The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XV

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XV. Of the punishment of cowardice.

Chapter XV. Of the punishment of cowardice.[edit]

I once heard of a prince, and a great captain, having a narration given
him as he sat at table of the proceeding against Monsieur de Vervins, who
was sentenced to death for having surrendered Boulogne to the English,
--[To Henry VIII. in 1544]--openly maintaining that a soldier could not
justly be put to death for want of courage. And, in truth, 'tis reason
that a man should make a great difference betwixt faults that merely
proceed from infirmity, and those that are visibly the effects of
treachery and malice: for, in the last, we act against the rules of
reason that nature has imprinted in us; whereas, in the former, it seems
as if we might produce the same nature, who left us in such a state of
imperfection and weakness of courage, for our justification. Insomuch
that many have thought we are not fairly questionable for anything but
what we commit against our conscience; and it is partly upon this rule
that those ground their opinion who disapprove of capital or sanguinary
punishments inflicted upon heretics and misbelievers; and theirs also who
advocate or a judge is not accountable for having from mere ignorance
failed in his administration.

But as to cowardice, it is certain that the most usual way of chastising
it is by ignominy and and it is supposed that this practice brought into
use by the legislator Charondas; and that, before his time, the laws of
Greece punished those with death who fled from a battle; whereas he
ordained only that they be for three days exposed in the public dressed
in woman's attire, hoping yet for some service from them, having awakened
their courage by this open shame:

          "Suffundere malis homims sanguinem, quam effundere."

     ["Rather bring the blood into a man's cheek than let it out of his
     body." Tertullian in his Apologetics.]

It appears also that the Roman laws did anciently punish those with death
who had run away; for Ammianus Marcellinus says that the Emperor Julian
commanded ten of his soldiers, who had turned their backs in an encounter
against the Parthians, to be first degraded, and afterward put to death,
according, says he, to the ancient laws,--[Ammianus Marcellinus, xxiv.
4; xxv. i.]--and yet elsewhere for the like offence he only condemned
others to remain amongst the prisoners under the baggage ensign. The
severe punishment the people of Rome inflicted upon those who fled from
the battle of Cannae, and those who ran away with Aeneius Fulvius at his
defeat, did not extend to death. And yet, methinks, 'tis to be feared,
lest disgrace should make such delinquents desperate, and not only faint
friends, but enemies.

Of late memory,--[In 1523]--the Seigneur de Frauget, lieutenant to the
Mareschal de Chatillon's company, having by the Mareschal de Chabannes
been put in government of Fuentarabia in the place of Monsieur de Lude,
and having surrendered it to the Spaniard, he was for that condemned to
be degraded from all nobility, and both himself and his posterity
declared ignoble, taxable, and for ever incapable of bearing arms, which
severe sentence was afterwards accordingly executed at Lyons.--[In 1536]
--And, since that, all the gentlemen who were in Guise when the Count of
Nassau entered into it, underwent the same punishment, as several others
have done since for the like offence. Notwithstanding, in case of such a
manifest ignorance or cowardice as exceeds all ordinary example, 'tis but
reason to take it for a sufficient proof of treachery and malice, and for
such to be punished.