The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXXIII

Chapter XXXIII. The story of Spurina. Edit

Philosophy thinks she has not ill employed her talent when she has given
the sovereignty of the soul and the authority of restraining our
appetites to reason. Amongst which, they who judge that there is none
more violent than those which spring from love, have this opinion also,
that they seize both body and soul, and possess the whole man, so that
even health itself depends upon them, and medicine is sometimes
constrained to pimp for them; but one might, on the contrary, also say,
that the mixture of the body brings an abatement and weakening; for such
desires are subject to satiety, and capable of material remedies.

Many, being determined to rid their soul from the continual alarms of
this appetite, have made use of incision and amputation of the rebelling
members; others have subdued their force and ardour by the frequent
application of cold things, as snow and vinegar. The sackcloths of our
ancestors were for this purpose, which is cloth woven of horse hair, of
which some of them made shirts, and others girdles, to torture and
correct their reins. A prince, not long ago, told me that in his youth
upon a solemn festival in the court of King Francis I., where everybody
was finely dressed, he would needs put on his father's hair shirt, which
was still kept in the house; but how great soever his devotion was, he
had not patience to wear it till night, and was sick a long time after;
adding withal, that he did not think there could be any youthful heat so
fierce that the use of this recipe would not mortify, and yet perhaps he
never essayed the most violent; for experience shows us, that such
emotions are often seen under rude and slovenly clothes, and that a hair
shirt does not always render those chaste who wear it.

Xenocrates proceeded with greater rigour in this affair; for his
disciples, to make trial of his continency, having slipt Lais, that
beautiful and famous courtesan, into his bed, quite naked, excepting the
arms of her beauty and her wanton allurements, her philters, finding
that, in despite of his reason and philosophical rules, his unruly flesh
began to mutiny, he caused those members of his to be burned that he
found consenting to this rebellion. Whereas the passions which wholly
reside in the soul, as ambition, avarice, and the rest, find the reason
much more to do, because it cannot there be helped but by its own means;
neither are those appetites capable of satiety, but grow sharper and
increase by fruition.

The sole example of Julius Caesar may suffice to demonstrate to us the
disparity of these appetites; for never was man more addicted to amorous
delights than he: of which one testimony is the peculiar care he had of
his person, to such a degree, as to make use of the most lascivious means
to that end then in use, as to have all the hairs of his body twitched
off, and to wipe all over with perfumes with the extremest nicety.
And he was a beautiful person in himself, of a fair complexion, tall,
and sprightly, full faced, with quick hazel eyes, if we may believe
Suetonius; for the statues of him that we see at Rome do not in all
points answer this description. Besides his wives, whom he four times
changed, without reckoning the amours of his boyhood with Nicomedes, king
of Bithynia, he had the maidenhead of the renowned Cleopatra, queen of
Egypt; witness the little Caesario whom he had by her. He also made love
to. Eunoe, queen of Mauritania, and at Rome, to Posthumia, the wife of
Servius Sulpitius; to Lollia, the wife of Gabinius to Tertulla, the wife
of Crassus, and even to Mutia, wife to the great Pompey: which was the
reason, the Roman historians say, that she was repudiated by her husband,
which Plutarch confesses to be more than he knew; and the Curios, both
father and son, afterwards reproached Pompey, when he married Caesar's
daughter, that he had made himself son-in-law to a man who had made him
cuckold, and one whom he himself was wont to call AEgisthus. Besides all
these, he entertained Servilia, Cato's sister and mother to Marcus
Brutus, whence, every one believes, proceeded the great affection he had
to Brutus, by reason that he was born at a time when it was likely he
might be his son. So that I have reason, methinks, to take him for a man
extremely given to this debauch, and of very amorous constitution. But
the other passion of ambition, with which he was infinitely smitten,
arising in him to contend with the former, it was boon compelled to give

And here calling to mind Mohammed, who won Constantinople, and finally
exterminated the Grecian name, I do not know where these two were so
evenly balanced; equally an indefatigable lecher and soldier: but where
they both meet in his life and jostle one another, the quarrelling
passion always gets the better of the amorous one, and this though it was
out of its natural season never regained an absolute sovereignty over the
other till he had arrived at an extreme old age and unable to undergo the
fatigues of war.

