The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXIX

Chapter XXIX. Of virtue. Edit

I find by experience, that there is a good deal to be said betwixt the
flights and emotions of the soul or a resolute and constant habit; and
very well perceive that there is nothing we may not do, nay, even to the
surpassing the Divinity itself, says a certain person, forasmuch as it is
more to render a man's self impassible by his own study and industry,
than to be so by his natural condition; and even to be able to conjoin to
man's imbecility and frailty a God-like resolution and assurance; but it
is by fits and starts; and in the lives of those heroes of times past
there are sometimes miraculous impulses, and that seem infinitely to
exceed our natural force; but they are indeed only impulses: and 'tis
hard to believe, that these so elevated qualities in a man can so
thoroughly tinct and imbue the soul that they should become ordinary,
and, as it were, natural in him. It accidentally happens even to us,
who are but abortive births of men, sometimes to launch our souls, when
roused by the discourses or examples of others, much beyond their
ordinary stretch; but 'tis a kind of passion which pushes and agitates
them, and in some sort ravishes them from themselves: but, this
perturbation once overcome, we see that they insensibly flag and slacken
of themselves, if not to the lowest degree, at least so as to be no more
the same; insomuch as that upon every trivial occasion, the losing of a
bird, or the breaking, of a glass, we suffer ourselves to be moved little
less than one of the common people. I am of opinion, that order,
moderation, and constancy excepted, all things are to be done by a man
that is very imperfect and defective in general. Therefore it is, say
the Sages, that to make a right judgment of a man, you are chiefly to pry
into his common actions, and surprise him in his everyday habit.

Pyrrho, he who erected so pleasant a knowledge upon ignorance,
endeavoured, as all the rest who were really philosophers did, to make
his life correspond with his doctrine. And because he maintained the
imbecility of human judgment to be so extreme as to be incapable of any
choice or inclination, and would have it perpetually wavering and
suspended, considering and receiving all things as indifferent, 'tis
said, that he always comforted himself after the same manner and
countenance: if he had begun a discourse, he would always end what he had
to say, though the person he was speaking to had gone away: if he walked,
he never stopped for any impediment that stood in his way, being
preserved from precipices, collision with carts, and other like
accidents, by the care of his friends: for, to fear or to avoid anything,
had been to shock his own propositions, which deprived the senses
themselves of all election and certainty. Sometimes he suffered incision
and cauteries with so great constancy as never to be seen so much as to
wince. 'Tis something to bring the soul to these imaginations; 'tis more
to join the effects, and yet not impossible; but to conjoin them with
such perseverance and constancy as to make them habitual, is certainly,
in attempts so remote from the common usage, almost incredible to be
done. Therefore it was, that being sometime taken in his house sharply
scolding with his sister, and being reproached that he therein
transgressed his own rules of indifference: "What!" said he, "must this
bit of a woman also serve for a testimony to my rules?" Another time,
being seen to defend himself against a dog: "It is," said he, "very hard
totally to put off man; and we must endeavour and force ourselves to
resist and encounter things, first by effects, but at least by reason and

About seven or eight years since, a husbandman yet living, but two
leagues from my house, having long been tormented with his wife's
jealousy, coming one day home from his work, and she welcoming him with
her accustomed railing, entered into so great fury that with a sickle he
had yet in his hand, he totally cut off all those parts that she was
jealous of and threw them in her face. And, 'tis said that a young
gentleman of our nation, brisk and amorous, having by his perseverance at
last mollified the heart of a fair mistress, enraged, that upon the point
of fruition he found himself unable to perform, and that,

                         "Nec viriliter
          Iners senile penis extulit caput."

     [(The 19th or 20th century translators leave this phrase
     untranslated and with no explanation. D.W.)
     —Tibullus, Priap. Carm., 84.]

as soon as ever he came home he deprived himself of the rebellious
member, and sent it to his mistress, a cruel and bloody victim for the
expiation of his offence. If this had been done upon mature
consideration, and upon the account of religion, as the priests of Cybele
did, what should we say of so high an action?

A few days since, at Bergerac, five leagues from my house, up the river
Dordogne, a woman having overnight been beaten and abused by her husband,
a choleric ill-conditioned fellow, resolved to escape from his ill-usage
at the price of her life; and going so soon as she was up the next
morning to visit her neighbours, as she was wont to do, and having let
some words fall in recommendation of her affairs, she took a sister of
hers by the hand, and led her to the bridge; whither being come, and
having taken leave of her, in jest as it were, without any manner of
alteration in her countenance, she threw herself headlong from the top
into the river, and was there drowned. That which is the most remarkable
in this is, that this resolution was a whole night forming in her head.

It is quite another thing with the Indian women for it being the custom
there for the men to have many wives, and the best beloved of them to
kill herself at her husband's decease, every one of them makes it the
business of her whole life to obtain this privilege and gain this
advantage over her companions; and the good offices they do their
husbands aim at no other recompense but to be preferred in accompanying
him in death:

              "Ubi mortifero jacta est fax ultima lecto,
               Uxorum fusis stat pia turba comis
               Et certamen habent lethi, quae viva sequatur
               Conjugium: pudor est non licuisse mori.
               Ardent victrices, et flammae pectora praebent,
               Imponuntque suis ora perusta viris."

