The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXII

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XXII. Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received.
209733The Essays of Montaigne — Chapter XXII. Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received.Michel de Montaigne

Chapter XXII. Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received.[edit]

He seems to me to have had a right and true apprehension of the power of
custom, who first invented the story of a country-woman who, having
accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and
daily continuing to do so as it grew up, obtained this by custom, that,
when grown to be a great ox, she was still able to bear it. For, in
truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by
little and little, slily and unperceived, slips in the foot of her
authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the
benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and
tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or the
power so much as to lift up our eyes. We see her, at every turn, forcing
and violating the rules of nature:

          "Usus efficacissimus rerum omnium magister."

          ["Custom is the best master of all things."
          --Pliny, Nat. Hist.,xxvi. 2.]

I refer to her Plato's cave in his Republic, and the physicians, who so
often submit the reasons of their art to her authority; as the story of
that king, who by custom brought his stomach to that pass, as to live by
poison, and the maid that Albertus reports to have lived upon spiders.
In that new world of the Indies, there were found great nations, and in
very differing climates, who were of the same diet, made provision of
them, and fed them for their tables; as also, they did grasshoppers,
mice, lizards, and bats; and in a time of scarcity of such delicacies, a
toad was sold for six crowns, all which they cook, and dish up with
several sauces. There were also others found, to whom our diet, and the
flesh we eat, were venomous and mortal:

          "Consuetudinis magna vis est: pernoctant venatores in nive:
          in montibus uri se patiuntur: pugiles, caestibus contusi,
          ne ingemiscunt quidem."

     ["The power of custom is very great: huntsmen will lie out all
     night in the snow, or suffer themselves to be burned up by the sun
     on the mountains; boxers, hurt by the caestus, never utter a
     groan."--Cicero, Tusc., ii. 17]

These strange examples will not appear so strange if we consider what we
have ordinary experience of, how much custom stupefies our senses. We
need not go to what is reported of the people about the cataracts of the
Nile; and what philosophers believe of the music of the spheres, that the
bodies of those circles being solid and smooth, and coming to touch and
rub upon one another, cannot fail of creating a marvellous harmony, the
changes and cadences of which cause the revolutions and dances of the
stars; but that the hearing sense of all creatures here below, being
universally, like that of the Egyptians, deafened, and stupefied with the
continual noise, cannot, how great soever, perceive it--[This passage is
taken from Cicero, "Dream of Scipio"; see his De Republica, vi. II. The
Egyptians were said to be stunned by the noise of the Cataracts.]--
Smiths, millers, pewterers, forgemen, and armourers could never be able
to live in the perpetual noise of their own trades, did it strike their
ears with the same violence that it does ours.

My perfumed doublet gratifies my own scent at first; but after I have
worn it three days together, 'tis only pleasing to the bystanders. This
is yet more strange, that custom, notwithstanding long intermissions and
intervals, should yet have the power to unite and establish the effect of
its impressions upon our senses, as is manifest in such as live near unto
steeples and the frequent noise of the bells. I myself lie at home in a
tower, where every morning and evening a very great bell rings out the
Ave Maria: the noise shakes my very tower, and at first seemed
insupportable to me; but I am so used to it, that I hear it without any
manner of offence, and often without awaking at it.

Plato--[Diogenes Laertius, iii. 38. But he whom Plato censured was not
a boy playing at nuts, but a man throwing dice.]--reprehending a boy for
playing at nuts, "Thou reprovest me," says the boy, "for a very little
thing." "Custom," replied Plato, "is no little thing." I find that our
greatest vices derive their first propensity from our most tender
infancy, and that our principal education depends upon the nurse.
Mothers are mightily pleased to see a child writhe off the neck of a
chicken, or to please itself with hurting a dog or a cat; and such wise
fathers there are in the world, who look upon it as a notable mark of a
martial spirit, when they hear a son miscall, or see him domineer over a
poor peasant, or a lackey, that dares not reply, nor turn again; and a
great sign of wit, when they see him cheat and overreach his playfellow
by some malicious treachery and deceit. Yet these are the true seeds and
roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason; they bud and put out there, and
afterwards shoot up vigorously, and grow to prodigious bulk, cultivated
by custom. And it is a very dangerous mistake to excuse these vile
inclinations upon the tenderness of their age, and the triviality of the
subject: first, it is nature that speaks, whose declaration is then more
sincere, and inward thoughts more undisguised, as it is more weak and
young; secondly, the deformity of cozenage does not consist nor depend
upon the difference betwixt crowns and pins; but I rather hold it more
just to conclude thus: why should he not cozen in crowns since he does it
in pins, than as they do, who say they only play for pins, they would not
do it if it were for money? Children should carefully be instructed to
abhor vices for their own contexture; and the natural deformity of those
vices ought so to be represented to them, that they may not only avoid
them in their actions, but especially so to abominate them in their
hearts, that the very thought should be hateful to them, with what mask
soever they may be disguised.

