The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXXVI

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Chapter XXXVI. Of Cato the Younger.[edit]

["I am not possessed with this common errour, to judge of others
     according to what I am my selfe. I am easie to beleeve things
     differing from my selfe. Though I be engaged to one forme, I do not
     tie the world unto it, as every man doth. And I beleeve and
     conceive a thousand manners of life, contrary to the common sorte."
     —Florio, ed. 1613, p. 113.]

I am not guilty of the common error of judging another by myself. I
easily believe that in another's humour which is contrary to my own; and
though I find myself engaged to one certain form, I do not oblige others
to it, as many do; but believe and apprehend a thousand ways of living;
and, contrary to most men, more easily admit of difference than
uniformity amongst us. I as frankly as any one would have me, discharge
a man from my humours and principles, and consider him according to his
own particular model. Though I am not continent myself, I nevertheless
sincerely approve the continence of the Feuillans and Capuchins, and
highly commend their way of living. I insinuate myself by imagination
into their place, and love and honour them the more for being other than
I am. I very much desire that we may be judged every man by himself, and
would not be drawn into the consequence of common examples. My own
weakness nothing alters the esteem I ought to have for the force and
vigour of those who deserve it:

     "Sunt qui nihil suadent, quam quod se imitari posse confidunt."

     ["There are who persuade nothing but what they believe they can
     imitate themselves."—Cicero, De Orator., c. 7.]

Crawling upon the slime of the earth, I do not for all that cease to
observe up in the clouds the inimitable height of some heroic souls.
'Tis a great deal for me to have my judgment regular and just, if the
effects cannot be so, and to maintain this sovereign part, at least, free
from corruption; 'tis something to have my will right and good where my
legs fail me. This age wherein we live, in our part of the world at
least, is grown so stupid, that not only the exercise, but the very
imagination of virtue is defective, and seems to be no other but college
jargon:

                        "Virtutem verba putant, ut
                 Lucum ligna:"

     ["They think words virtue, as they think mere wood a sacred grove."
     —Horace, Ep., i. 6, 31.]

          "Quam vereri deberent, etiam si percipere non possent."

     ["Which they ought to reverence, though they cannot comprehend."
     —Cicero, Tusc. Quas., v. 2.]

'Tis a gewgaw to hang in a cabinet or at the end of the tongue, as on the
tip of the ear, for ornament only. There are no longer virtuous actions
extant; those actions that carry a show of virtue have yet nothing of its
essence; by reason that profit, glory, fear, custom, and other suchlike
foreign causes, put us on the way to produce them. Our justice also,
valour, courtesy, may be called so too, in respect to others and
according to the face they appear with to the public; but in the doer it
can by no means be virtue, because there is another end proposed, another
moving cause. Now virtue owns nothing to be hers, but what is done by
herself and for herself alone.

In that great battle of Plataea, that the Greeks under the command of
Pausanias gained against Mardonius and the Persians, the conquerors,
according to their custom, coming to divide amongst them the glory of the
exploit, attributed to the Spartan nation the pre-eminence of valour in
the engagement. The Spartans, great judges of virtue, when they came to
determine to what particular man of their nation the honour was due of
having the best behaved himself upon this occasion, found that
Aristodemus had of all others hazarded his person with the greatest
bravery; but did not, however, allow him any prize, by reason that his
virtue had been incited by a desire to clear his reputation from the
reproach of his miscarriage at the business of Thermopylae, and to die
bravely to wipe off that former blemish.

Our judgments are yet sick, and obey the humour of our depraved manners.
I observe most of the wits of these times pretend to ingenuity, by
endeavouring to blemish and darken the glory of the bravest and most
generous actions of former ages, putting one vile interpretation or
another upon them, and forging and supposing vain causes and motives for
the noble things they did: a mighty subtlety indeed! Give me the
greatest and most unblemished action that ever the day beheld, and I will
contrive a hundred plausible drifts and ends to obscure it. God knows,
whoever will stretch them out to the full, what diversity of images our
internal wills suffer under. They do not so maliciously play the
censurers, as they do it ignorantly and rudely in all their detractions.

