The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XIX

The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter XIX. Of liberty of conscience.

Chapter XIX. Of liberty of conscience. Edit

'Tis usual to see good intentions, if carried on without moderation, push
men on to very vicious effects. In this dispute which has at this time
engaged France in a civil war, the better and the soundest cause no doubt
is that which maintains the ancient religion and government of the
kingdom. Nevertheless, amongst the good men of that party (for I do not
speak of those who only make a pretence of it, either to execute their
own particular revenges or to gratify their avarice, or to conciliate the
favour of princes, but of those who engage in the quarrel out of true
zeal to religion and a holy desire to maintain the peace and government
of their country), of these, I say, we see many whom passion transports
beyond the bounds of reason, and sometimes inspires with counsels that
are unjust and violent, and, moreover, rash.

It is certain that in those first times, when our religion began to gain
authority with the laws, zeal armed many against all sorts of pagan
books, by which the learned suffered an exceeding great loss, a disorder
that I conceive to have done more prejudice to letters than all the
flames of the barbarians. Of this Cornelius Tacitus is a very good
testimony; for though the Emperor Tacitus, his kinsman, had, by express
order, furnished all the libraries in the world with it, nevertheless one
entire copy could not escape the curious examination of those who desired
to abolish it for only five or six idle clauses that were contrary to our

They had also the trick easily to lend undue praises to all the emperors
who made for us, and universally to condemn all the actions of those who
were adversaries, as is evidently manifest in the Emperor Julian,
surnamed the Apostate,

     [The character of the Emperor Julian was censured, when Montaigne
     was at Rome in 1581, by the Master of the Sacred Palace, who,
     however, as Montaigne tells us in his journal (ii. 35), referred it
     to his conscience to alter what he should think in bad taste. This
     Montaigne did not do, and this chapter supplied Voltaire with the
     greater part of the praises he bestowed upon the Emperor.—Leclerc.]

who was, in truth, a very great and rare man, a man in whose soul
philosophy was imprinted in the best characters, by which he professed to
govern all his actions; and, in truth, there is no sort of virtue of
which he has not left behind him very notable examples: in chastity (of
which the whole of his life gave manifest proof) we read the same of him
that was said of Alexander and Scipio, that being in the flower of his
age, for he was slain by the Parthians at one-and-thirty, of a great many
very beautiful captives, he would not so much as look upon one. As to
his justice, he took himself the pains to hear the parties, and although
he would out of curiosity inquire what religion they were of,
nevertheless, the antipathy he had to ours never gave any counterpoise to
the balance. He made himself several good laws, and repealed a great
part of the subsidies and taxes levied by his predecessors.

We have two good historians who were eyewitnesses of his actions: one of
whom, Marcellinus, in several places of his history sharply reproves an
edict of his whereby he interdicted all Christian rhetoricians and
grammarians to keep school or to teach, and says he could wish that act
of his had been buried in silence: it is probable that had he done any
more severe thing against us, he, so affectionate as he was to our party,
would not have passed it over in silence. He was indeed sharp against
us, but yet no cruel enemy; for our own people tell this story of him,
that one day, walking about the city of Chalcedon, Maris, bishop of the
place; was so bold as to tell him that he was impious, and an enemy to
Christ, at which, they say, he was no further moved than to reply,
"Go, poor wretch, and lament the loss of thy eyes," to which the bishop
replied again, "I thank Jesus Christ for taking away my sight, that I may
not see thy impudent visage," affecting in that, they say, a
philosophical patience. But this action of his bears no comparison to
the cruelty that he is said to have exercised against us. "He was," says
Eutropius, my other witness, "an enemy to Christianity, but without
putting his hand to blood." And, to return to his justice, there is
nothing in that whereof he can be accused, the severity excepted he
practised in the beginning of his reign against those who had followed
the party of Constantius, his predecessor. As to his sobriety, he lived
always a soldier-like life; and observed a diet and routine, like one
that prepared and inured himself to the austerities of war. His
vigilance was such, that he divided the night into three or four parts,
of which the least was dedicated to sleep; the rest was spent either in
visiting the state of his army and guards in person, or in study; for
amongst other rare qualities, he was very excellent in all sorts of
learning. 'Tis said of Alexander the Great, that being in bed, for fear
lest sleep should divert him from his thoughts and studies, he had always
a basin set by his bedside, and held one of his hands out with a ball of
copper in it, to the end, that, beginning to fall asleep, and his fingers
leaving their hold, the ball by falling into the basin, might awake him.
But the other had his soul so bent upon what he had a mind to do, and so
little disturbed with fumes by reason of his singular abstinence, that he
had no need of any such invention. As to his military experience, he was
excellent in all the qualities of a great captain, as it was likely he
should, being almost all his life in a continual exercise of war, and
most of that time with us in France, against the Germans and Franks: we
hardly read of any man who ever saw more dangers, or who made more
frequent proofs of his personal valour.

