscience does not
falsify one tittle; what my ignorance may do, I cannot say.

And this it is that makes me sometimes doubt in my own mind, whether a
divine, or a philosopher, and such men of exact and tender prudence and
conscience, are fit to write history: for how can they stake their
reputation upon a popular faith? how be responsible for the opinions of
men they do not know? and with what assurance deliver their conjectures
for current pay? Of actions performed before their own eyes, wherein
several persons were actors, they would be unwilling to give evidence
upon oath before a judge; and there is no man, so familiarly known to
them, for whose intentions they would become absolute caution. For my
part, I think it less hazardous to write of things past, than present, by
how much the writer is only to give an account of things every one knows
he must of necessity borrow upon trust.

I am solicited to write the affairs of my own time by some, who fancy I
look upon them with an eye less blinded with passion than another, and
have a clearer insight into them by reason of the free access fortune has
given me to the heads of various factions; but they do not consider, that
to purchase the glory of Sallust, I would not give myself the trouble,
sworn enemy as I am to obligation, assiduity, or perseverance: that there
is nothing so contrary to my style, as a continued narrative, I so often
interrupt and cut myself short in my writing for want of breath; I have
neither composition nor explanation worth anything, and am ignorant,
beyond a child, of the phrases and even the very words proper to express
the most common things; and for that reason it is, that I have undertaken
to say only what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my
strength. Should I take one to be my guide, peradventure I should not be
able to keep pace with him; and in the freedom of my liberty might
deliver judgments, which upon better thoughts, and according to reason,
would be illegitimate and punishable. Plutarch would say of what he has
delivered to us, that it is the work of others: that his examples are all
and everywhere exactly true: that they are useful to posterity, and are
presented with a lustre that will light us the way to virtue, is his own
work. It is not of so dangerous consequence, as in a medicinal drug,
whether an old story be so or so.