What is related for a contrary example of Ladislaus, king of Naples, is
very remarkable; that being a great captain, valiant and ambitious, he
proposed to himself for the principal end of his ambition, the execution
of his pleasure and the enjoyment of some rare and excellent beauty. His
death sealed up all the rest: for having by a close and tedious siege
reduced the city of Florence to so great distress that the inhabitants
were compelled to capitulate about surrender, he was content to let them
alone, provided they would deliver up to him a beautiful maid he had
heard of in their city; they were forced to yield to it, and by a private
injury to avert the public ruin. She was the daughter of a famous
physician of his time, who, finding himself involved in so foul a
necessity, resolved upon a high attempt. As every one was lending a hand
to trick up his daughter and to adorn her with ornaments and jewels to
render her more agreeable to this new lover, he also gave her a
handkerchief most richly wrought, and of an exquisite perfume, an
implement they never go without in those parts, which she was to make use
of at their first approaches. This handkerchief, poisoned with his
greatest art, coming to be rubbed between the chafed flesh and open
pores, both of the one and the other, so suddenly infused the poison,
that immediately converting their warm into a cold sweat they presently
died in one another's arms.

But I return to Caesar. His pleasures never made him steal one minute of
an hour, nor go one step aside from occasions that might any way conduce
to his advancement. This passion was so sovereign in him over all the
rest, and with so absolute authority possessed his soul, that it guided
him at pleasure. In truth, this troubles me, when, as to everything
else, I consider the greatness of this man, and the wonderful parts
wherewith he was endued; learned to that degree in all sorts of knowledge
that there is hardly any one science of which he has not written; so
great an orator that many have preferred his eloquence to that of Cicero,
and he, I conceive, did not think himself inferior to him in that
particular, for his two anti-Catos were written to counterbalance the
elocution that Cicero had expended in his Cato. As to the rest, was ever
soul so vigilant, so active, and so patient of labour as his? and,
doubtless, it was embellished with many rare seeds of virtue, lively,
natural, and not put on; he was singularly sober; so far from being
delicate in his diet, that Oppius relates, how that having one day at
table set before him medicated instead of common oil in some sauce, he
ate heartily of it, that he might not put his entertainer out of
countenance. Another time he caused his baker to be whipped for serving
him with a finer than ordinary sort of bread. Cato himself was wont to
say of him, that he was the first sober man who ever made it his business
to ruin his country. And as to the same Cato's calling, him one day
drunkard, it fell out thus being both of them in the Senate, at a time
when Catiline's conspiracy was in question of which was Caesar was
suspected, one came and brought him a letter sealed up. Cato believing
that it was something the conspirators gave him notice of, required him
to deliver into his hand, which Caesar was constrained to do to avoid
further suspicion. It was by chance a love-letter that Servilia, Cato's
sister, had written to him, which Cato having read, he threw it back to
him saying, "There, drunkard." This, I say, was rather a word of disdain
and anger than an express reproach of this vice, as we often rate those
who anger us with the first injurious words that come into our mouths,
though nothing due to those we are offended at; to which may be added
that the vice with which Cato upbraided him is wonderfully near akin to
that wherein he had surprised Caesar; for Bacchus and Venus, according to
the proverb, very willingly agree; but to me Venus is much more sprightly
accompanied by sobriety. The examples of his sweetness and clemency to
those by whom he had been offended are infinite; I mean, besides those he
gave during the time of the civil wars, which, as plainly enough appears
by his writings, he practised to cajole his enemies, and to make them
less afraid of his future dominion and victory. But I must also say,
that if these examples are not sufficient proofs of his natural
sweetness, they, at least, manifest a marvellous confidence and grandeur
of courage in this person. He has often been known to dismiss whole
armies, after having overcome them, to his enemies, without ransom, or
deigning so much as to bind them by oath, if not to favour him, at least
no more to bear arms against him; he has three or four times taken some
of Pompey's captains prisoners, and as often set them at liberty. Pompey
declared all those to be enemies who did not follow him to the war; he
proclaimed all those to be his friends who sat still and did not actually
take arms against him. To such captains of his as ran away from him to
go over to the other side, he sent, moreover, their arms, horses, and
equipage: the cities he had taken by force he left at full liberty to
follow which side they pleased, imposing no other garrison upon them but
the memory of his gentleness and clemency. He gave strict and express
charge, the day of his great battle of Pharsalia, that, without the
utmost necessity, no one should lay a hand upon the citizens of Rome.
These, in my opinion, were very hazardous proceedings, and 'tis no wonder
if those in our civil war, who, like him, fight against the ancient
estate of their country, do not follow his example; they are
extraordinary means, and that only appertain to Caesar's fortune, and to
his admirable foresight in the conduct of affairs. When I consider the
incomparable grandeur of his soul, I excuse victory that it could not
disengage itself from him, even in so unjust and so wicked a cause.

To return to his clemency: we have many striking examples in the time of
his government, when, all things being reduced to his power, he had no
more written against him which he had as sharply answered: yet he did not
soon after forbear to use his interest to make him consul. Caius Calvus,
who had composed several injurious epigrams against him, having employed
many of his friends to mediate a reconciliation with him, Caesar
voluntarily persuaded himself to write first to him. And our good
Catullus, who had so rudely ruffled him under the name of Mamurra, coming
to offer his excuses to him, he made the same day sit at his table.
Having intelligence of some who spoke ill of him, he did no more, but
only by a public oration declare that he had notice of it. He still less
feared his enemies than he hated them; some conspiracies and cabals that
were made against his life being discovered to him, he satisfied himself
in publishing by proclamation that they were known to him, without
further prosecuting the conspirators.