I know very well, for what concerns myself, that from having been brought
up in my childhood to a plain and straightforward way of dealing, and
from having had an aversion to all manner of juggling and foul play in my
childish sports and recreations (and, indeed, it is to be noted, that the
plays of children are not performed in play, but are to be judged in them
as their most serious actions), there is no game so small wherein from my
own bosom naturally, and without study or endeavour, I have not an
extreme aversion from deceit. I shuffle and cut and make as much clatter
with the cards, and keep as strict account for farthings, as it were for
double pistoles; when winning or losing against my wife and daughter,
'tis indifferent to me, as when I play in good earnest with others, for
round sums. At all times, and in all places, my own eyes are sufficient
to look to my fingers; I am not so narrowly watched by any other, neither
is there any I have more respect to.

I saw the other day, at my own house, a little fellow, a native of
Nantes, born without arms, who has so well taught his feet to perform the
services his hands should have done him, that truly these have half
forgotten their natural office; and, indeed, the fellow calls them his
hands; with them he cuts anything, charges and discharges a pistol,
threads a needle, sews, writes, puts off his hat, combs his head, plays
at cards and dice, and all this with as much dexterity as any other could
do who had more, and more proper limbs to assist him. The money I gave
him--for he gains his living by shewing these feats--he took in his foot,
as we do in our hand. I have seen another who, being yet a boy,
flourished a two-handed sword, and, if I may so say, handled a halberd
with the mere motions of his neck and shoulders for want of hands; tossed
them into the air, and caught them again, darted a dagger, and cracked a
whip as well as any coachman in France.

But the effects of custom are much more manifest in the strange
impressions she imprints in our minds, where she meets with less
resistance. What has she not the power to impose upon our judgments and
beliefs? Is there any so fantastic opinion (omitting the gross
impostures of religions, with which we see so many great nations, and so
many understanding men, so strangely besotted; for this being beyond the
reach of human reason, any error is more excusable in such as are not
endued, through the divine bounty, with an extraordinary illumination
from above), but, of other opinions, are there any so extravagant, that
she has not planted and established for laws in those parts of the world
upon which she has been pleased to exercise her power? And therefore
that ancient exclamation was exceeding just:

       "Non pudet physicum, id est speculatorem venatoremque naturae,
        ab animis consuetudine imbutis petere testimonium veritatis?"

     ["Is it not a shame for a natural philosopher, that is, for an
     observer and hunter of nature, to seek testimony of the truth from
     minds prepossessed by custom?"--Cicero, De Natura Deor., i. 30.]

I do believe, that no so absurd or ridiculous fancy can enter into human
imagination, that does not meet with some example of public practice, and
that, consequently, our reason does not ground and back up. There are
people, amongst whom it is the fashion to turn their backs upon him they
salute, and never look upon the man they intend to honour. There is a
place, where, whenever the king spits, the greatest ladies of his court
put out their hands to receive it; and another nation, where the most
eminent persons about him stoop to take up his ordure in a linen cloth.
Let us here steal room to insert a story.

A French gentleman was always wont to blow his nose with his fingers (a
thing very much against our fashion), and he justifying himself for so
doing, and he was a man famous for pleasant repartees, he asked me, what
privilege this filthy excrement had, that we must carry about us a fine
handkerchief to receive it, and, which was more, afterwards to lap it
carefully up, and carry it all day about in our pockets, which, he said,
could not but be much more nauseous and offensive, than to see it thrown
away, as we did all other evacuations. I found that what he said was not
altogether without reason, and by being frequently in his company, that
slovenly action of his was at last grown familiar to me; which
nevertheless we make a face at, when we hear it reported of another
country. Miracles appear to be so, according to our ignorance of nature,
and not according to the essence of nature the continually being
accustomed to anything, blinds the eye of our judgment. Barbarians are
no more a wonder to us, than we are to them; nor with any more reason, as
every one would confess, if after having travelled over those remote
examples, men could settle themselves to reflect upon, and rightly to
confer them, with their own. Human reason is a tincture almost equally
infused into all our opinions and manners, of what form soever they are;
infinite in matter, infinite in diversity. But I return to my subject.

