The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XII

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Chapter XII. Of constancy.[edit]

The law of resolution and constancy does not imply that we ought not, as
much as in us lies, to decline and secure ourselves from the mischiefs
and inconveniences that threaten us; nor, consequently, that we shall not
fear lest they should surprise us: on the contrary, all decent and honest
ways and means of securing ourselves from harms, are not only permitted,
but, moreover, commendable, and the business of constancy chiefly is,
bravely to stand to, and stoutly to suffer those inconveniences which are
not possibly to be avoided. So that there is no supple motion of body,
nor any movement in the handling of arms, how irregular or ungraceful
soever, that we need condemn, if they serve to protect us from the blow
that is made against us.

Several very warlike nations have made use of a retreating and flying way
of fight as a thing of singular advantage, and, by so doing, have made
their backs more dangerous to their enemies than their faces. Of which
kind of fighting the Turks still retain something in their practice of
arms; and Socrates, in Plato, laughs at Laches, who had defined fortitude
to be a standing firm in the ranks against the enemy. "What!" says he,
"would it, then, be a reputed cowardice to overcome them by giving
ground?" urging, at the same time, the authority of Homer, who commends
in AEneas the science of flight. And whereas Laches, considering better
of it, admits the practice as to the Scythians, and, in general, all
cavalry whatever, he again attacks him with the example of the
Lacedaemonian foot--a nation of all other the most obstinate in
maintaining their ground--who, in the battle of Plataea, not being able
to break into the Persian phalanx, bethought themselves to disperse and
retire, that by the enemy supposing they fled, they might break and
disunite that vast body of men in the pursuit, and by that stratagem
obtained the victory.

As for the Scythians, 'tis said of them, that when Darius went his
expedition to subdue them, he sent, by a herald, highly to reproach their
king, that he always retired before him and declined a battle; to which
Idanthyrses,--[Herod., iv. 127.]--for that was his name, returned
answer, that it was not for fear of him, or of any man living, that he
did so, but that it was the way of marching in practice with his nation,
who had neither tilled fields, cities, nor houses to defend, or to fear
the enemy should make any advantage of but that if he had such a stomach
to fight, let him but come to view their ancient places of sepulture, and
there he should have his fill.

Nevertheless, as to cannon-shot, when a body of men are drawn up in the
face of a train of artillery, as the occasion of war often requires, it
is unhandsome to quit their post to avoid the danger, forasmuch as by
reason of its violence and swiftness we account it inevitable; and many a
one, by ducking, stepping aside, and such other motions of fear, has
been, at all events, sufficiently laughed at by his companions. And yet,
in the expedition that the Emperor Charles V. made against us into
Provence, the Marquis de Guast going to reconnoitre the city of Arles,
and advancing out of the cover of a windmill, under favour of which he
had made his approach, was perceived by the Seigneurs de Bonneval and the
Seneschal of Agenois, who were walking upon the 'theatre aux ayenes'; who
having shown him to the Sieur de Villiers, commissary of the artillery,
he pointed a culverin so admirably well, and levelled it so exactly right
against him, that had not the Marquis, seeing fire given to it, slipped
aside, it was certainly concluded the shot had taken him full in the
body. And, in like manner, some years before, Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke
of Urbino, and father to the queen-mother--[Catherine de' Medici, mother
of Henry III.]--laying siege to Mondolfo, a place in the territories of
the Vicariat in Italy, seeing the cannoneer give fire to a piece that
pointed directly against him, it was well for him that he ducked, for
otherwise the shot, that only razed the top of his head, had doubtless
hit him full in the breast. To say truth, I do not think that these
evasions are performed upon the account of judgment; for how can any man
living judge of high or low aim on so sudden an occasion? And it is much
more easy to believe that fortune favoured their apprehension, and that
it might be as well at another time to make them face the danger, as to
seek to avoid it. For my own part, I confess I cannot forbear starting
when the rattle of a harquebuse thunders in my ears on a sudden, and in a
place where I am not to expect it, which I have also observed in others,
braver fellows than I.

Neither do the Stoics pretend that the soul of their philosopher need be
proof against the first visions and fantasies that surprise him; but, as
to a natural subjection, consent that he should tremble at the terrible
noise of thunder, or the sudden clatter of some falling ruin, and be
affrighted even to paleness and convulsion; and so in other passions,
provided his judgment remain sound and entire, and that the seat of his
reason suffer no concussion nor alteration, and that he yield no consent
to his fright and discomposure. To him who is not a philosopher, a
fright is the same thing in the first part of it, but quite another thing
in the second; for the impression of passions does not remain
superficially in him, but penetrates farther, even to the very seat of
reason, infecting and corrupting it, so that he judges according to his
fear, and conforms his behaviour to it. In this verse you may see the
true state of the wise Stoic learnedly and plainly expressed:--

          "Mens immota manet; lachrymae volvuntur inanes."

          ["Though tears flow, the mind remains unmoved."
          --Virgil, AEneid, iv. 449]

The Peripatetic sage does not exempt himself totally from perturbations
of mind, but he moderates them.