     ["For when they threw the torch on the funeral bed, the pious wives
     with hair dishevelled, stand around striving, which, living, shall
     accompany her spouse; and are ashamed that they may not die; they
     who are preferred expose their breasts to the flame, and they lay
     their scorched lips on those of their husbands."
     —Propertius, iii. 13, 17.]

A certain author of our times reports that he has seen in those Oriental
nations this custom in practice, that not only the wives bury themselves
with their husbands, but even the slaves he has enjoyed also; which is
done after this manner: The husband being dead, the widow may if she will
(but few will) demand two or three months' respite wherein to order her
affairs. The day being come, she mounts on horseback, dressed as fine as
at her wedding, and with a cheerful countenance says she is going to
sleep with her spouse, holding a looking-glass in her left hand and an
arrow in the other. Being thus conducted in pomp, accompanied with her
kindred and friends and a great concourse of people in great joy, she is
at last brought to the public place appointed for such spectacles: this
is a great space, in the midst of which is a pit full of wood, and
adjoining to it a mount raised four or five steps, upon which she is
brought and served with a magnificent repast; which being done, she falls
to dancing and singing, and gives order, when she thinks fit, to kindle
the fire. This being done, she descends, and taking the nearest of her
husband's relations by the hand, they walk to the river close by, where
she strips herself stark naked, and having distributed her clothes and
jewels to her friends, plunges herself into the water, as if there to
cleanse herself from her sins; coming out thence, she wraps herself in a
yellow linen of five-and-twenty ells long, and again giving her hand to
this kinsman of her husband's, they return back to the mount, where she
makes a speech to the people, and recommends her children to them, if she
have any. Betwixt the pit and the mount there is commonly a curtain
drawn to screen the burning furnace from their sight, which some of them,
to manifest the greater courage, forbid. Having ended what she has to
say, a woman presents her with a vessel of oil, wherewith to anoint her
head and her whole body, which when done with she throws into the fire,
and in an instant precipitates herself after. Immediately, the people
throw a good many billets and logs upon her that she may not be long in
dying, and convert all their joy into sorrow and mourning. If they are
persons of meaner condition, the body of the defunct is carried to the
place of sepulture, and there placed sitting, the widow kneeling before
him, embracing the dead body; and they continue in this posture whilst
the people build a wall about them, which so soon as it is raised to the
height of the woman's shoulders, one of her relations comes behind her,
and taking hold of her head, twists her neck; so soon as she is dead, the
wall is presently raised up, and closed, and there they remain entombed.

There was, in this same country, something like this in their
gymnosophists; for not by constraint of others nor by the impetuosity of
a sudden humour, but by the express profession of their order, their
custom was, as soon as they arrived at a certain age, or that they saw
themselves threatened by any disease, to cause a funeral pile to be
erected for them, and on the top a stately bed, where, after having
joyfully feasted their friends and acquaintance, they laid them down with
so great resolution, that fire being applied to it, they were never seen
to stir either hand or foot; and after this manner, one of them, Calanus
by name; expired in the presence of the whole army of Alexander the
Great. And he was neither reputed holy nor happy amongst them who did
not thus destroy himself, dismissing his soul purged and purified by the
fire, after having consumed all that was earthly and mortal. This
constant premeditation of the whole life is that which makes the wonder.

Amongst our other controversies, that of 'Fatum' has also crept in; and
to tie things to come, and even our own wills, to a certain and
inevitable necessity, we are yet upon this argument of time past:
"Since God foresees that all things shall so fall out, as doubtless He
does, it must then necessarily follow, that they must so fall out": to
which our masters reply: "that the seeing anything come to pass, as we
do, and as God Himself also does (for all things being present with him,
He rather sees, than foresees), is not to compel an event: that is, we
see because things do fall out, but things do not fall out because we
see: events cause knowledge, but knowledge does not cause events. That
which we see happen, does happen; but it might have happened otherwise:
and God, in the catalogue of the causes of events which He has in His
prescience, has also those which we call accidental and voluntary,
depending upon the liberty. He has given our free will, and knows that
we do amiss because we would do so."

I have seen a great many commanders encourage their soldiers with this
fatal necessity; for if our time be limited to a certain hour, neither
the enemies' shot nor our own boldness, nor our flight and cowardice,
can either shorten or prolong our lives. This is easily said, but see
who will be so easily persuaded; and if it be so that a strong and lively
faith draws along with it actions of the same kind, certainly this faith
we so much brag of, is very light in this age of ours, unless the
contempt it has of works makes it disdain their company. So it is, that
to this very purpose the Sire de Joinville, as credible a witness as any
other whatever, tells us of the Bedouins, a nation amongst the Saracens,
with whom the king St. Louis had to do in the Holy Land, that they, in
their religion, so firmly believed the number of every man's days to be
from all eternity prefixed and set down by an inevitable decree, that
they went naked to the wars, excepting a Turkish sword, and their bodies
only covered with a white linen cloth: and for the greatest curse they
could invent when they were angry, this was always in their mouths:
"Accursed be thou, as he that arms himself for fear of death." This is a
testimony of faith very much beyond ours. And of this sort is that also
that two friars of Florence gave in our fathers' days. Being engaged in
some controversy of learning, they agreed to go both of them into the
fire in the sight of all the people, each for the verification of his
argument, and all things were already prepared, and the thing just upon
the point of execution, when it was interrupted by an unexpected
accident.—[7th April 1498. Savonarola issued the challenge. After many
delays from demands and counter-demands by each side as to the details of
the fire, both parties found that they had important business to transact
in another county—both just barely escaped assassination at the hands of
the disappointed spectators. D.W.]