There are peoples, where, his wife and children excepted, no one speaks
to the king but through a tube. In one and the same nation, the virgins
discover those parts that modesty should persuade them to hide, and the
married women carefully cover and conceal them. To which, this custom,
in another place, has some relation, where chastity, but in marriage, is
of no esteem, for unmarried women may prostitute themselves to as many as
they please, and being got with child, may lawfully take physic, in the
sight of every one, to destroy their fruit. And, in another place, if a
tradesman marry, all of the same condition, who are invited to the
wedding, lie with the bride before him; and the greater number of them
there is, the greater is her honour, and the opinion of her ability and
strength: if an officer marry, 'tis the same, the same with a labourer,
or one of mean condition; but then it belongs to the lord of the place to
perform that office; and yet a severe loyalty during marriage is
afterward strictly enjoined. There are places where brothels of young
men are kept for the pleasure of women; where the wives go to war as well
as the husbands, and not only share in the dangers of battle, but,
moreover, in the honours of command. Others, where they wear rings not
only through their noses, lips, cheeks, and on their toes, but also
weighty gimmals of gold thrust through their paps and buttocks; where, in
eating, they wipe their fingers upon their thighs, genitories, and the
soles of their feet: where children are excluded, and brothers and
nephews only inherit; and elsewhere, nephews only, saving in the
succession of the prince: where, for the regulation of community in goods
and estates, observed in the country, certain sovereign magistrates have
committed to them the universal charge and overseeing of the agriculture,
and distribution of the fruits, according to the necessity of every one
where they lament the death of children, and feast at the decease of old
men: where they lie ten or twelve in a bed, men and their wives together:
where women, whose husbands come to violent ends, may marry again, and
others not: where the condition of women is looked upon with such
contempt, that they kill all the native females, and buy wives of their
neighbours to supply their use; where husbands may repudiate their wives,
without showing any cause, but wives cannot part from their husbands, for
what cause soever; where husbands may sell their wives in case of
sterility; where they boil the bodies of their dead, and afterward pound
them to a pulp, which they mix with their wine, and drink it; where the
most coveted sepulture is to be eaten by dogs, and elsewhere by birds;
where they believe the souls of the blessed live in all manner of
liberty, in delightful fields, furnished with all sorts of delicacies,
and that it is these souls, repeating the words we utter, which we call
Echo; where they fight in the water, and shoot their arrows with the most
mortal aim, swimming; where, for a sign of subjection, they lift up their
shoulders, and hang down their heads; where they put off their shoes when
they enter the king's palace; where the eunuchs, who take charge of the
sacred women, have, moreover, their lips and noses cut off, that they may
not be loved; where the priests put out their own eyes, to be better
acquainted with their demons, and the better to receive their oracles;
where every one makes to himself a deity of what he likes best; the
hunter of a lion or a fox, the fisher of some fish; idols of every human
action or passion; in which place, the sun, the moon, and the earth are
the 'principal deities, and the form of taking an oath is, to touch the
earth, looking up to heaven; where both flesh and fish is eaten raw;
where the greatest oath they take is, to swear by the name of some dead
person of reputation, laying their hand upon his tomb; where the
newyear's gift the king sends every year to the princes, his vassals, is
fire, which being brought, all the old fire is put out, and the
neighbouring people are bound to fetch of the new, every one for
themselves, upon pain of high treason; where, when the king, to betake
himself wholly to devotion, retires from his administration (which often
falls out), his next successor is obliged to do the same, and the right
of the kingdom devolves to the third in succession: where they vary the
