The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXI

Chapter XXI. Against idleness. Edit

The Emperor Vespasian, being sick of the disease whereof he died, did not
for all that neglect to inquire after the state of the empire, and even
in bed continually despatched very many affairs of great consequence; for
which, being reproved by his physician, as a thing prejudicial to his
health, "An emperor," said he, "must die standing." A fine saying, in my
opinion, and worthy a great prince. The Emperor Adrian since made use of
the same words, and kings should be often put in mind of them, to make
them know that the great office conferred upon them of the command of so
many men, is not an employment of ease; and that there is nothing can so
justly disgust a subject, and make him unwilling to expose himself to
labour and danger for the service of his prince, than to see him, in the
meantime, devoted to his ease and frivolous amusement, and to be
solicitous of his preservation who so much neglects that of his people.

Whoever will take upon him to maintain that 'tis better for a prince to
carry on his wars by others, than in his own person, fortune will furnish
him with examples enough of those whose lieutenants have brought great
enterprises to a happy issue, and of those also whose presence has done
more hurt than good: but no virtuous and valiant prince can with patience
endure so dishonourable councils. Under colour of saving his head, like
the statue of a saint, for the happiness of his kingdom, they degrade him
from and declare him incapable of his office, which is military
throughout: I know one—[Probably Henry IV.]—who had much rather be
beaten, than to sleep whilst another fights for him; and who never
without jealousy heard of any brave thing done even by his own officers
in his absence. And Soliman I. said, with very good reason, in my
opinion, that victories obtained without the master were never complete.
Much more would he have said that that master ought to blush for shame,
to pretend to any share in the honour, having contributed nothing to the
work, but his voice and thought; nor even so much as these, considering
that in such work as that, the direction and command that deserve honour
are only such as are given upon the spot, and in the heat of the
business. No pilot performs his office by standing still. The princes
of the Ottoman family, the chiefest in the world in military fortune,
have warmly embraced this opinion, and Bajazet II., with his son, who
swerved from it, spending their time in science and other retired
employments, gave great blows to their empire; and Amurath III., now
reigning, following their example, begins to find the same. Was it not
Edward III., King of England, who said this of our Charles V.: "There
never was king who so seldom put on his armour, and yet never king who
gave me so much to do." He had reason to think it strange, as an effect
of chance more than of reason. And let those seek out some other to join
with them than me, who will reckon the Kings of Castile and Portugal
amongst the warlike and magnanimous conquerors, because at the distance
of twelve hundred leagues from their lazy abode, by the conduct of their
captains, they made themselves masters of both Indies; of which it has to
be known if they would have had even the courage to go and in person
enjoy them.

The Emperor Julian said yet further, that a philosopher and a brave man
ought not so much as to breathe; that is to say, not to allow any more to
bodily necessities than what we cannot refuse; keeping the soul and body
still intent and busy about honourable, great, and virtuous things. He
was ashamed if any one in public saw him spit, or sweat (which is said by
some, also, of the Lacedaemonian young men, and which Xenophon says of
the Persian), forasmuch as he conceived that exercise, continual labour,
and sobriety, ought to have dried up all those superfluities. What
Seneca says will not be unfit for this place; which is, that the ancient
Romans kept their youth always standing, and taught them nothing that
they were to learn sitting.

'Tis a generous desire to wish to die usefully and like a man, but the
effect lies not so much in our resolution as in our good fortune; a
thousand have proposed to themselves in battle, either to overcome or to
die, who have failed both in the one and the other, wounds and
imprisonment crossing their design and compelling them to live against
their will. There are diseases that overthrow even our desires, and our
knowledge. Fortune ought not to second the vanity of the Roman legions,
who bound themselves by oath, either to overcome or die:

     "Victor, Marce Fabi, revertar ex acie: si fallo, Jovem patrem,
     Gradivumque Martem aliosque iratos invoco deos."

     ["I will return, Marcus Fabius, a conqueror, from the fight:
     and if I fail, I invoke Father Jove, Mars Gradivus, and the
     other angry gods."—Livy, ii. 45.]

