The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XLVII

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Chapter XLVII. Of the uncertainty of our judgment.[edit]


Well says this verse:

     ["There is everywhere much liberty of speech."—Iliad, xx. 249.]

For example:

     ["Hannibal conquered, but knew not how to make the best use of his
     victorious venture."—Petrarch, Son., 83.]

Such as would improve this argument, and condemn the oversight of our
leaders in not pushing home the victory at Moncontour, or accuse the King
of Spain of not knowing how to make the best use of the advantage he had
against us at St. Quentin, may conclude these oversights to proceed from
a soul already drunk with success, or from a spirit which, being full and
overgorged with this beginning of good fortune, had lost the appetite of
adding to it, already having enough to do to digest what it had taken in:
he has his arms full, and can embrace no more: unworthy of the benefit
fortune has conferred upon him and the advantage she had put into his
hands: for what utility does he reap from it, if, notwithstanding, he
give his enemy respite to rally and make head against him? What hope is
there that he will dare at another time to attack an enemy reunited and
recomposed, and armed anew with anger and revenge, who did not dare to
pursue them when routed and unmanned by fear?

          "Dum fortuna calet, dum conficit omnia terror."

     ["Whilst fortune is fresh, and terror finishes all."
     —Lucan, vii. 734.]

But withal, what better opportunity can he expect than that he has lost?
'Tis not here, as in fencing, where the most hits gain the prize; for so
long as the enemy is on foot, the game is new to begin, and that is not
to be called a victory that puts not an end to the war. In the encounter
where Caesar had the worst, near the city of Oricum, he reproached
Pompey's soldiers that he had been lost had their general known how to
overcome; and afterwards clawed him in a very different fashion when it
came to his turn.

But why may not a man also argue, on the contrary, that it is the effect
of a precipitous and insatiate spirit not to know how to bound and
restrain its coveting; that it is to abuse the favours of God to exceed
the measure He has prescribed them: and that again to throw a man's self
into danger after a victory obtained is again to expose himself to the
mercy of fortune: that it is one of the greatest discretions in the rule
of war not to drive an enemy to despair? Sylla and Marius in the social
war, having defeated the Marsians, seeing yet a body of reserve that,
prompted by despair, was coming on like enraged brutes to dash in upon
them, thought it not convenient to stand their charge. Had not Monsieur
de Foix's ardour transported him so furiously to pursue the remains of
the victory of Ravenna, he had not obscured it by his own death. And yet
the recent memory of his example served to preserve Monsieur d'Anguien
from the same misfortune at the battle of Serisoles. 'Tis dangerous to
attack a man you have deprived of all means to escape but by his arms,
for necessity teaches violent resolutions:

          "Gravissimi sunt morsus irritatae necessitatis."

     ["Irritated necessity bites deepest."—Portius Latro., Declam.]

          "Vincitur haud gratis, jugulo qui provocat hostem."

     ["He is not readily beaten who provokes the enemy by shewing
     his throat."—or: "He who presents himself to his foe, sells his
     life dear."—Lucan, iv. 275.]

This was it that made Pharax withhold the King of Lacedaemon, who had won
a battle against the Mantineans, from going to charge a thousand Argians,
who had escaped in an entire body from the defeat, but rather let them
steal off at liberty that he might not encounter valour whetted and
enraged by mischance. Clodomir, king of Aquitaine, after his victory
pursuing Gondemar, king of Burgundy, beaten and making off as fast as he
could for safety, compelled him to face about and make head, wherein his
obstinacy deprived him of the fruit of his conquest, for he there lost
his life.

In like manner, if a man were to choose whether he would have his
soldiers richly and sumptuously accoutred or armed only for the necessity
of the matter in hand, this argument would step in to favour the first,
of which opinion was Sertorius, Philopcemen, Brutus, Caesar, and others,
that it is to a soldier an enflaming of courage and a spur himself in
brave attire; and withal a motive to be more obstinate in fight, having
his arms, which are in a manner his estate and whole inheritance to
defend; which is the reason, says Xenophon, why those of Asia carried
their wives and concubines, with their choicest jewels and greatest
wealth, along with them to the wars. But then these arguments would be
as ready to stand up for the other side; that a general ought rather to
lessen in his men their solicitude of preserving themselves than to
increase it; that by such means they will be in a double fear of
hazarding their persons, as it will be a double temptation to the enemy
to fight with greater resolution where so great booty and so rich spoils
are to be obtained; and this very thing has been observed in former
times, notably to encourage the Romans against the Samnites. Antiochus,
shewing Hannibal the army he had raised, wonderfully splendid and rich in
all sorts of equipage, asked him if the Romans would be satisfied with
that army? "Satisfied," replied the other, "yes, doubtless, were their
avarice never so great." Lycurgus not only forbad his soldiers all
manner of bravery in their equipage, but, moreover, to strip their
conquered enemies, because he would, as he said, that poverty and
frugality should shine with the rest of the battle.