form of government, according to the seeming necessity of affairs: depose
the king when they think good, substituting certain elders to govern in
his stead, and sometimes transferring it into the hands of the
commonality: where men and women are both circumcised and also baptized:
where the soldier, who in one or several engagements, has been so
fortunate as to present seven of the enemies' heads to the king, is made
noble: where they live in that rare and unsociable opinion of the
mortality of the soul: where the women are delivered without pain or
fear: where the women wear copper leggings upon both legs, and if a louse
bite them, are bound in magnanimity to bite them again, and dare not
marry, till first they have made their king a tender of their virginity,
if he please to accept it: where the ordinary way of salutation is by
putting a finger down to the earth, and then pointing it up toward
heaven: where men carry burdens upon their heads, and women on their
shoulders; where the women make water standing, and the men squatting:
where they send their blood in token of friendship, and offer incense to
the men they would honour, like gods: where, not only to the fourth, but
in any other remote degree, kindred are not permitted to marry: where the
children are four years at nurse, and often twelve; in which place, also,
it is accounted mortal to give the child suck the first day after it is
born: where the correction of the male children is peculiarly designed to
the fathers, and to the mothers of the girls; the punishment being to
hang them by the heels in the smoke: where they circumcise the women:
where they eat all sorts of herbs, without other scruple than of the
badness of the smell: where all things are open the finest houses,
furnished in the richest manner, without doors, windows, trunks, or
chests to lock, a thief being there punished double what they are in
other places: where they crack lice with their teeth like monkeys, and
abhor to see them killed with one's nails: where in all their lives they
neither cut their hair nor pare their nails; and, in another place, pare
those of the right hand only, letting the left grow for ornament and
bravery: where they suffer the hair on the right side to grow as long as
it will, and shave the other; and in the neighbouring provinces, some let
their hair grow long before, and some behind, shaving close the rest:
where parents let out their children, and husbands their wives, to their
guests to hire: where a man may get his own mother with child, and
fathers make use of their own daughters or sons, without scandal: where,
at their solemn feasts, they interchangeably lend their children to one
another, without any consideration of nearness of blood. In one place,
men feed upon human flesh; in another, 'tis reputed a pious office for a
man to kill his father at a certain age; elsewhere, the fathers dispose
of their children, whilst yet in their mothers' wombs, some to be
preserved and carefully brought up, and others to be abandoned or made
away. Elsewhere the old husbands lend their wives to young men; and in
another place they are in common without offence; in one place
particularly, the women take it for a mark of honour to have as many gay
fringed tassels at the bottom of their garment, as they have lain with
several men. Moreover, has not custom made a republic of women
separately by themselves? has it not put arms into their hands, and made
them raise armies and fight battles? And does she not, by her own
precept, instruct the most ignorant vulgar, and make them perfect in
things which all the philosophy in the world could never beat into the
heads of the wisest men? For we know entire nations, where death was not
only despised, but entertained with the greatest triumph; where children
of seven years old suffered themselves to be whipped to death, without
changing countenance; where riches were in such contempt, that the
meanest citizen would not have deigned to stoop to take up a purse of
crowns. And we know regions, very fruitful in all manner of provisions,
where, notwithstanding, the most ordinary diet, and that they are most
pleased with, is only bread, cresses, and water. Did not custom,
moreover, work that miracle in Chios that, in seven hundred years, it was
never known that ever maid or wife committed any act to the prejudice of
her honour?