A young Turkish lord, having performed a notable exploit in his own
person in the sight of both armies, that of Amurath and that of Huniades,
ready to join battle, being asked by Amurath, what in such tender and
inexperienced years (for it was his first sally into arms) had inspired
him with so brave a courage, replied, that his chief tutor for valour was
a hare. "For being," said he, "one day a hunting, I found a hare
sitting, and though I had a brace of excellent greyhounds with me, yet
methought it would be best for sureness to make use of my bow; for she
sat very fair. I then fell to letting fly my arrows, and shot forty that
I had in my quiver, not only without hurting, but without starting her
from her form. At last I slipped my dogs after her, but to no more
purpose than I had shot: by which I understood that she had been secured
by her destiny; and, that neither darts nor swords can wound without the
permission of fate, which we can neither hasten nor defer." This story
may serve, by the way, to let us see how flexible our reason is to all
sorts of images.

A person of great years, name, dignity, and learning boasted to me that
he had been induced to a certain very important change in his faith by a
strange and whimsical incitation, and one otherwise so inadequate, that I
thought it much stronger, taken the contrary way: he called it a miracle,
and so I look upon it, but in a different sense. The Turkish historians
say, that the persuasion those of their nation have imprinted in them of
the fatal and unalterable prescription of their days, manifestly conduces
to the giving them great assurance in dangers. And I know a great prince
who makes very fortunate use of it, whether it be that he really believes
it, or that he makes it his excuse for so wonderfully hazarding himself:
let us hope Fortune may not be too soon weary of her favour to him.

There has not happened in our memory a more admirable effect of
resolution than in those two who conspired the death of the Prince of

     [The first of these was Jehan de Jaureguy, who wounded the Prince
     18th March 1582; the second, by whom the Prince was killed 10th July
     1584., was Balthazar Gerard.]

'Tis marvellous how the second who executed it, could ever be persuaded
into an attempt, wherein his companion, who had done his utmost, had had
so ill success; and after the same method, and with the same arms, to go
attack a lord, armed with so recent a late lesson of distrust, powerful
in followers and bodily strength, in his own hall, amidst his guards, and
in a city wholly at his devotion. Assuredly, he employed a very resolute
arm and a courage enflamed with furious passion. A poignard is surer for
striking home; but by reason that more motion and force of hand is
required than with a pistol, the blow is more subject to be put by or
hindered. That this man did not run to a certain death, I make no great
doubt; for the hopes any one could flatter him withal, could not find
place in any sober understanding, and the conduct of his exploit
sufficiently manifests that he had no want of that, no more than of
courage. The motives of so powerful a persuasion may be diverse, for our
fancy does what it will, both with itself and us. The execution that was
done near Orleans—[The murder of the Duke of Guise by Poltrot.]—was
nothing like this; there was in this more of chance than vigour; the
wound was not mortal, if fortune had not made it so, and to attempt to
shoot on horseback, and at a great distance, by one whose body was in
motion from the motion of his horse, was the attempt of a man who had
rather miss his blow than fail of saving himself. This was apparent from
what followed; for he was so astonished and stupefied with the thought of
so high an execution, that he totally lost his judgment both to find his
way to flight and to govern his tongue. What needed he to have done more
than to fly back to his friends across the river? 'Tis what I have done
in less dangers, and that I think of very little hazard, how broad soever
the river may be, provided your horse have easy going in, and that you
see on the other side easy landing according to the stream. The other,
—[Balthazar Gerard.]—when they pronounced his dreadful sentence,
"I was prepared for this," said he, "beforehand, and I will make you
wonder at my patience."

The Assassins, a nation bordering upon Phoenicia,

     [Or in Egypt, Syria, and Persia. Derivation of 'assassin' is from
     Hassan-ben-Saba, one of their early leaders, and they had an
     existence for some centuries. They are classed among the secret
     societies of the Middle Ages. D.W.]

are reputed amongst the Mohammedans a people of very great devotion and
purity of manners. They hold that the nearest way to gain Paradise is to
kill some one of a contrary religion; which is the reason they have often
been seen, being but one or two, and without armour, to attempt against
powerful enemies, at the price of a certain death and without any
consideration of their own danger. So was our Raymond, Count of Tripoli,
assassinated (which word is derived from their name) in the heart of his
city,—[in 1151]—during our enterprises of the Holy War: and likewise
Conrad, Marquis of Monteferrat, the murderers at their execution bearing
themselves with great pride and glory that they had performed so brave an