At sieges and elsewhere, where occasion draws us near to the enemy, we
willingly suffer our men to brave, rate, and affront him with all sorts
of injurious language; and not without some colour of reason: for it is
of no little consequence to take from them all hopes of mercy and
composition, by representing to them that there is no fair quarter to be
expected from an enemy they have incensed to that degree, nor other
remedy remaining but in victory. And yet Vitellius found himself
deceived in this way of proceeding; for having to do with Otho, weaker in
the valour of his soldiers, long unaccustomed to war and effeminated with
the delights of the city, he so nettled them at last with injurious
language, reproaching them with cowardice and regret for the mistresses
and entertainments they had left behind at Rome, that by this means he
inspired them with such resolution as no exhortation had had the power to
have done, and himself made them fall upon him, with whom their own
captains before could by no means prevail. And, indeed, when they are
injuries that touch to the quick, it may very well fall out that he who
went but unwillingly to work in the behalf of his prince will fall to't
with another sort of mettle when the quarrel is his own.

Considering of how great importance is the preservation of the general of
an army, and that the universal aim of an enemy is levelled directly at
the head, upon which all the others depend, the course seems to admit of
no dispute, which we know has been taken by so many great captains, of
changing their habit and disguising their persons upon the point of going
to engage. Nevertheless, the inconvenience a man by so doing runs into
is not less than that he thinks to avoid; for the captain, by this means
being concealed from the knowledge of his own men, the courage they
should derive from his presence and example happens by degrees to cool
and to decay; and not seeing the wonted marks and ensigns of their
leader, they presently conclude him either dead, or that, despairing of
the business, he is gone to shift for himself. And experience shows us
that both these ways have been successful and otherwise. What befell
Pyrrhus in the battle he fought against the Consul Levinus in Italy will
serve us to both purposes; for though by shrouding his person under the
armour of Megacles and making him wear his own, he undoubtedly preserved
his own life, yet, by that very means, he was withal very near running
into the other mischief of losing the battle. Alexander, Caesar, and
Lucullus loved to make themselves known in a battle by rich accoutrements
and armour of a particular lustre and colour: Agis, Agesilaus, and that
great Gilippus, on the contrary, used to fight obscurely armed, and
without any imperial attendance or distinction.

Amongst other oversights Pompey is charged withal at the battle of
Pharsalia, he is condemned for making his army stand still to receive the
enemy's charge; by "reason that" (I shall here steal Plutarch's own
words, which are better than mine) "he by so doing deprived himself of
the violent impression the motion of running adds to the first shock of
arms, and hindered that clashing of the combatants against one another
which is wont to give them greater impetuosity and fury; especially when
they come to rush in with their utmost vigour, their courages increasing
by the shouts and the career; 'tis to render the soldiers' ardour, as a
man may say, more reserved and cold." This is what he says. But if
Caesar had come by the worse, why might it not as well have been urged by
another, that, on the contrary, the strongest and most steady posture of
fighting is that wherein a man stands planted firm without motion; and
that they who are steady upon the march, closing up, and reserving their
force within themselves for the push of the business, have a great
advantage against those who are disordered, and who have already spent
half their breath in running on precipitately to the charge? Besides
that an army is a body made up of so many individual members, it is
impossible for it to move in this fury with so exact a motion as not to
break the order of battle, and that the best of them are not engaged
before their fellows can come on to help them. In that unnatural battle
betwixt the two Persian brothers, the Lacedaemonian Clearchus, who
commanded the Greeks of Cyrus' party, led them on softly and without
precipitation to the charge; but, coming within fifty paces, hurried them
on full speed, hoping in so short a career both to keep their order and
to husband their breath, and at the same time to give the advantage of
impetuosity and impression both to their persons and their missile arms.
Others have regulated this question as to their armies thus if your enemy
come full drive upon you, stand firm to receive him; if he stand to
receive you, run full drive upon him.