To conclude; there is nothing, in my opinion, that she does not, or may
not do; and therefore, with very good reason it is that Pindar calls her
the ruler of the world. He that was seen to beat his father, and
reproved for so doing, made answer, that it was the custom of their
family; that, in like manner, his father had beaten his grandfather, his
grandfather his great-grandfather, "And this," says he, pointing to his
son, "when he comes to my age, shall beat me." And the father, whom the
son dragged and hauled along the streets, commanded him to stop at a
certain door, for he himself, he said, had dragged his father no farther,
that being the utmost limit of the hereditary outrage the sons used to
practise upon the fathers in their family. It is as much by custom as
infirmity, says Aristotle, that women tear their hair, bite their nails,
and eat coals and earth, and more by custom than nature that men abuse
themselves with one another.

The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature,
proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the
opinions and manners approved and received amongst his own people,
cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply
himself to them without applause. In times past, when those of Crete
would curse any one, they prayed the gods to engage him in some ill
custom. But the principal effect of its power is, so to seize and
ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its
gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the
things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with
our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture
to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow
on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere
about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear
to be the most universal and genuine; from whence it comes to pass, that
whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the
hinges of reason; how unreasonably for the most part, God knows.

If, as we who study ourselves have learned to do, every one who hears a
good sentence, would immediately consider how it does in any way touch
his own private concern, every one would find, that it was not so much a
good saying, as a severe lash to the ordinary stupidity of his own
judgment: but men receive the precepts and admonitions of truth, as
directed to the common sort, and never to themselves; and instead of
applying them to their own manners, do only very ignorantly and
unprofitably commit them to memory. But let us return to the empire of

Such people as have been bred up to liberty, and subject to no other
dominion but the authority of their own will, look upon all other form of
government as monstrous and contrary to nature. Those who are inured to
monarchy do the same; and what opportunity soever fortune presents them
with to change, even then, when with the greatest difficulties they have
disengaged themselves from one master, that was troublesome and grievous
to them, they presently run, with the same difficulties, to create
another; being unable to take into hatred subjection itself.

'Tis by the mediation of custom, that every one is content with the place
where he is planted by nature; and the Highlanders of Scotland no more
pant after Touraine; than the Scythians after Thessaly. Darius asking
certain Greeks what they would take to assume the custom of the Indians,
of eating the dead bodies of their fathers (for that was their use,
believing they could not give them a better nor more noble sepulture than
to bury them in their own bodies), they made answer, that nothing in the
world should hire them to do it; but having also tried to persuade the
Indians to leave their custom, and, after the Greek manner, to burn the
bodies of their fathers, they conceived a still greater horror at the
motion.--[Herodotus, iii. 38.]--Every one does the same, for use veils
from us the true aspect of things.

         "Nil adeo magnum, nec tam mirabile quidquam
          Principio, quod non minuant mirarier omnes Paullatim."

     ["There is nothing at first so grand, so admirable, which by degrees
     people do not regard with less admiration."--Lucretius, ii. 1027]

Taking upon me once to justify something in use amongst us, and that was
received with absolute authority for a great many leagues round about us,
and not content, as men commonly do, to establish it only by force of law
and example, but inquiring still further into its origin, I found the
foundation so weak, that I who made it my business to confirm others, was
very near being dissatisfied myself. 'Tis by this receipt that Plato
--[Laws, viii. 6.]--undertakes to cure the unnatural and preposterous
loves of his time, as one which he esteems of sovereign virtue, namely,
that the public opinion condemns them; that the poets, and all other
sorts of writers, relate horrible stories of them; a recipe, by virtue of
which the most beautiful daughters no more allure their fathers' lust;
nor brothers, of the finest shape and fashion, their sisters' desire; the
very fables of Thyestes, OEdipus, and Macareus, having with the harmony
of their song, infused this wholesome opinion and belief into the tender
brains of children. Chastity is, in truth, a great and shining virtue,
and of which the utility is sufficiently known; but to treat of it, and
to set it off in its true value, according to nature, is as hard as 'tis
easy to do so according to custom, laws, and precepts. The fundamental
and universal reasons are of very obscure and difficult research, and our
masters either lightly pass them over, or not daring so much as to touch
them, precipitate themselves into the liberty and protection of custom,
there puffing themselves out and triumphing to their heart's content:
such as will not suffer themselves to be withdrawn from this original
source, do yet commit a greater error, and subject themselves to wild
opinions; witness Chrysippus,--[Sextus Empiricus, Pyyrhon. Hypotyp., i.
14.]--who, in so many of his writings, has strewed the little account he
made of incestuous conjunctions, committed with how near relations

Whoever would disengage himself from this violent prejudice of custom,
would find several things received with absolute and undoubting opinion,
that have no other support than the hoary head and rivelled face of
ancient usage. But the mask taken off, and things being referred to the
decision of truth and reason, he will find his judgment as it were
altogether overthrown, and yet restored to a much more sure estate. For
example, I shall ask him, what can be more strange than to see a people
obliged to obey laws they never understood; bound in all their domestic
affairs, as marriages, donations, wills, sales, and purchases, to rules
they cannot possibly know, being neither written nor published in their
own language, and of which they are of necessity to purchase both the
interpretation and the use? Not according to the ingenious opinion of
Isocrates,--[Discourse to Nicocles.]--who counselled his king to make
the traffics and negotiations of his subjects, free, frank, and of profit
to them, and their quarrels and disputes burdensome, and laden with heavy
impositions and penalties; but, by a prodigious opinion, to make sale of
reason itself, and to give to laws a course of merchandise. I think
myself obliged to fortune that, as our historians report, it was a Gascon
gentleman, a countryman of mine, who first opposed Charlemagne, when he
attempted to impose upon us Latin and imperial laws.