His death has something in it parallel with that of Epaminondas, for he
was wounded with an arrow, and tried to pull it out, and had done so, but
that, being edged, it cut and disabled his hand. He incessantly called
out that they should carry him again into the heat of the battle, to
encourage his soldiers, who very bravely disputed the fight without him,
till night parted the armies. He stood obliged to his philosophy for the
singular contempt he had for his life and all human things. He had a
firm belief of the immortality of souls.

In matter of religion he was wrong throughout, and was surnamed the
Apostate for having relinquished ours: nevertheless, the opinion seems to
me more probable, that he had never thoroughly embraced it, but had
dissembled out of obedience to the laws, till he came to the empire.
He was in his own so superstitious, that he was laughed at for it by
those of his own time, of the same opinion, who jeeringly said, that had
he got the victory over the Parthians, he had destroyed the breed of oxen
in the world to supply his sacrifices. He was, moreover, besotted with
the art of divination, and gave authority to all sorts of predictions.
He said, amongst other things at his death, that he was obliged to the
gods, and thanked them, in that they would not cut him off by surprise,
having long before advertised him of the place and hour of his death, nor
by a mean and unmanly death, more becoming lazy and delicate people; nor
by a death that was languishing, long, and painful; and that they had
thought him worthy to die after that noble manner, in the progress of his
victories, in the flower of his glory. He had a vision like that of
Marcus Brutus, that first threatened him in Gaul, and afterward appeared
to him in Persia just before his death. These words that some make him
say when he felt himself wounded: "Thou hast overcome, Nazarene"; or as
others, "Content thyself, Nazarene"; would hardly have been omitted, had
they been believed, by my witnesses, who, being present in the army, have
set down to the least motions and words of his end; no more than certain
other miracles that are reported about it.

And to return to my subject, he long nourished, says Marcellinus,
paganism in his heart; but all his army being Christians, he durst not
own it. But in the end, seeing himself strong enough to dare to discover
himself, he caused the temples of the gods to be thrown open, and did his
uttermost to set on foot and to encourage idolatry. Which the better to
effect, having at Constantinople found the people disunited, and also the
prelates of the church divided amongst themselves, having convened them
all before him, he earnestly admonished them to calm those civil
dissensions, and that every one might freely, and without fear, follow
his own religion. Which he the more sedulously solicited, in hope that
this licence would augment the schisms and factions of their division,
and hinder the people from reuniting, and consequently fortifying
themselves against him by their unanimous intelligence and concord;
having experienced by the cruelty of some Christians, that there is no
beast in the world so much to be feared by man as man; these are very
nearly his words.

Wherein this is very worthy of consideration, that the Emperor Julian
made use of the same receipt of liberty of conscience to inflame the
civil dissensions that our kings do to extinguish them. So that a man
may say on one side, that to give the people the reins to entertain every
man his own opinion, is to scatter and sow division, and, as it were, to
lend a hand to augment it, there being no legal impediment or restraint
to stop or hinder their career; but, on the other side, a man may also
say, that to give the people the reins to entertain every man his own
opinion, is to mollify and appease them by facility and toleration, and
to dull the point which is whetted and made sharper by singularity,
novelty, and difficulty: and I think it is better for the honour of the
devotion of our kings, that not having been able to do what they would,
they have made a show of being willing to do what they could.