Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 7

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4121544The Essays of Montaigne, Volume 1George Burnham IvesMichel de Montaigne



The central passage of this Essay, that beginning “We can not be held responsible beyond our strength and our resources,” expresses the thought that it is not the actual result of our actions but what we desire should be the result — our intentions — that is to be judged by the laws of duty. It is a comment on the title.

Stories precede and follow it; the subject of the first is the effect of our death, or other involuntary circumstances, on our promises and pledges. This tragedy was a recent event (1568) when Montaigne was writing, and it made a great sensation. But the special point on which Montaigne dwells — the entreaty of Count Egmont — is mentioned in no account of the event. M. Villey says: “Je crois que Montaigne tient ce fait de la tradition orale. ... Montaigne est ici, probablement, la première source à laquelle nous puissions nous réfèrer.”

Guillaume Bouchet in his “Serees”’ (1597), says: “La Montagne recite du Comte d’Aiguemont” the above fact.

The second story notes the insufficiency of the justice we may do, and the iniquity of the injustice we may do after our death.

Montaigne, passing judgement on these examples, says: “It would seem” that death could not free Henry VII from his pledge; and that death was not necessary to release Count Egmont from his obligation.

These pages simply mirror the moral reflections that were passing through Montaigne’s mind in the early days of his authorship, before his individual method and meaning had become defined to himself.

The last sentence is a personal one, added, as before, in 1595: “I shall be on my guard, if I can, that my death may say nothing which my life has not previously said.” The Essay originally ended with “the mason in Herodotus,” and was a mere leçon.

DEATH, they say, releases us from all our engagements; I know some who have regarded this differently. Henry the Seventh, King of England, made an agreement with Dom Philip, son of the Emperor Maximilian, — or, to give him a position of higher honour, father of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, — that the said Philip should deliver into his hands his enemy, the Duke of Suffolk, of the White Rose party, who had fled from England and retired to the Low Countries; while, on his side, he promised to make no attempt on the life of the said duke; but when dying, by his testament he expressly ordered his son to put the duke to death as soon as he himself should be dead.[1] Lately,[2] in the tragedy which the Duke of Alva gave us to see at Brussels, of Count Horn and Count Egmont,[3] there were many noteworthy incidents, among others, this: that the said Count Egmont, on the faith of whose guaranty Count Horn had surrendered himself to the Duke of Alva, demanded with great earnestness that he should be put to death first, to the end that his death might release him from his pledge to the said Count Horn. It would seem that death did not discharge the former[4] from his plighted faith, and that the latter[5] was released from his, even without dying. We cannot be held responsible beyond our strength and our resources; for this reason, that results and consequences are in no wise within our power, and that there is, in truth, nothing within our power but our will; upon that are necessarily based and established all the rules of the duty of man. Thus Count Egmont, holding his soul and his will pledged to his promise, although the power to put it into execution was not in his hands, was unquestionably absolved from his duty, even had he survived Count Horn. But the King of England, having by intention broken his word, cannot be excused because he postponed the execution of his faithlessness until after his death; any more than the mason in Herodotus,[6] who, having loyally kept while he lived the secret of the treasures of his master the King of Egypt, disclosed it to his children when dying.

(c) I have known many persons of my own time, being convicted by their conscience of retaining what belonged to others, to attempt to set it right by their testament, and after their death. They do nothing worth while, whether in taking time for so urgent a matter, or in thinking to atone for a wrong with so little effort and sacrifice on their part. They owe more of what belongs to them. And the more irksomely and inconveniently they pay, the more just and meritorious is their atonement. Repentance asks to carry a burden. They do even more who reserve the revelation of some feeling of hate against their neighbour for their last expression, having concealed it during their life; and they prove that they have but little regard for their own honour, — thus rousing the anger of the offended man against their memory, — and less for their conscience, being unable, even in the presence of death itself, to put an end to their ill-will, but prolonging its life beyond their own. Iniquitous judges, who put off judging until they no longer have knowledge of the cause! I shall be on my guard, if I can, that my death may say nothing which my life has not previously said.

  1. In 1506. See du Bellay, I, 7.
  2. In 1568.
  3. In 1580: ausquels il fit trancher la teste.
  4. Henry VII.
  5. Count Egmont.
  6. Book II, 121.