The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXIII

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XXIII. Various events from the same counsel.

Chapter XXIII. Various events from the same counsel.[edit]

Jacques Amiot, grand almoner of France, one day related to me this story,
much to the honour of a prince of ours (and ours he was upon several very
good accounts, though originally of foreign extraction),--[The Duc de
Guise, surnamed Le Balafre.]--that in the time of our first commotions,
at the siege of Rouen,--[In 1562]--this prince, having been advertised
by the queen-mother of a conspiracy against his life, and in her letters
particular notice being given him of the person who was to execute the
business (who was a gentleman of Anjou or of Maine, and who to this
effect ordinarily frequented this prince's house), discovered not a
syllable of this intelligence to any one whatever; but going the next day
to the St. Catherine's Mount,--[An eminence outside Rouen overlooking the
Seine. D.W.]--from which our battery played against the town (for it
was during the time of the siege), and having in company with him the
said lord almoner, and another bishop, he saw this gentleman, who had
been denoted to him, and presently sent for him; to whom, being come
before him, seeing him already pale and trembling with the conscience of
his guilt, he thus said, "Monsieur," such an one, "you guess what I have
to say to you; your countenance discovers it; 'tis in vain to disguise
your practice, for I am so well informed of your business, that it will
but make worse for you, to go about to conceal or deny it: you know very
well such and such passages" (which were the most secret circumstances of
his conspiracy), "and therefore be sure, as you tender your own life,
to confess to me the whole truth of the design." The poor man seeing
himself thus trapped and convicted (for the whole business had been
discovered to the queen by one of the accomplices), was in such a taking,
he knew not what to do; but, folding his hands, to beg and sue for mercy,
he threw himself at his prince's feet, who taking him up, proceeded to
say, "Come, sir; tell me, have I at any time done you offence? or have
I, through private hatred or malice, offended any kinsman or friend of
yours? It is not above three weeks that I have known you; what
inducement, then, could move you to attempt my death?" To which the
gentleman with a trembling voice replied, "That it was no particular
grudge he had to his person, but the general interest and concern of his
party, and that he had been put upon it by some who had persuaded him it
would be a meritorious act, by any means, to extirpate so great and so
powerful an enemy of their religion." "Well," said the prince, "I will
now let you see, how much more charitable the religion is that I
maintain, than that which you profess: yours has counselled you to kill
me, without hearing me speak, and without ever having given you any cause
of offence; and mine commands me to forgive you, convict as you are, by
your own confession, of a design to kill me without reason.--[Imitated by
Voltaire. See Nodier, Questions, p. 165.]--Get you gone; let me see you
no more; and, if you are wise, choose henceforward honester men for your
counsellors in your designs."--[Dampmartin, La Fortune de la Coup, liv.
ii., p. 139]

