The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XLIII

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Chapter XLIII. Of sumptuary laws.[edit]

The way by which our laws attempt to regulate idle and vain expenses in
meat and clothes, seems to be quite contrary to the end designed. The
true way would be to beget in men a contempt of silks and gold, as vain,
frivolous, and useless; whereas we augment to them the honours, and
enhance the value of such things, which, sure, is a very improper way to
create a disgust. For to enact that none but princes shall eat turbot,
shall wear velvet or gold lace, and interdict these things to the people,
what is it but to bring them into a greater esteem, and to set every one
more agog to eat and wear them? Let kings leave off these ensigns of
grandeur; they have others enough besides; those excesses are more
excusable in any other than a prince. We may learn by the example of
several nations better ways of exterior distinction of quality (which,
truly, I conceive to be very requisite in a state) enough, without
fostering to this purpose such corruption and manifest inconvenience.
'Tis strange how suddenly and with how much ease custom in these
indifferent things establishes itself and becomes authority. We had
scarce worn cloth a year, in compliance with the court, for the mourning
of Henry II., but that silks were already grown into such contempt with
every one, that a man so clad was presently concluded a citizen: silks
were divided betwixt the physicians and surgeons, and though all other
people almost went in the same habit, there was, notwithstanding, in one
thing or other, sufficient distinction of the several conditions of men.
How suddenly do greasy chamois and linen doublets become the fashion in
our armies, whilst all neatness and richness of habit fall into contempt?
Let kings but lead the dance and begin to leave off this expense, and in
a month the business will be done throughout the kingdom, without edict
or ordinance; we shall all follow. It should be rather proclaimed, on
the contrary, that no one should wear scarlet or goldsmiths' work but
courtesans and tumblers.

Zeleucus by the like invention reclaimed the corrupted manners of the
Locrians. His laws were, that no free woman should be allowed any more
than one maid to follow her, unless she was drunk: nor was to stir out of
the city by night, wear jewels of gold about her, or go in an embroidered
robe, unless she was a professed and public prostitute; that, bravos
excepted, no man was to wear a gold ring, nor be seen in one of those
effeminate robes woven in the city of Miletus. By which infamous
exceptions he discreetly diverted his citizens from superfluities and
pernicious pleasures, and it was a project of great utility to attract
then by honour and ambition to their duty and obedience.

Our kings can do what they please in such external reformations; their
own inclination stands in this case for a law:

          "Quicquid principes faciunt, praecipere videntur."

     ["What princes themselves do, they seem to prescribe."
     —Quintil., Declam., 3.]

Whatever is done at court passes for a rule through the rest of France.
Let the courtiers fall out with these abominable breeches, that discover
so much of those parts should be concealed; these great bellied doublets,
that make us look like I know not what, and are so unfit to admit of
arms; these long effeminate locks of hair; this foolish custom of kissing
what we present to our equals, and our hands in saluting them, a ceremony
in former times only due to princes. Let them not permit that a
gentleman shall appear in place of respect without his sword, unbuttoned
and untrussed, as though he came from the house of office; and that,
contrary to the custom of our forefathers and the particular privilege of
the nobles of this kingdom, we stand a long time bare to them in what
place soever, and the same to a hundred others, so many tiercelets and
quartelets of kings we have got nowadays and other like vicious
innovations: they will see them all presently vanish and cried down.
These are, 'tis true, but superficial errors; but they are of ill augury,
and enough to inform us that the whole fabric is crazy and tottering,
when we see the roughcast of our walls to cleave and split.

Plato in his Laws esteems nothing of more pestiferous consequence to his
city than to give young men the liberty of introducing any change in
their habits, gestures, dances, songs, and exercises, from one form to
another; shifting from this to that, hunting after novelties, and
applauding the inventors; by which means manners are corrupted and the
old institutions come to be nauseated and despised. In all things,
saving only in those that are evil, a change is to be feared; even the
change of seasons, winds, viands, and humours. And no laws are in their
true credit, but such to which God has given so long a continuance that
no one knows their beginning, or that there ever was any other.