The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXIX

Chapter XXIX. Of moderation. Edit

As if we had an infectious touch, we, by our manner of handling, corrupt
things that in themselves are laudable and good: we may grasp virtue so
that it becomes vicious, if we embrace it too stringently and with too
violent a desire. Those who say, there is never any excess in virtue,
forasmuch as it is not virtue when it once becomes excess, only play upon

              "Insani sapiens nomen ferat, aequus iniqui,
               Ultra quam satis est, virtutem si petat ipsam."

     ["Let the wise man bear the name of a madman, the just one of an
     unjust, if he seek wisdom more than is sufficient."
     --Horace, Ep., i. 6, 15.]

     ["The wise man is no longer wise, the just man no longer just, if he
     seek to carry his love for wisdom or virtue beyond that which is

This is a subtle consideration of philosophy. A man may both be too much
in love with virtue, and be excessive in a just action. Holy Writ agrees
with this, Be not wiser than you should, but be soberly wise.--[St.
Paul, Epistle to the Romans, xii. 3.]--I have known a great man,

     --["It is likely that Montaigne meant Henry III., king of France.
     The Cardinal d'Ossat, writing to Louise, the queen-dowager, told
     her, in his frank manner, that he had lived as much or more like a
     monk than a monarch (Letter XXIII.) And Pope Sextus V., speaking of
     that prince one day to the Cardinal de Joyeuse, protector of the
     affairs of France, said to him pleasantly, 'There is nothing that
     your king hath not done, and does not do so still, to be a monk, nor
     anything that I have not done, not to be a monk.'"--Coste.]

prejudice the opinion men had of his devotion, by pretending to be devout
beyond all examples of others of his condition. I love temperate and
moderate natures. An immoderate zeal, even to that which is good, even
though it does not offend, astonishes me, and puts me to study what name
to give it. Neither the mother of Pausanias,

     --["Montaigne would here give us to understand, upon the authority of
     Diodorus Siculus, that Pausanias' mother gave the first hint of the
     punishment that was to be inflicted on her son. 'Pausanias,' says
     this historian, 'perceiving that the ephori, and some other
     Lacedoemonians, aimed at apprehending him, got the start of them,
     and went and took sanctuary m Minerva's temple: and the
     Lacedaemonians, being doubtful whether they ought to take him from
     thence in violation of the franchise there, it is said that his own
     mother came herself to the temple but spoke nothing nor did anything
     more than lay a piece of brick, which she brought with her, on the
     threshold of the temple, which, when she had done, she returned
     home. The Lacedaemonians, taking the hint from the mother, caused
     the gate of the temple to be walled up, and by this means starved
     Pausanias, so that he died with hunger, &c. (lib. xi. cap. 10., of
     Amyot's translation). The name of Pausanias' mother was Alcithea,
     as we are informed by Thucydides' scholiast, who only says that it
     was reported, that when they set about walling up the gates of the
     chapel in which Pausanias had taken refuge, his mother Alcithea laid
     the first stone."--Coste.]

who was the first instructor of her son's process, and threw the first
stone towards his death, nor Posthumius the dictator, who put his son to
death, whom the ardour of youth had successfully pushed upon the enemy a
little more advanced than the rest of his squadron, do appear to me so
much just as strange; and I should neither advise nor like to follow so
savage a virtue, and that costs so dear.

     --["Opinions differ as to the truth of this fact. Livy thinks he
     has good authority for rejecting it because it does not appear in
     history that Posthumious was branded with it, as Titus Manlius was,
     about 100 years after his time; for Manlius, having put his son to
     death for the like cause, obtained the odious name of Imperiosus,
     and since that time Manliana imperia has been used as a term to
     signify orders that are too severe; Manliana Imperia, says Livy,
     were not only horrible for the time present, but of a bad example to
     posterity. And this historian makes no doubt but such commands
     would have been actually styled Posthumiana Imperia, if Posthumius
     had been the first who set so barbarous an example (Livy, lib. iv.
     cap. 29, and lib. viii. cap. 7). But, however, Montaigne has Valer.
     Maximus on his side, who says expressly, that Posthumius caused his
     son to be put to death, and Diodorus of Sicily (lib. xii. cap.

