The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XVI

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XVI. A proceeding of some ambassadors.

Chapter XVI. A proceeding of some ambassadors.[edit]

I observe in my travels this custom, ever to learn something from the
information of those with whom I confer (which is the best school of all
others), and to put my company upon those subjects they are the best able
to speak of:--

               "Basti al nocchiero ragionar de' venti,
               Al bifolco dei tori; et le sue piaghe
               Conti'l guerrier; conti'l pastor gli armenti."

     ["Let the sailor content himself with talking of the winds; the
     cowherd of his oxen; the soldier of his wounds; the shepherd of his
     flocks."--An Italian translation of Propertius, ii. i, 43]

For it often falls out that, on the contrary, every one will rather
choose to be prating of another man's province than his own, thinking it
so much new reputation acquired; witness the jeer Archidamus put upon
Pertander, "that he had quitted the glory of being an excellent physician
to gain the repute of a very bad poet.--[Plutarch, Apoth. of the
Lacedaemonians, 'in voce' Archidamus.]--And do but observe how large and
ample Caesar is to make us understand his inventions of building bridges
and contriving engines of war,--[De Bello Gall., iv. 17.]--and how
succinct and reserved in comparison, where he speaks of the offices of
his profession, his own valour, and military conduct. His exploits
sufficiently prove him a great captain, and that he knew well enough; but
he would be thought an excellent engineer to boot; a quality something
different, and not necessary to be expected in him. The elder Dionysius
was a very great captain, as it befitted his fortune he should be; but he
took very great pains to get a particular reputation by poetry, and yet
he was never cut out for a poet. A man of the legal profession being not
long since brought to see a study furnished with all sorts of books, both
of his own and all other faculties, took no occasion at all to entertain
himself with any of them, but fell very rudely and magisterially to
descant upon a barricade placed on the winding stair before the study
door, a thing that a hundred captains and common soldiers see every day
without taking any notice or offence.

          "Optat ephippia bos piger, optat arare caballus."

     ["The lazy ox desires a saddle and bridle; the horse wants to
     plough."--Hor., Ep., i. 14,43.]

By this course a man shall never improve himself, nor arrive at any
perfection in anything. He must, therefore, make it his business always
to put the architect, the painter, the statuary, every mechanic artisan,
upon discourse of their own capacities.

And, to this purpose, in reading histories, which is everybody's subject,
I use to consider what kind of men are the authors: if they be persons
that profess nothing but mere letters, I, in and from them, principally
observe and learn style and language; if physicians, I the rather incline
to credit what they report of the temperature of the air, of the health
and complexions of princes, of wounds and diseases; if lawyers, we are
from them to take notice of the controversies of rights and wrongs, the
establishment of laws and civil government, and the like; if divines, the
affairs of the Church, ecclesiastical censures, marriages, and
dispensations; if courtiers, manners and ceremonies; if soldiers, the
things that properly belong to their trade, and, principally, the
accounts of the actions and enterprises wherein they were personally
engaged; if ambassadors, we are to observe negotiations, intelligences,
and practices, and the manner how they are to be carried on.

And this is the reason why (which perhaps I should have lightly passed
over in another) I dwelt upon and maturely considered one passage in the
history written by Monsieur de Langey, a man of very great judgment in
things of that nature: after having given a narrative of the fine oration
Charles V. had made in the Consistory at Rome, and in the presence of the
Bishop of Macon and Monsieur du Velly, our ambassadors there, wherein he
had mixed several injurious expressions to the dishonour of our nation;
and amongst the rest, "that if his captains and soldiers were not men of
another kind of fidelity, resolution, and sufficiency in the knowledge of
arms than those of the King, he would immediately go with a rope about
his neck and sue to him for mercy" (and it should seem the Emperor had
really this, or a very little better opinion of our military men, for he
afterwards, twice or thrice in his life, said the very same thing); as
also, that he challenged the King to fight him in his shirt with rapier
and poignard in a boat. The said Sieur de Langey, pursuing his history,
adds that the forenamed ambassadors, sending a despatch to the King of
these things, concealed the greatest part, and particularly the last two
passages. At which I could not but wonder that it should be in the power
of an ambassador to dispense with anything which he ought to signify to
his master, especially of so great importance as this, coming from the
mouth of such a person, and spoken in so great an assembly; and I should
rather conceive it had been the servant's duty faithfully to have
represented to him the whole thing as it passed, to the end that the
liberty of selecting, disposing, judging, and concluding might have
remained in him: for either to conceal or to disguise the truth for fear
he should take it otherwise than he ought to do, and lest it should
prompt him to some extravagant resolution, and, in the meantime, to leave
him ignorant of his affairs, should seem, methinks, rather to belong to
him who is to give the law than to him who is only to receive it; to him
who is in supreme command, and not to him who ought to look upon himself
as inferior, not only in authority, but also in prudence and good
counsel. I, for my part, would not be so served in my little concerns.

We so willingly slip the collar of command upon any pretence whatever,
and are so ready to usurp upon dominion, every one does so naturally
aspire to liberty and power, that no utility whatever derived from the
wit or valour of those he employs ought to be so dear to a superior as a
downright and sincere obedience. To obey more upon the account of
understanding than of subjection, is to corrupt the office of command
--[Taken from Aulus Gellius, i. 13.]--; insomuch that P. Crassus, the same
whom the Romans reputed five times happy, at the time when he was consul
in Asia, having sent to a Greek engineer to cause the greater of two
masts of ships that he had taken notice of at Athens to be brought to
him, to be employed about some engine of battery he had a design to make;
the other, presuming upon his own science and sufficiency in those
affairs, thought fit to do otherwise than directed, and to bring the
less, which, according to the rules of art, was really more proper for
the use to which it was designed; but Crassus, though he gave ear to his
reasons with great patience, would not, however, take them, how sound or
convincing soever, for current pay, but caused him to be well whipped for
his pains, valuing the interest of discipline much more than that of the
work in hand.

Notwithstanding, we may on the other side consider that so precise and
implicit an obedience as this is only due to positive and limited
commands. The employment of ambassadors is never so confined, many
things in their management of affairs being wholly referred to the
absolute sovereignty of their own conduct; they do not simply execute,
but also, to their own discretion and wisdom, form and model their
master's pleasure. I have, in my time, known men of command checked for
having rather obeyed the express words of the king's letters, than the
necessity of the affairs they had in hand. Men of understanding do yet,
to this day, condemn the custom of the kings of Persia to give their
lieutenants and agents so little rein, that, upon the least arising
difficulties, they must fain have recourse to their further commands;
this delay, in so vast an extent of dominion, having often very much
prejudiced their affairs; and Crassus, writing to a man whose profession
it was best to understand those things, and pre-acquainting him to what
use this mast was designed, did he not seem to consult his advice, and in
a manner invite him to interpose his better judgment?