The Emperor Augustus,--[This story is taken from Seneca, De Clementia,
i. 9.]--being in Gaul, had certain information of a conspiracy L. Cinna
was contriving against him; he therefore resolved to make him an example;
and, to that end, sent to summon his friends to meet the next morning in
counsel. But the night between he passed in great unquietness of mind,
considering that he was about to put to death a young man, of an
illustrious family, and nephew to the great Pompey, and this made him
break out into several passionate complainings. "What then," said he,
"is it possible that I am to live in perpetual anxiety and alarm, and
suffer my would-be assassin, meantime, to walk abroad at liberty? Shall
he go unpunished, after having conspired against my life, a life that I
have hitherto defended in so many civil wars, in so many battles by land
and by sea? And after having settled the universal peace of the whole
world, shall this man be pardoned, who has conspired not only to murder,
but to sacrifice me?"--for the conspiracy was to kill him at sacrifice.
After which, remaining for some time silent, he began again, in louder
tones, and exclaimed against himself, saying: "Why livest thou, if it be
for the good of so many that thou shouldst die? must there be no end of
thy revenges and cruelties? Is thy life of so great value, that so many
mischiefs must be done to preserve it?" His wife Livia, seeing him in
this perplexity: "Will you take a woman's counsel?" said she. "Do as
the physicians do, who, when the ordinary recipes will do no good, make
trial of the contrary. By severity you have hitherto prevailed nothing;
Lepidus has followed Salvidienus; Murena, Lepidus; Caepio, Murena;
Egnatius, Caepio. Begin now, and try how sweetness and clemency will
succeed. Cinna is convict; forgive him, he will never henceforth have
the heart to hurt thee, and it will be an act to thy glory." Augustus
was well pleased that he had met with an advocate of his own humour;
wherefore, having thanked his wife, and, in the morning, countermanded
his friends he had before summoned to council, he commanded Cinna all
alone to be brought to him; who being accordingly come, and a chair by
his appointment set him, having ordered all the rest out of the room, he
spake to him after this manner: "In the first place, Cinna, I demand of
thee patient audience; do not interrupt me in what I am about to say, and
I will afterwards give thee time and leisure to answer. Thou knowest,
Cinna,--[This passage, borrowed from Seneca, has been paraphrased in
verse by Corneille. See Nodier, Questions de la Literature llgale, 1828,
pp. 7, 160. The monologue of Augustus in this chapter is also from
Seneca. Ibid., 164.]--that having taken thee prisoner in the enemy's
camp, and thou an enemy, not only so become, but born so, I gave thee thy
life, restored to thee all thy goods, and, finally, put thee in so good a
posture, by my bounty, of living well and at thy ease, that the
victorious envied the conquered. The sacerdotal office which thou madest
suit to me for, I conferred upon thee, after having denied it to others,
whose fathers have ever borne arms in my service. After so many
obligations, thou hast undertaken to kill me." At which Cinna crying out
that he was very far from entertaining any so wicked a thought: "Thou
dost not keep thy promise, Cinna," continued Augustus, "that thou wouldst
not interrupt me. Yes, thou hast undertaken to murder me in such a
place, on such a day, in such and such company, and in such a manner."
At which words, seeing Cinna astounded and silent, not upon the account
of his promise so to be, but interdict with the weight of his conscience:
"Why," proceeded Augustus, "to what end wouldst thou do it? Is it to be
emperor? Believe me, the Republic is in very ill condition, if I am the
only man betwixt thee and the empire. Thou art not able so much as to
defend thy own house, and but t'other day was baffled in a suit, by the
opposed interest of a mere manumitted slave. What, hast thou neither
means nor power in any other thing, but only to undertake Caesar? I quit
the throne, if there be no other than I to obstruct thy hopes. Canst
thou believe that Paulus, that Fabius, that the Cossii and the Servilii,
and so many noble Romans, not only so in title, but who by their virtue
honour their nobility, would suffer or endure thee?" After this, and a
great deal more that he said to him (for he was two long hours in
speaking), "Now go, Cinna, go thy way: I give thee that life as traitor
and parricide, which I before gave thee in the quality of an enemy. Let
friendship from this time forward begin betwixt us, and let us show
whether I have given, or thou hast received thy life with the better
faith"; and so departed from him. Some time after, he preferred him to
the consular dignity, complaining that he had not the confidence to
demand it; had him ever after for his very great friend, and was, at
last, made by him sole heir to all his estate. Now, from the time of
this accident which befell Augustus in the fortieth year of his age, he
never had any conspiracy or attempt against him, and so reaped the due
reward of this his so generous clemency. But it did not so happen with
our prince, his moderation and mercy not so securing him, but that he
afterwards fell into the toils of the like treason,--[The Duc de Guise
was assassinated in 1563 by Poltrot.]--so vain and futile a thing is
human prudence; throughout all our projects, counsels and precautions,
Fortune will still be mistress of events.

We repute physicians fortunate when they hit upon a lucky cure, as if
there was no other art but theirs that could not stand upon its own legs,
and whose foundations are too weak to support itself upon its own basis;
as if no other art stood in need of Fortune's hand to help it. For my
part, I think of physic as much good or ill as any one would have me:
for, thanks be to God, we have no traffic together. I am of a quite
contrary humour to other men, for I always despise it; but when I am
sick, instead of recanting, or entering into composition with it, I
begin, moreover, to hate and fear it, telling them who importune me to
take physic, that at all events they must give me time to recover my
strength and health, that I may be the better able to support and
encounter the violence and danger of their potions. I let nature work,
supposing her to be sufficiently armed with teeth and claws to defend
herself from the assaults of infirmity, and to uphold that contexture,
the dissolution of which she flies and abhors. I am afraid, lest,
instead of assisting her when close grappled and struggling with disease,
I should assist her adversary, and burden her still more with work to do.