What can be more savage, than to see a nation where, by lawful custom,
the office of a judge is bought and sold, where judgments are paid for
with ready money, and where justice may legitimately be denied to him
that has not wherewithal to pay; a merchandise in so great repute, as in
a government to create a fourth estate of wrangling lawyers, to add to
the three ancient ones of the church, nobility, and people; which fourth
estate, having the laws in their own hands, and sovereign power over
men's lives and fortunes, makes another body separate from nobility:
whence it comes to pass, that there are double laws, those of honour and
those of justice, in many things altogether opposite one to another; the
nobles as rigorously condemning a lie taken, as the other do a lie
revenged: by the law of arms, he shall be degraded from all nobility and
honour who puts up with an affront; and by the civil law, he who
vindicates his reputation by revenge incurs a capital punishment: he who
applies himself to the law for reparation of an offence done to his
honour, disgraces himself; and he who does not, is censured and punished
by the law. Yet of these two so different things, both of them referring
to one head, the one has the charge of peace, the other of war; those
have the profit, these the honour; those the wisdom, these the virtue;
those the word, these the action; those justice, these valour; those
reason, these force; those the long robe, these the short;--divided
betwixt them.

For what concerns indifferent things, as clothes, who is there seeking to
bring them back to their true use, which is the body's service and
convenience, and upon which their original grace and fitness depend; for
the most fantastic, in my opinion, that can be imagined, I will instance
amongst others, our flat caps, that long tail of velvet that hangs down
from our women's heads, with its party-coloured trappings; and that vain
and futile model of a member we cannot in modesty so much as name, which,
nevertheless, we make show and parade of in public. These
considerations, notwithstanding, will not prevail upon any understanding
man to decline the common mode; but, on the contrary, methinks, all
singular and particular fashions are rather marks of folly and vain
affectation than of sound reason, and that a wise man, within, ought to
withdraw and retire his soul from the crowd, and there keep it at liberty
and in power to judge freely of things; but as to externals, absolutely
to follow and conform himself to the fashion of the time. Public society
has nothing to do with our thoughts, but the rest, as our actions, our
labours, our fortunes, and our lives, we are to lend and abandon them to
its service and to the common opinion, as did that good and great
Socrates who refused to preserve his life by a disobedience to the
magistrate, though a very wicked and unjust one for it is the rule of
rules, the general law of laws, that every one observe those of the place
wherein he lives.

          ["It is good to obey the laws of one's country."
          --Excerpta ex Trag. Gyaecis, Grotio interp., 1626, p. 937.]

And now to another point. It is a very great doubt, whether any so
manifest benefit can accrue from the alteration of a law received, let it
be what it will, as there is danger and inconvenience in altering it;
forasmuch as government is a structure composed of divers parts and
members joined and united together, with so strict connection, that it is
impossible to stir so much as one brick or stone, but the whole body will
be sensible of it. The legislator of the Thurians--[Charondas; Diod.
Sic., xii. 24.]--ordained, that whosoever would go about either to
abolish an old law, or to establish a new, should present himself with a
halter about his neck to the people, to the end, that if the innovation
he would introduce should not be approved by every one, he might
immediately be hanged; and he of the Lacedaemonians employed his life to
obtain from his citizens a faithful promise that none of his laws should
be violated.--[Lycurgus; Plutarch, in Vita, c. 22.]--The Ephoros who so
rudely cut the two strings that Phrynis had added to music never stood to
examine whether that addition made better harmony, or that by its means
the instrument was more full and complete; it was enough for him to
condemn the invention, that it was a novelty, and an alteration of the
old fashion. Which also is the meaning of the old rusty sword carried
before the magistracy of Marseilles.

For my own part, I have a great aversion from a novelty, what face or
what pretence soever it may carry along with it, and have reason, having
been an eyewitness of the great evils it has produced. For those which
for so many years have lain so heavy upon us, it is not wholly
accountable; but one may say, with colour enough, that it has
accidentally produced and begotten the mischiefs and ruin that have since
happened, both without and against it; it, principally, we are to accuse
for these disorders:

               "Heu! patior telis vulnera facta meis."

          ["Alas! The wounds were made by my own weapons."
          --Ovid, Ep. Phyll. Demophoonti, vers. 48.]

