The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter V

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Chapter V. Of conscience.[edit]

The Sieur de la Brousse, my brother, and I, travelling one day together
during the time of our civil wars, met a gentleman of good sort. He was
of the contrary party, though I did not know so much, for he pretended
otherwise: and the mischief on't is, that in this sort of war the cards
are so shuffled, your enemy not being distinguished from yourself by any
apparent mark either of language or habit, and being nourished under the
same law, air, and manners, it is very hard to avoid disorder and
confusion. This made me afraid myself of meeting any of our troops in a
place where I was not known, that I might not be in fear to tell my name,
and peradventure of something worse; as it had befallen me before, where,
by such a mistake, I lost both men and horses, and amongst others an
Italian gentleman my page, whom I bred with the greatest care and
affection, was miserably slain, in whom a youth of great promise and
expectation was extinguished. But the gentleman my brother and I met
had so desperate, half-dead a fear upon him at meeting with any horse,
or passing by any of the towns that held for the King, that I at last
discovered it to be alarms of conscience. It seemed to the poor man as
if through his visor and the crosses upon his cassock, one would have
penetrated into his bosom and read the most secret intentions of his
heart; so wonderful is the power of conscience. It makes us betray,
accuse, and fight against ourselves, and for want of other witnesses, to
give evidence against ourselves:

               "Occultum quatiens animo tortore flagellum."

     ["The torturer of the soul brandishing a sharp scourge within."
     —Juvenal, iii. 195.]

This story is in every child's mouth: Bessus the Paeonian, being
reproached for wantonly pulling down a nest of young sparrows and killing
them, replied, that he had reason to do so, seeing that those little
birds never ceased falsely to accuse him of the murder of his father.
This parricide had till then been concealed and unknown, but the
revenging fury of conscience caused it to be discovered by him himself,
who was to suffer for it. Hesiod corrects the saying of Plato, that
punishment closely follows sin, it being, as he says, born at the same
time with it. Whoever expects punishment already suffers it, and whoever
has deserved it expects it. Wickedness contrives torments against

               "Malum consilium consultori pessimum."

               ["Ill designs are worst to the contriver."
               —Apud Aul. Gellium, iv. 5.]

as the wasp stings and hurts another, but most of all itself, for it
there loses its sting and its use for ever,

                    "Vitasque in vulnere ponunt."

               ["And leave their own lives in the wound."
               —Virgil, Geo., iv. 238.]

Cantharides have somewhere about them, by a contrariety of nature, a
counterpoison against their poison. In like manner, at the same time
that men take delight in vice, there springs in the conscience a
displeasure that afflicts us sleeping and waking with various tormenting

              "Quippe ubi se multi, per somnia saepe loquentes,
               Aut morbo delirantes, protraxe ferantur,
               Et celata diu in medium peccata dedisse."

     ["Surely where many, often talking in their sleep, or raving in
     disease, are said to have betrayed themselves, and to have given
     publicity to offences long concealed."—Lucretius, v. 1157.]

Apollodorus dreamed that he saw himself flayed by the Scythians and
afterwards boiled in a cauldron, and that his heart muttered these words
"I am the cause of all these mischiefs that have befallen thee."
Epicurus said that no hiding-hole could conceal the wicked, since they
could never assure themselves of being hid whilst their conscience
discovered them to themselves.

                    "Prima est haec ultio, quod se
               Judice nemo nocens absohitur."

     ["Tis the first punishment of sin that no man absolves himself." or:
     "This is the highest revenge, that by its judgment no offender is
     absolved."—Juvenal, xiii. 2.]

As an ill conscience fills us with fear, so a good one gives us greater
confidence and assurance; and I can truly say that I have gone through
several hazards with a more steady pace in consideration of the secret
knowledge I had of my own will and the innocence of my intentions:

         "Conscia mens ut cuique sua est, ita concipit intra
          Pectora pro facto spemque metumque suo."

     ["As a man's conscience is, so within hope or fear prevails, suiting
     to his design."—Ovid, Fast., i. 485.]

Of this are a thousand examples; but it will be enough to instance three
of one and the same person. Scipio, being one day accused before the
people of Rome of some crimes of a very high nature, instead of excusing
himself or flattering his judges: "It will become you well," said he,
"to sit in judgment upon a head, by whose means you have the power to
judge all the world." Another time, all the answer he gave to several
impeachments brought against him by a tribune of the people, instead of
making his defence: "Let us go, citizens," said he, "let us go render
thanks to the gods for the victory they gave me over the Carthaginians as
this day," and advancing himself before towards the Temple, he had
presently all the assembly and his very accuser himself following at his
heels. And Petilius, having been set on by Cato to demand an account of
the money that had passed through his hands in the province of Antioch,
Scipio being come into the senate to that purpose, produced a book from
under his robe, wherein he told them was an exact account of his receipts
and disbursements; but being required to deliver it to the prothonotary
to be examined, he refused, saying, he would not do himself so great a
disgrace; and in the presence of the whole senate tore the book with his
own hands to pieces. I do not believe that the most seared conscience
could have counterfeited so great an assurance. He had naturally too
high a spirit and was accustomed to too high a fortune, says Titius
Livius, to know how to be criminal, and to lower himself to the meanness
of defending his innocence. The putting men to the rack is a dangerous
invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth.
Both he who has the fortitude to endure it conceals the truth, and he who
has not: for why should pain sooner make me confess what really is, than
force me to say what is not? And, on the contrary, if he who is not
guilty of that whereof he is accused, has the courage to undergo those
torments, why should not he who is guilty have the same, so fair a reward
as life being in his prospect? I believe the ground of this invention
proceeds from the consideration of the force of conscience: for, to the
guilty, it seems to assist the rack to make him confess his fault and to
shake his resolution; and, on the other side, that it fortifies the
innocent against the torture. But when all is done, 'tis, in plain
truth, a trial full of uncertainty and danger what would not a man say,
what would not a man do, to avoid so intolerable torments?

               "Etiam innocentes cogit mentiri dolor."

     ["Pain will make even the innocent lie."—Publius Syrus, De Dolore.]

Whence it comes to pass, that him whom the judge has racked that he may
not die innocent, he makes him die both innocent and racked. A thousand
and a thousand have charged their own heads by false confessions, amongst
whom I place Philotas, considering the circumstances of the trial
Alexander put upon him and the progress of his torture. But so it is
that some say it is the least evil human weakness could invent; very
inhumanly, notwithstanding, and to very little purpose, in my opinion.

Many nations less barbarous in this than the Greeks and Romans who call
them so, repute it horrible and cruel to torment and pull a man to pieces
for a fault of which they are yet in doubt. How can he help your
ignorance? Are not you unjust, that, not to kill him without cause, do
worse than kill him? And that this is so, do but observe how often men
prefer to die without reason than undergo this examination, more painful
than execution itself; and that oft-times by its extremity anticipates
execution, and perform it. I know not where I had this story, but it
exactly matches the conscience of our justice in this particular. A
country-woman, to a general of a very severe discipline, accused one of
his soldiers that he had taken from her children the little soup meat she
had left to nourish them withal, the army having consumed all the rest;
but of this proof there was none. The general, after having cautioned
the woman to take good heed to what she said, for that she would make
herself guilty of a false accusation if she told a lie, and she
persisting, he presently caused the soldier's belly to be ripped up to
clear the truth of the fact, and the woman was found to be right. An
instructive sentence.