Now, I say, that not in physic only, but in other more certain arts,
fortune has a very great part.

The poetic raptures, the flights of fancy, that ravish and transport the
author out of himself, why should we not attribute them to his good
fortune, since he himself confesses that they exceed his sufficiency and
force, and acknowledges them to proceed from something else than himself,
and that he has them no more in his power than the orators say they have
those extraordinary motions and agitations that sometimes push them
beyond their design. It is the same in painting, where touches shall
sometimes slip from the hand of the painter, so surpassing both his
conception and his art, as to beget his own admiration and astonishment.
But Fortune does yet more evidently manifest the share she has in all
things of this kind, by the graces and elegances we find in them, not
only beyond the intention, but even without the knowledge of the workman:
a competent reader often discovers in other men's writings other
perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a
richer sense and more quaint expression.

As to military enterprises, every one sees how great a hand Fortune has
in them. Even in our counsels and deliberations there must, certainly,
be something of chance and good-luck mixed with human prudence; for all
that our wisdom can do alone is no great matter; the more piercing,
quick, and apprehensive it is, the weaker it finds itself, and is by so
much more apt to mistrust itself. I am of Sylla's opinion;--["Who freed
his great deeds from envy by ever attributing them to his good fortune,
and finally by surnaming himself Faustus, the Lucky."--Plutarch, How far a
Man may praise Himself, c. 9.]--and when I closely examine the most
glorious exploits of war, I perceive, methinks, that those who carry them
on make use of counsel and debate only for custom's sake, and leave the
best part of the enterprise to Fortune, and relying upon her aid,
transgress, at every turn, the bounds of military conduct and the rules
of war. There happen, sometimes, fortuitous alacrities and strange
furies in their deliberations, that for the most part prompt them to
follow the worst grounded counsels, and swell their courage beyond the
limits of reason. Whence it happened that several of the great captains
of old, to justify those rash resolutions, have been fain to tell their
soldiers that they were invited to such attempts by some inspiration,
some sign and prognostic.

Wherefore, in this doubt and uncertainty, that the shortsightedness of
human wisdom to see and choose the best (by reason of the difficulties
that the various accidents and circumstances of things bring along with
them) perplexes us withal, the surest way, in my opinion, did no other
consideration invite us to it, is to pitch upon that wherein is the
greatest appearance of honesty and justice; and not, being certain of the
shortest, to keep the straightest and most direct way; as in the two
examples I have just given, there is no question but it was more noble
and generous in him who had received the offence, to pardon it, than to
do otherwise. If the former--[The Duc de Guise.]--miscarried in it, he
is not, nevertheless, to be blamed for his good intention; neither does
any one know if he had proceeded otherwise, whether by that means he had
avoided the end his destiny had appointed for him; and he had, moreover,
lost the glory of so humane an act.

You will read in history, of many who have been in such apprehension,
that the most part have taken the course to meet and anticipate
conspiracies against them by punishment and revenge; but I find very few
who have reaped any advantage by this proceeding; witness so many Roman
emperors. Whoever finds himself in this danger, ought not to expect much
either from his vigilance or power; for how hard a thing is it for a man
to secure himself from an enemy, who lies concealed under the countenance
of the most assiduous friend we have, and to discover and know the wills
and inward thoughts of those who are in our personal service. 'Tis to
much purpose to have a guard of foreigners about one, and to be always
fenced about with a pale of armed men; whosoever despises his own life,
is always master of that of another man.--[Seneca, Ep., 4.]--And
moreover, this continual suspicion, that makes a prince jealous of all
the world, must of necessity be a strange torment to him. Therefore it
was, that Dion, being advertised that Callippus watched all opportunities
to take away his life, had never the heart to inquire more particularly
into it, saying, that he had rather die than live in that misery, that he
must continually stand upon his guard, not only against his enemies, but
his friends also;--[Plutarch, Apothegms.]--which Alexander much more
vividly and more roundly manifested in effect, when, having notice by a
letter from Parmenio, that Philip, his most beloved physician, was by
Darius' money corrupted to poison him, at the same time he gave the
letter to Philip to read, drank off the potion he had brought him. Was
not this to express a resolution, that if his friends had a mind to
despatch him out of the world, he was willing to give them opportunity to
do it? This prince is, indeed, the sovereign pattern of hazardous
actions; but I do not know whether there be another passage in his life
wherein there is so much firm courage as in this, nor so illustrious an
image of the beauty and greatness of his mind.