They who give the first shock to a state, are almost naturally the first
overwhelmed in its ruin the fruits of public commotion are seldom enjoyed
by him who was the first motor; he beats and disturbs the water for
another's net. The unity and contexture of this monarchy, of this grand
edifice, having been ripped and torn in her old age, by this thing called
innovation, has since laid open a rent, and given sufficient admittance
to such injuries: the royal majesty with greater difficulty declines from
the summit to the middle, then it falls and tumbles headlong from the
middle to the bottom. But if the inventors do the greater mischief, the
imitators are more vicious to follow examples of which they have felt and
punished both the horror and the offence. And if there can be any degree
of honour in ill-doing, these last must yield to the others the glory of
contriving, and the courage of making the first attempt. All sorts of
new disorders easily draw, from this primitive and ever-flowing fountain,
examples and precedents to trouble and discompose our government: we read
in our very laws, made for the remedy of this first evil, the beginning
and pretences of all sorts of wicked enterprises; and that befalls us,
which Thucydides said of the civil wars of his time, that, in favour of
public vices, they gave them new and more plausible names for their
excuse, sweetening and disguising their true titles; which must be done,
forsooth, to reform our conscience and belief:

                    "Honesta oratio est;"

          ["Fine words truly."--Ter. And., i. I, 114.]

but the best pretence for innovation is of very dangerous consequence:

          "Aden nihil motum ex antiquo probabile est."

     ["We are ever wrong in changing ancient ways."--Livy, xxxiv. 54]

And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self-love and great
presumption to be so fond of one's own opinions, that a public peace must
be overthrown to establish them, and to introduce so many inevitable
mischiefs, and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and
the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and
to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of
one's own country. Can there be worse husbandry than to set up so many
certain and knowing vices against errors that are only contested and
disputable? And are there any worse sorts of vices than those committed
against a man's own conscience, and the natural light of his own reason?
The Senate, upon the dispute betwixt it and the people about the
administration of their religion, was bold enough to return this evasion
for current pay:

          "Ad deos id magis, quam ad se, pertinere: ipsos visuros,
          ne sacra sua polluantur;"

     ["Those things belong to the gods to determine than to them; let the
     gods, therefore, take care that their sacred mysteries were not
     profaned."--Livy, x. 6.]

according to what the oracle answered to those of Delphos who, fearing to
be invaded by the Persians in the Median war, inquired of Apollo, how
they should dispose of the holy treasure of his temple; whether they
should hide, or remove it to some other place? He returned them answer,
that they should stir nothing from thence, and only take care of
themselves, for he was sufficient to look to what belonged to him.
--[Herodotus, viii. 36.].--

The Christian religion has all the marks of the utmost utility and
justice: but none more manifest than the severe injunction it lays
indifferently upon all to yield absolute obedience to the civil
magistrate, and to maintain and defend the laws. Of which, what a
wonderful example has the divine wisdom left us, that, to establish the
salvation of mankind, and to conduct His glorious victory over death and
sin, would do it after no other way, but at the mercy of our ordinary
forms of justice subjecting the progress and issue of so high and so
salutiferous an effect, to the blindness and injustice of our customs
and observances; sacrificing the innocent blood of so many of His elect,
and so long a loss of so many years, to the maturing of this inestimable
fruit? There is a vast difference betwixt the case of one who follows
the forms and laws of his country, and of another who will undertake to
regulate and change them; of whom the first pleads simplicity, obedience,
and example for his excuse, who, whatever he shall do, it cannot be
imputed to malice; 'tis at the worst but misfortune:

          "Quis est enim, quem non moveat clarissimis monumentis
          testata consignataque antiquitas?"

     ["For who is there that antiquity, attested and confirmed by the
     fairest monuments, cannot move?"--Cicero, De Divin., i. 40.]

besides what Isocrates says, that defect is nearer allied to moderation
than excess: the other is a much more ruffling gamester; for whosoever
shall take upon him to choose and alter, usurps the authority of judging,
and should look well about him, and make it his business to discern
clearly the defect of what he would abolish, and the virtue of what he is
about to introduce.