The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short, and
'tis equally troublesome to my sight, to look up at a great light, and
to look down into a dark abyss. Callicles in Plato says, that the
extremity of philosophy is hurtful, and advises not to dive into it
beyond the limits of profit; that, taken moderately, it is pleasant and
useful; but that in the end it renders a man brutish and vicious, a
contemner of religion and the common laws, an enemy to civil
conversation, and all human pleasures, incapable of all public
administration, unfit either to assist others or to relieve himself, and
a fit object for all sorts of injuries and affronts. He says true; for
in its excess, it enslaves our natural freedom, and by an impertinent
subtlety, leads us out of the fair and beaten way that nature has traced
for us.

The love we bear to our wives is very lawful, and yet theology thinks fit
to curb and restrain it. As I remember, I have read in one place of St.
Thomas Aquinas,--[Secunda Secundx, Quaest. 154, art. 9.]--where he
condemns marriages within any of the forbidden degrees, for this reason,
amongst others, that there is some danger, lest the friendship a man
bears to such a woman, should be immoderate; for if the conjugal
affection be full and perfect betwixt them, as it ought to be, and that
it be over and above surcharged with that of kindred too, there is no
doubt, but such an addition will carry the husband beyond the bounds of

Those sciences that regulate the manners of men, divinity and philosophy,
will have their say in everything; there is no action so private and
secret that can escape their inspection and jurisdiction. They are best
taught who are best able to control and curb their own liberty; women
expose their nudities as much as you will upon the account of pleasure,
though in the necessities of physic they are altogether as shy. I will,
therefore, in their behalf:

     --[Coste translates this: "on the part of philosophy and theology,"
     observing that but few wives would think themselves obliged to
     Montaigne for any such lesson to their husbands.]--

teach the husbands, that is, such as are too vehement in the exercise of
the matrimonial duty--if such there still be--this lesson, that the very
pleasures they enjoy in the society of their wives are reproachable if
immoderate, and that a licentious and riotous abuse of them is a fault as
reprovable here as in illicit connections. Those immodest and debauched
tricks and postures, that the first ardour suggests to us in this affair,
are not only indecently but detrimentally practised upon our wives. Let
them at least learn impudence from another hand; they are ever ready
enough for our business, and I for my part always went the plain way to

Marriage is a solemn and religious tie, and therefore the pleasure we
extract from it should be a sober and serious delight, and mixed with a
certain kind of gravity; it should be a sort of discreet and
conscientious pleasure. And seeing that the chief end of it is
generation, some make a question, whether when men are out of hopes as
when they are superannuated or already with child, it be lawful to
embrace our wives. 'Tis homicide, according to Plato.--[Laws, 8.]--
Certain nations (the Mohammedan, amongst others) abominate all conjunction
with women with child, others also, with those who are in their courses.
Zenobia would never admit her husband for more than one encounter, after
which she left him to his own swing for the whole time of her conception,
and not till after that would again receive him:--[Trebellius Pollio,
Triginta Tyran., c. 30.]--a brave and generous example of conjugal
continence. It was doubtless from some lascivious poet,--[The lascivious
poet is Homer; see his Iliad, xiv. 294.]--and one that himself was in
great distress for a little of this sport, that Plato borrowed this
story; that Jupiter was one day so hot upon his wife, that not having so
much patience as till she could get to the couch, he threw her upon the
floor, where the vehemence of pleasure made him forget the great and
important resolutions he had but newly taken with the rest of the gods in
his celestial council, and to brag that he had had as good a bout, as
when he got her maidenhead, unknown to their parents.

The kings of Persia were wont to invite their wives to the beginning of
their festivals; but when the wine began to work in good earnest, and
that they were to give the reins to pleasure, they sent them back to
their private apartments, that they might not participate in their
immoderate lust, sending for other women in their stead, with whom they
were not obliged to so great a decorum of respect.--[Plutarch, Precepts
of Marriage, c. 14.]--All pleasures and all sorts of gratifications
are not properly and fitly conferred upon all sorts of persons.
Epaminondas had committed to prison a young man for certain debauches;
for whom Pelopidas mediated, that at his request he might be set at
liberty, which Epaminondas denied to him, but granted it at the first
word to a wench of his, that made the same intercession; saying, that it
was a gratification fit for such a one as she, but not for a captain.
Sophocles being joint praetor with Pericles, seeing accidentally a fine
boy pass by: "O what a charming boy is that!" said he. "That might be
very well," answered Pericles, "for any other than a praetor, who ought
not only to have his hands, but his eyes, too, chaste."--[Cicero, De
Offic., i. 40.] AElius Verus, the emperor, answered his wife, who
reproached him with his love to other women, that he did it upon a
conscientious account, forasmuch as marriage was a name of honour and
dignity, not of wanton and lascivious desire; and our ecclesiastical
history preserves the memory of that woman in great veneration, who
parted from her husband because she would not comply with his indecent
and inordinate desires. In fine, there is no pleasure so just and
lawful, where intemperance and excess are not to be condemned.