The same pains and licence that others take to blemish and bespatter
these illustrious names, I would willingly undergo to lend them a
shoulder to raise them higher. These rare forms, that are culled out by
the consent of the wisest men of all ages, for the world's example,
I should not stick to augment in honour, as far as my invention would
permit, in all the circumstances of favourable interpretation; and we may
well believe that the force of our invention is infinitely short of their
merit. 'Tis the duty of good men to portray virtue as beautiful as they
can, and there would be nothing wrong should our passion a little
transport us in favour of so sacred a form. What these people do, on the
contrary, they either do out of malice, or by the vice of confining their
belief to their own capacity; or, which I am more inclined to think, for
not having their sight strong, clear, and elevated enough to conceive the
splendour of virtue in her native purity: as Plutarch complains, that in
his time some attributed the cause of the younger Cato's death to his
fear of Caesar, at which he seems very angry, and with good reason; and
by this a man may guess how much more he would have been offended with
those who have attributed it to ambition. Senseless people! He would
rather have performed a noble, just, and generous action, and to have had
ignominy for his reward, than for glory. That man was in truth a pattern
that nature chose out to show to what height human virtue and constancy
could arrive.

But I am not capable of handling so rich an argument, and shall therefore
only set five Latin poets together, contending in the praise of Cato;
and, incidentally, for their own too. Now, a well-educated child will
judge the two first, in comparison of the others, a little flat and
languid; the third more vigorous, but overthrown by the extravagance of
his own force; he will then think that there will be room for one or two
gradations of invention to come to the fourth, and, mounting to the pitch
of that, he will lift up his hands in admiration; coming to the last, the
first by some space' (but a space that he will swear is not to be filled
up by any human wit), he will be astounded, he will not know where he is.

And here is a wonder: we have far more poets than judges and interpreters
of poetry; it is easier to write it than to understand it. There is,
indeed, a certain low and moderate sort of poetry, that a man may well
enough judge by certain rules of art; but the true, supreme, and divine
poesy is above all rules and reason. And whoever discerns the beauty of
it with the most assured and most steady sight, sees no more than the
quick reflection of a flash of lightning: it does not exercise, but
ravishes and overwhelms our judgment. The fury that possesses him who is
able to penetrate into it wounds yet a third man by hearing him repeat
it; like a loadstone that not only attracts the needle, but also infuses
into it the virtue to attract others. And it is more evidently manifest
in our theatres, that the sacred inspiration of the Muses, having first
stirred up the poet to anger, sorrow, hatred, and out of himself, to
whatever they will, does moreover by the poet possess the actor, and by
the actor consecutively all the spectators. So much do our passions hang
and depend upon one another.

Poetry has ever had that power over me from a child to transpierce and
transport me; but this vivid sentiment that is natural to me has been
variously handled by variety of forms, not so much higher or lower (for
they were ever the highest of every kind), as differing in colour.
First, a gay and sprightly fluency; afterwards, a lofty and penetrating
subtlety; and lastly, a mature and constant vigour. Their names will
better express them: Ovid, Lucan, Virgil.

But our poets are beginning their career:

         "Sit Cato, dum vivit, sane vel Caesare major,"

     ["Let Cato, whilst he live, be greater than Caesar."
     —Martial, vi. 32]

says one.

               "Et invictum, devicta morte, Catonem,"

          ["And Cato invincible, death being overcome."
          —Manilius, Astron., iv. 87.]

says the second. And the third, speaking of the civil wars betwixt
Caesar and Pompey,

          "Victrix causa diis placuit, set victa Catoni."

     ["The victorious cause blessed the gods, the defeated one Cato.
     —"Lucan, i. 128.]

And the fourth, upon the praises of Caesar:

              "Et cuncta terrarum subacta,
               Praeter atrocem animum Catonis."

     ["And conquered all but the indomitable mind of Cato."
     —Horace, Od., ii. 1, 23.]

And the master of the choir, after having set forth all the great names
of the greatest Romans, ends thus:

                    "His dantem jura Catonem."

     ["Cato giving laws to all the rest."—AEneid, viii. 670.]