The Portuguese say that in a certain place of their conquest of the
Indies, they met with soldiers who had condemned themselves, with
horrible execrations, to enter into no other composition but either to
cause themselves to be slain, or to remain victorious; and had their
heads and beards shaved in token of this vow. 'Tis to much purpose for
us to hazard ourselves and to be obstinate: it seems as if blows avoided
those who present themselves too briskly to them, and do not willingly
fall upon those who too willingly seek them, and so defeat them of their
design. Such there have been, who, after having tried all ways, not
having been able with all their endeavour to obtain the favour of dying
by the hand of the enemy, have been constrained, to make good their
resolution of bringing home the honour of victory or of losing their
lives, to kill themselves even in the heat of battle. Of which there are
other examples, but this is one: Philistus, general of the naval army of
Dionysius the younger against the Syracusans, presented them battle which
was sharply disputed, their forces being equal: in this engagement, he
had the better at the first, through his own valour: but the Syracusans
drawing about his gally to environ him, after having done great things in
his own person to disengage himself and hoping for no relief, with his
own hand he took away the life he had so liberally, and in vain, exposed
to the enemy.

Mule Moloch, king of Fez, who lately won against Sebastian, king of
Portugal, the battle so famous for the death of three kings, and for the
transmission of that great kingdom to the crown of Castile, was extremely
sick when the Portuguese entered in an hostile manner into his dominions;
and from that day forward grew worse and worse, still drawing nearer to
and foreseeing his end; yet never did man better employ his own
sufficiency more vigorously and bravely than he did upon this occasion.
He found himself too weak to undergo the pomp and ceremony of entering.
into his camp, which after their manner is very magnificent, and
therefore resigned that honour to his brother; but this was all of the
office of a general that he resigned; all the rest of greatest utility
and necessity he most, exactly and gloriously performed in his own
person; his body lying upon a couch, but his judgment and courage upright
and firm to his last gasp, and in some sort beyond it. He might have
wasted his enemy, indiscreetly advanced into his dominions, without
striking a blow; and it was a very unhappy occurrence, that for want of a
little life or somebody to substitute in the conduct of this war and the
affairs of a troubled state, he was compelled to seek a doubtful and
bloody victory, having another by a better and surer way already in his
hands. Notwithstanding, he wonderfully managed the continuance of his
sickness in consuming the enemy, and in drawing them far from the
assistance of the navy and the ports they had on the coast of Africa,
even till the last day of his life, which he designedly reserved for this
great battle. He arranged his battalions in a circular form, environing
the Portuguese army on every side, which round circle coming to close in
and to draw up close together, not only hindered them in the conflict
(which was very sharp through the valour of the young invading king),
considering that they had every way to present a front, but prevented
their flight after the defeat, so that finding all passages possessed and
shut up by the enemy, they were constrained to close up together again:

          "Coacerventurque non solum caede, sed etiam fuga,"

          ["Piled up not only in slaughter but in flight."]

and there they were slain in heaps upon one another, leaving to the
conqueror a very bloody and entire victory. Dying, he caused himself to
be carried and hurried from place to place where most need was, and
passing along the files, encouraged the captains and soldiers one after
another; but a corner of his main battalions being broken, he was not to
be held from mounting on horseback with his sword in his hand; he did his
utmost to break from those about him, and to rush into the thickest of
the battle, they all the while withholding him, some by the bridle, some
by his robe, and others by his stirrups. This last effort totally
overwhelmed the little life he had left; they again laid him upon his
bed; but coming to himself, and starting as it were out of his swoon, all
other faculties failing, to give his people notice that they were to
conceal his death the most necessary command he had then to give, that
his soldiers might not be discouraged (with the news) he expired with his
finger upon his mouth, the ordinary sign of keeping silence. Who ever
lived so long and so far into death? whoever died so erect, or more like
a man?

The most extreme degree of courageously treating death, and the most
natural, is to look upon it not only without astonishment but without
care, continuing the wonted course of life even into it, as Cato did,
who entertained himself in study, and went to sleep, having a violent and
bloody death in his heart, and the weapon in his hand with which he was
resolved to despatch himself.