Those who preach to princes so circumspect and vigilant a jealousy and
distrust, under colour of security, preach to them ruin and dishonour:
nothing noble can be performed without danger. I know a person,
naturally of a very great daring and enterprising courage, whose good
fortune is continually marred by such persuasions, that he keep himself
close surrounded by his friends, that he must not hearken to any
reconciliation with his ancient enemies, that he must stand aloof, and
not trust his person in hands stronger than his own, what promises or
offers soever they may make him, or what advantages soever he may see
before him. And I know another, who has unexpectedly advanced his
fortunes by following a clear contrary advice.

Courage, the reputation and glory of which men seek with so greedy an
appetite, presents itself, when need requires, as magnificently in
cuerpo, as in full armour; in a closet, as in a camp; with arms pendant,
as with arms raised.

This over-circumspect and wary prudence is a mortal enemy to all high and
generous exploits. Scipio, to sound Syphax's intention, leaving his
army, abandoning Spain, not yet secure nor well settled in his new
conquest, could pass over into Africa in two small ships, to commit
himself, in an enemy's country, to the power of a barbarian king, to a
faith untried and unknown, without obligation, without hostage, under the
sole security of the grandeur of his own courage, his good fortune, and
the promise of his high hopes.--[ Livy, xxviii. 17.]

          "Habita fides ipsam plerumque fidem obligat."

          ["Trust often obliges fidelity."--Livy, xxii. 22.]

In a life of ambition and glory, it is necessary to hold a stiff rein
upon suspicion: fear and distrust invite and draw on offence. The most
mistrustful of our kings--[ Louis XI.]--established his affairs
principally by voluntarily committing his life and liberty into his
enemies' hands, by that action manifesting that he had absolute
confidence in them, to the end they might repose as great an assurance in
him. Caesar only opposed the authority of his countenance and the
haughty sharpness of his rebukes to his mutinous legions in arms against

                              "Stetit aggere fulti
               Cespitis, intrepidus vultu: meruitque timeri,
               Nil metuens."

     ["He stood on a mound, his countenance intrepid, and merited to be
     feared, he fearing nothing."--Lucan, v. 316.]

But it is true, withal, that this undaunted assurance is not to be
represented in its simple and entire form, but by such whom the
apprehension of death, and the worst that can happen, does not terrify
and affright; for to represent a pretended resolution with a pale and
doubtful countenance and trembling limbs, for the service of an important
reconciliation, will effect nothing to purpose. 'Tis an excellent way to
gain the heart and will of another, to submit and intrust one's self to
him, provided it appear to be freely done, and without the constraint of
necessity, and in such a condition, that a man manifestly does it out of
a pure and entire confidence in the party, at least, with a countenance
clear from any cloud of suspicion. I saw, when I was a boy, a gentleman,
who was governor of a great city, upon occasion of a popular commotion
and fury, not knowing what other course to take, go out of a place of
very great strength and security, and commit himself to the mercy of the
seditious rabble, in hopes by that means to appease the tumult before it
grew to a more formidable head; but it was ill for him that he did so,
for he was there miserably slain. But I am not, nevertheless, of
opinion, that he committed so great an error in going out, as men
commonly reproach his memory withal, as he did in choosing a gentle and
submissive way for the effecting his purpose, and in endeavouring to
quiet this storm, rather by obeying than commanding, and by entreaty
rather than remonstrance; and I am inclined to believe, that a gracious
severity, with a soldierlike way of commanding, full of security and
confidence, suitable to the quality of his person, and the dignity of his
command, would have succeeded better with him; at least, he had perished
with greater decency and, reputation. There is nothing so little to be
expected or hoped for from this many-headed monster, in its fury, as
humanity and good nature; it is much more capable of reverence and fear.
I should also reproach him, that having taken a resolution (in my
judgment rather brave than rash) to expose himself, weak and naked, in
this tempestuous sea of enraged madmen, he ought to have stuck to his
text, and not for an instant to have abandoned the high part he had
undertaken; whereas, coming to discover his danger nearer hand, and his
nose happening to bleed, he again changed that demiss and fawning
countenance he had at first put on, into another of fear and amazement,
filling his voice with entreaties and his eyes with tears, and,
endeavouring so to withdraw and secure his person, that carriage more
inflamed their fury, and soon brought the effects of it upon him.