But, to speak the truth, is not man a most miserable creature the while?
It is scarce, by his natural condition, in his power to taste one
pleasure pure and entire; and yet must he be contriving doctrines and
precepts to curtail that little he has; he is not yet wretched enough,
unless by art and study he augment his own misery:

               "Fortunae miseras auximus arte vias."

     ["We artificially augment the wretchedness of fortune."
     --Properitius, lib. iii. 7, 44.]

Human wisdom makes as ill use of her talent, when she exercises it in
rescinding from the number and sweetness of those pleasures that are
naturally our due, as she employs it favourably and well in artificially
disguising and tricking out the ills of life, to alleviate the sense of
them. Had I ruled the roast, I should have taken another and more
natural course, which, to say the truth, is both commodious and holy, and
should, peradventure, have been able to have limited it too;
notwithstanding that both our spiritual and corporal physicians, as by
compact betwixt themselves, can find no other way to cure, nor other
remedy for the infirmities of the body and the soul, than by misery and
pain. To this end, watchings, fastings, hair-shirts, remote and solitary
banishments, perpetual imprisonments, whips and other afflictions, have
been introduced amongst men: but so, that they should carry a sting with
them, and be real afflictions indeed; and not fall out as it once did to
one Gallio, who having been sent an exile into the isle of Lesbos, news
was not long after brought to Rome, that he there lived as merry as the
day was long; and that what had been enjoined him for a penance, turned
to his pleasure and satisfaction: whereupon the Senate thought fit to
recall him home to his wife and family, and confine him to his own house,
to accommodate their punishment to his feeling and apprehension. For to
him whom fasting would make more healthful and more sprightly, and to him
to whose palate fish were more acceptable than flesh, the prescription of
these would have no curative effect; no more than in the other sort of
physic, where drugs have no effect upon him who swallows them with
appetite and pleasure: the bitterness of the potion and the abhorrence of
the patient are necessary circumstances to the operation. The nature
that would eat rhubarb like buttered turnips, would frustrate the use and
virtue of it; it must be something to trouble and disturb the stomach,
that must purge and cure it; and here the common rule, that things are
cured by their contraries, fails; for in this one ill is cured by

This belief a little resembles that other so ancient one, of thinking to
gratify the gods and nature by massacre and murder: an opinion
universally once received in all religions. And still, in these later
times wherein our fathers lived, Amurath at the taking of the Isthmus,
immolated six hundred young Greeks to his father's soul, in the nature of
a propitiatory sacrifice for his sins. And in those new countries
discovered in this age of ours, which are pure and virgin yet, in
comparison of ours, this practice is in some measure everywhere received:
all their idols reek with human blood, not without various examples of
horrid cruelty: some they burn alive, and take, half broiled, off the
coals to tear out their hearts and entrails; some, even women, they flay
alive, and with their bloody skins clothe and disguise others. Neither
are we without great examples of constancy and resolution in this affair
the poor souls that are to be sacrificed, old men, women, and children,
themselves going about some days before to beg alms for the offering of
their sacrifice, presenting themselves to the slaughter, singing and
dancing with the spectators.

The ambassadors of the king of Mexico, setting out to Fernando Cortez the
power and greatness of their master, after having told him, that he had
thirty vassals, of whom each was able to raise an hundred thousand
fighting men, and that he kept his court in the fairest and best
fortified city under the sun, added at last, that he was obliged yearly
to offer to the gods fifty thousand men. And it is affirmed, that he
maintained a continual war, with some potent neighbouring nations, not
only to keep the young men in exercise, but principally to have
wherewithal to furnish his sacrifices with his prisoners of war. At a
certain town in another place, for the welcome of the said Cortez, they
sacrificed fifty men at once. I will tell you this one tale more, and I
have done; some of these people being beaten by him, sent to acknowledge
him, and to treat with him of a peace, whose messengers carried him three
sorts of gifts, which they presented in these terms: "Behold, lord, here
are five slaves: if thou art a furious god that feedeth upon flesh and
blood, eat these, and we will bring thee more; if thou art an affable
god, behold here incense and feathers; but if thou art a man, take these
fowls and these fruits that we have brought thee."