As to the respect he had for his friends: Caius Oppius, being with him
upon a journey, and finding himself ill, he left him the only lodging he
had for himself, and lay all night upon a hard ground in the open air.
As to what concerns his justice, he put a beloved servant of his to death
for lying with a noble Roman's wife, though there was no complaint made.
Never had man more moderation in his victory, nor more resolution in his
adverse fortune.

But all these good inclinations were stifled and spoiled by his furious
ambition, by which he suffered himself to be so transported and misled
that one may easily maintain that this passion was the rudder of all his
actions; of a liberal man, it made him a public thief to supply this
bounty and profusion, and made him utter this vile and unjust saying,
"That if the most wicked and profligate persons in the world had been
faithful in serving him towards his advancement, he would cherish and
prefer them to the utmost of his power, as much as the best of men."
It intoxicated him with so excessive a vanity, as to dare to boast in the
presence of his fellow-citizens, that he had made the great commonwealth
of Rome a name without form and without body; and to say that his answers
for the future should stand for laws; and also to receive the body of the
Senate coming to him, sitting; to suffer himself to be adored, and to
have divine honours paid to him in his own presence. To conclude, this
sole vice, in my opinion, spoiled in him the most rich and beautiful
nature that ever was, and has rendered his name abominable to all good
men, in that he would erect his glory upon the ruins of his country and
the subversion of the greatest and most flourishing republic the world
shall ever see.

There might, on the contrary, many examples be produced of great men whom
pleasures have made to neglect the conduct of their affairs, as Mark
Antony and others; but where love and ambition should be in equal
balance, and come to jostle with equal forces, I make no doubt but the
last would win the prize.

To return to my subject: 'tis much to bridle our appetites by the
argument of reason, or, by violence, to contain our members within their
duty; but to lash ourselves for our neighbour's interest, and not only to
divest ourselves of the charming passion that tickles us, of the pleasure
we feel in being agreeable to others, and courted and beloved of every
one, but also to conceive a hatred against the graces that produce that
effect, and to condemn our beauty because it inflames others; of this, I
confess, I have met with few examples. But this is one. Spurina, a
young man of Tuscany:

         "Qualis gemma micat, fulvum quae dividit aurum,
          Aut collo decus, aut cupiti: vel quale per artem
          Inclusum buxo aut Oricia terebintho
          Lucet ebur,"

     ["As a gem shines enchased in yellow gold, or an ornament on the
     neck or head, or as ivory has lustre, set by art in boxwood or
     Orician ebony."—AEneid, x. 134.]

being endowed with a singular beauty, and so excessive, that the chastest
eyes could not chastely behold its rays; not contenting himself with
leaving so much flame and fever as he everywhere kindled without relief,
entered into a furious spite against himself and those great endowments
nature had so liberally conferred upon him, as if a man were responsible
to himself for the faults of others, and purposely slashed and
disfigured, with many wounds and scars, the perfect symmetry and
proportion that nature had so curiously imprinted in his face. To give
my free opinion, I more admire than honour such actions: such excesses
are enemies to my rules. The design was conscientious and good, but
certainly a little defective in prudence. What if his deformity served
afterwards to make others guilty of the sin of hatred or contempt; or of
envy at the glory of so rare a recommendation; or of calumny,
interpreting this humour a mad ambition! Is there any form from which
vice cannot, if it will, extract occasion to exercise itself, one way or
another? It had been more just, and also more noble, to have made of
these gifts of God a subject of exemplary regularity and virtue.

They who retire themselves from the common offices, from that infinite
number of troublesome rules that fetter a man of exact honesty in civil
life, are in my opinion very discreet, what peculiar sharpness of
constraint soever they impose upon themselves in so doing. 'Tis in some
sort a kind of dying to avoid the pain of living well. They may have
another reward; but the reward of difficulty I fancy they can never have;
nor, in uneasiness, that there can be anything more or better done than
the keeping oneself upright amid the waves of the world, truly and
exactly performing all parts of our duty. 'Tis, peradventure, more easy
to keep clear of the sex than to maintain one's self aright in all points
in the society of a wife; and a man may with less trouble adapt himself
to entire abstinence than to the due dispensation of abundance. Use,
carried on according to reason, has in it more of difficulty than
abstinence; moderation is a virtue that gives more work than suffering;
the well living of Scipio has a thousand fashions, that of Diogenes but
one; this as much excels the ordinary lives in innocence as the most
accomplished excel them in utility and force.