It was upon a time intended that there should be a general muster of
several troops in arms (and that is the most proper occasion of secret
revenges, and there is no place where they can be executed with greater
safety), and there were public and manifest appearances, that there was
no safe coming for some, whose principal and necessary office it was to
review them. Whereupon a consultation was held, and several counsels
were proposed, as in a case that was very nice and of great difficulty;
and moreover of grave consequence. Mine, amongst the rest, was, that
they should by all means avoid giving any sign of suspicion, but that the
officers who were most in danger should boldly go, and with cheerful and
erect countenances ride boldly and confidently through the ranks, and
that instead of sparing fire (which the counsels of the major part tended
to) they should entreat the captains to command the soldiers to give
round and full volleys in honour of the spectators, and not to spare
their powder. This was accordingly done, and served so good use, as to
please and gratify the suspected troops, and thenceforward to beget a
mutual and wholesome confidence and intelligence amongst them.

I look upon Julius Caesar's way of winning men to him as the best and
finest that can be put in practice. First, he tried by clemency to make
himself beloved even by his very enemies, contenting himself, in detected
conspiracies, only publicly to declare, that he was pre-acquainted with
them; which being done, he took a noble resolution to await without
solicitude or fear, whatever might be the event, wholly resigning himself
to the protection of the gods and fortune: for, questionless, in this
state he was at the time when he was killed.

A stranger having publicly said, that he could teach Dionysius, the
tyrant of Syracuse, an infallible way to find out and discover all the
conspiracies his subjects could contrive against him, if he would give
him a good sum of money for his pains, Dionysius hearing of it, caused
the man to be brought to him, that he might learn an art so necessary to
his preservation. The man made answer, that all the art he knew, was,
that he should give him a talent, and afterwards boast that he had
obtained a singular secret from him. Dionysius liked the invention, and
accordingly caused six hundred crowns to be counted out to him.
--[Plutarch, Apothegms.]--It was not likely he should give so great a
sum to a person unknown, but upon the account of some extraordinary
discovery, and the belief of this served to keep his enemies in awe.
Princes, however, do wisely to publish the informations they receive of
all the practices against their lives, to possess men with an opinion
they have so good intelligence that nothing can be plotted against them,
but they have present notice of it. The Duke of Athens did a great many
foolish things in the establishment of his new tyranny over Florence:
but this especially was most notable, that having received the first
intimation of the conspiracies the people were hatching against him, from
Matteo di Morozzo, one of the conspirators, he presently put him to
death, to suppress that rumour, that it might not be thought any of the
city disliked his government.

I remember I have formerly read a story--[In Appian's Civil Wars, book
iv..]--of some Roman of great quality who, flying the tyranny of the
Triumvirate, had a thousand times by the subtlety of as many inventions
escaped from falling into the hands of those that pursued him. It
happened one day that a troop of horse, which was sent out to take him,
passed close by a brake where he was squat, and missed very narrowly of
spying him: but he considering, at this point, the pains and difficulties
wherein he had so long continued to evade the strict and incessant
searches that were every day made for him, the little pleasure he could
hope for in such a kind of life, and how much better it was for him to
die once for all, than to be perpetually at this pass, he started from
his seat, called them back, showed them his form,--[as of a squatting
hare.]--and voluntarily delivered himself up to their cruelty, by that
means to free both himself and them from further trouble. To invite a
man's enemies to come and cut his throat, seems a resolution a little
extravagant and odd; and yet I think he did better to take that course,
than to live in continual feverish fear of an accident for which there
was no cure. But seeing all the remedies a man can apply to such a
disease, are full of unquietness and uncertainty, 'tis better with a
manly courage to prepare one's self for the worst that can happen, and to
extract some consolation from this, that we are not certain the thing we
fear will ever come to pass.