In the expedition of the Emperor Charles V. into Provence, King Francis
was put to choose either to go meet him in Italy or to await him in his
own dominions; wherein, though he very well considered of how great
advantage it was to preserve his own territory entire and clear from the
troubles of war, to the end that, being unexhausted of its stores, it
might continually supply men and money at need; that the necessity of war
requires at every turn to spoil and lay waste the country before us,
which cannot very well be done upon one's own; to which may be added,
that the country people do not so easily digest such a havoc by those of
their own party as from an enemy, so that seditions and commotions might
by such means be kindled amongst us; that the licence of pillage and
plunder (which are not to be tolerated at home) is a great ease and
refreshment against the fatigues and sufferings of war; and that he who
has no other prospect of gain than his bare pay will hardly be kept from
running home, being but two steps from his wife and his own house; that
he who lays the cloth is ever at the charge of the feast; that there is
more alacrity in assaulting than defending; and that the shock of a
battle's loss in our own bowels is so violent as to endanger the
disjointing of the whole body, there being no passion so contagious as
that of fear, that is so easily believed, or that so suddenly diffuses
itself; and that the cities that should hear the rattle of this tempest
at their gates, that should take in their captains and soldiers yet
trembling and out of breath, would be in danger in this heat and hurry to
precipitate themselves upon some untoward resolution: notwithstanding all
this, so it was that he chose to recall the forces he had beyond the
mountains and to suffer the enemy to come to him. For he might, on the
other hand, imagine that, being at home and amongst his friends, he could
not fail of plenty of all manner of conveniences; the rivers and passes
he had at his devotion would bring him in both provisions and money in
all security, and without the trouble of convoy; that he should find his
subjects by so much the more affectionate to him, by how much their
danger was more near and pressing; that having so many cities and
barriers to secure him, it would be in his power to give the law of
battle at his own opportunity and advantage; and that, if it pleased him
to delay the time, under cover and at his ease he might see his enemy
founder and defeat himself with the difficulties he was certain to
encounter, being engaged in a hostile country, where before, behind, and
on every side war would be made upon him; no means to refresh himself or
to enlarge his quarters, should diseases infest them, or to lodge his
wounded men in safety; no money, no victuals, but at the point of the
lance; no leisure to repose and take breath; no knowledge of the ways or
country to secure him from ambushes and surprises; and in case of losing
a battle, no possible means of saving the remains. Neither is there want
of example in both these cases.

Scipio thought it much better to go and attack his enemy's territories in
Africa than to stay at home to defend his own and to fight him in Italy,
and it succeeded well with him. But, on the contrary, Hannibal in the
same war ruined himself by abandoning the conquest of a foreign country
to go and defend his own. The Athenians having left the enemy in their
own dominions to go over into Sicily, were not favoured by fortune in
their design; but Agathocles, king of Syracuse, found her favourable to
him when he went over into Africa and left the war at home.

By which examples we are wont to conclude, and with some reason, that
events, especially in war, for the most part depend upon fortune, who
will not be governed by nor submit unto human reasons and prudence,
according to the poet:

         "Et male consultis pretium est: prudentia fallit
          Nec fortune probat causas, sequiturque merentes,
          Sed vaga per cunctos nullo discrimine fertur.
          Scilicet est aliud, quod nos cogatque regatque
          Majus, et in proprias ducat mortalia leges."

     ["And there is value in ill counsel: prudence deceives: nor does
     fortune inquire into causes, nor aid the most deserving, but turns
     hither and thither without discrimination. Indeed there is a
     greater power which directs and rules us, and brings mortal affairs
     under its own laws."—Manilius, iv. 95.]

But, to take the thing right, it should seem that our counsels and
deliberations depend as much upon fortune as anything else we do, and
that she engages also our arguments in her uncertainty and confusion.
"We argue rashly and adventurously," says Timaeus in Plato, "by reason
that, as well as ourselves, our discourses have great participation in
the temerity of chance."