This so vulgar consideration is that which settled me in my station, and
kept even my most extravagant and ungoverned youth under the rein, so as
not to burden my shoulders with so great a weight, as to render myself
responsible for a science of that importance, and in this to dare, what
in my better and more mature judgment, I durst not do in the most easy
and indifferent things I had been instructed in, and wherein the temerity
of judging is of no consequence at all; it seeming to me very unjust to
go about to subject public and established customs and institutions, to
the weakness and instability of a private and particular fancy (for
private reason has but a private jurisdiction), and to attempt that upon
the divine, which no government will endure a man should do, upon the
civil laws; with which, though human reason has much more commerce than
with the other, yet are they sovereignly judged by their own proper
judges, and the extreme sufficiency serves only to expound and set forth
the law and custom received, and neither to wrest it, nor to introduce
anything, of innovation. If, sometimes, the divine providence has gone
beyond the rules to which it has necessarily bound and obliged us men,
it is not to give us any dispensation to do the same; those are
masterstrokes of the divine hand, which we are not to imitate, but to
admire, and extraordinary examples, marks of express and particular
purposes, of the nature of miracles, presented before us for
manifestations of its almightiness, equally above both our rules and
force, which it would be folly and impiety to attempt to represent and
imitate; and that we ought not to follow, but to contemplate with the
greatest reverence: acts of His personage, and not for us. Cotta very
opportunely declares:

     "Quum de religione agitur, Ti. Coruncanium, P. Scipionem,
     P. Scaevolam, pontifices maximos, non Zenonem, aut Cleanthem,
     aut Chrysippum, sequor."

     ["When matter of religion is in question, I follow the high priests
     T. Coruncanius, P. Scipio, P. Scaevola, and not Zeno, Cleanthes, or
     Chrysippus."--Cicero, De Natura Deor., iii. 2.]

God knows, in the present quarrel of our civil war, where there are a
hundred articles to dash out and to put in, great and very considerable,
how many there are who can truly boast, they have exactly and perfectly
weighed and understood the grounds and reasons of the one and the other
party; 'tis a number, if they make any number, that would be able to give
us very little disturbance. But what becomes of all the rest, under what
ensigns do they march, in what quarter do they lie? Theirs have the same
effect with other weak and ill-applied medicines; they have only set the
humours they would purge more violently in work, stirred and exasperated
by the conflict, and left them still behind. The potion was too weak to
purge, but strong enough to weaken us; so that it does not work, but we
keep it still in our bodies, and reap nothing from the operation but
intestine gripes and dolours.

So it is, nevertheless, that Fortune still reserving her authority in
defiance of whatever we are able to do or say, sometimes presents us with
a necessity so urgent, that 'tis requisite the laws should a little yield
and give way; and when one opposes the increase of an innovation that
thus intrudes itself by violence, to keep a man's self in so doing, in
all places and in all things within bounds and rules against those who
have the power, and to whom all things are lawful that may in any way
serve to advance their design, who have no other law nor rule but what
serves best to their own purpose, 'tis a dangerous obligation and an
intolerable inequality:

               "Aditum nocendi perfido praestat fides,"

          ["Putting faith in a treacherous person, opens the door to
          harm."--Seneca, OEdip., act iii., verse 686.]

forasmuch as the ordinary discipline of a healthful state does not
provide against these extraordinary accidents; it presupposes a body that
supports itself in its principal members and offices, and a common
consent to its obedience and observation. A legitimate proceeding is
cold, heavy, and constrained, and not fit to make head against a
headstrong and unbridled proceeding. 'Tis known to be to this day cast
in the dish of those two great men, Octavius and Cato, in the two civil
wars of Sylla and Caesar, that they would rather suffer their country to
undergo the last extremities, than relieve their fellow-citizens at the
expense of its laws, or be guilty of any innovation; for in truth, in
these last necessities, where there is no other remedy, it would,
peradventure, be more discreetly done, to stoop and yield a little to
receive the blow, than, by opposing without possibility of doing good,
to give occasion to violence to trample all under foot; and better to
make the laws do what they can, when they cannot do what they would.
After this manner did he--[Agesilaus.]--who suspended them for
four-and-twenty hours, and he who, for once shifted a day in the
calendar, and that other--[Alexander the Great.]--who of the month of
June made a second of May. The Lacedaemonians themselves, who were so
religious observers of the laws of their country, being straitened by
one of their own edicts, by which it was expressly forbidden to choose
the same man twice to be admiral; and on the other side, their affairs
necessarily requiring, that Lysander should again take upon him that
command, they made one Aratus admiral; 'tis true, but withal, Lysander
went general of the navy; and, by the same subtlety, one of their
ambassadors being sent to the Athenians to obtain the revocation of some
decree, and Pericles remonstrating to him, that it was forbidden to take
away the tablet wherein a law had once been engrossed, he advised him to
turn it only, that being not forbidden; and Plutarch commends
Philopoemen, that being born to command, he knew how to do it, not only
according to the laws, but also to overrule even the laws themselves,
when the public necessity so required.