The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter VII

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter VII. Of recompenses of honour.

Chapter VII. Of recompenses of honour.[edit]

They who write the life of Augustus Caesar,—[Suetonius, Life of
Augustus, c. 25.]—observe this in his military discipline, that he was
wonderfully liberal of gifts to men of merit, but that as to the true
recompenses of honour he was as sparing; yet he himself had been
gratified by his uncle with all the military recompenses before he had
ever been in the field. It was a pretty invention, and received into
most governments of the world, to institute certain vain and in
themselves valueless distinctions to honour and recompense virtue, such
as the crowns of laurel, oak, and myrtle, the particular fashion of some
garment, the privilege to ride in a coach in the city, or at night with a
torch, some peculiar place assigned in public assemblies, the prerogative
of certain additional names and titles, certain distinctions in the
bearing of coats of arms, and the like, the use of which, according to
the several humours of nations, has been variously received, and yet

We in France, as also several of our neighbours, have orders of
knighthood that are instituted only for this end. And 'tis, in earnest,
a very good and profitable custom to find out an acknowledgment for the
worth of rare and excellent men, and to satisfy them with rewards that
are not at all chargeable either to prince or people. And that which has
always been found by ancient experience, and which we have heretofore
observed among ourselves, that men of quality have ever been more jealous
of such recompenses than of those wherein there was gain and profit, is
not without very good ground and reason. If with the reward, which ought
to be simply a recompense of honour, they should mix other commodities
and add riches, this mixture, instead of procuring an increase of
estimation, would debase and abate it. The Order of St. Michael, which
has been so long in repute amongst us, had no greater commodity than that
it had no communication with any other commodity, which produced this
effect, that formerly there was no office or title whatever to which the
gentry pretended with so great desire and affection as they did to that;
no quality that carried with it more respect and grandeur, valour and
worth more willingly embracing and with greater ambition aspiring to a
recompense purely its own, and rather glorious than profitable. For, in
truth, other gifts have not so great a dignity of usage, by reason they
are laid out upon all sorts of occasions; with money a man pays the wages
of a servant, the diligence of a courier, dancing, vaulting, speaking,
and the meanest offices we receive; nay, and reward vice with it too, as
flattery, treachery, and pimping; and therefore 'tis no wonder if virtue
less desires and less willingly receives this common sort of payment,
than that which is proper and peculiar to her, throughout generous and
noble. Augustus had reason to be more sparing of this than the other,
insomuch that honour is a privilege which derives its principal essence
from rarity; and so virtue itself:

          "Cui malus est nemo, quis bonus esse potest?"

     ["To whom no one is ill who can be good?"-Martial, xii. 82.]

We do not intend it for a commendation when we say that such a one is
careful in the education of his children, by reason it is a common act,
how just and well done soever; no more than we commend a great tree,
where the whole forest is the same. I do not think that any citizen of
Sparta glorified himself much upon his valour, it being the universal
virtue of the whole nation; and as little upon his fidelity and contempt
of riches. There is no recompense becomes virtue, how great soever, that
is once passed into a custom; and I know not withal whether we can ever
call it great, being common.

Seeing, then, that these remunerations of honour have no other value and
estimation but only this, that few people enjoy them, 'tis but to be
liberal of them to bring them down to nothing. And though there should
be now more men found than in former times worthy of our order, the
estimation of it nevertheless should not be abated, nor the honour made
cheap; and it may easily happen that more may merit it; for there is no
virtue that so easily spreads as that of military valour. There is
another virtue, true, perfect, and philosophical, of which I do not
speak, and only make use of the word in our common acceptation, much
greater than this and more full, which is a force and assurance of the
soul, equally despising all sorts of adverse accidents, equable, uniform,
and constant, of which ours is no more than one little ray. Use,
education, example, and custom can do all in all to the establishment of
that whereof I am speaking, and with great facility render it common, as
by the experience of our civil wars is manifest enough; and whoever could
at this time unite us all, Catholic and Huguenot, into one body, and set
us upon some brave common enterprise, we should again make our ancient
military reputation flourish. It is most certain that in times past the
recompense of this order had not only a regard to valour, but had a
further prospect; it never was the reward of a valiant soldier but of a
great captain; the science of obeying was not reputed worthy of so
honourable a guerdon. There was therein a more universal military
expertness required, and that comprehended the most and the greatest
qualities of a military man:

          "Neque enim eaedem militares et imperatorix artes sunt,"

     ["For the arts of soldiery and generalship are not the same."
     —Livy, xxv. 19.]

as also, besides, a condition suitable to such a dignity. But, I say,
though more men were worthy than formerly, yet ought it not to be more
liberally distributed, and it were better to fall short in not giving it
at all to whom it should be due, than for ever to lose, as we have lately
done, the fruit of so profitable an invention. No man of spirit will
deign to advantage himself with what is in common with many; and such of
the present time as have least merited this recompense themselves make
the greater show of disdaining it, in order thereby to be ranked with
those to whom so much wrong has been done by the unworthy conferring and
debasing the distinction which was their particular right.

Now, to expect that in obliterating and abolishing this, suddenly to
create and bring into credit a like institution, is not a proper attempt
for so licentious and so sick a time as this wherein we now are; and it
will fall out that the last will from its birth incur the same
inconveniences that have ruined the other.—[Montaigne refers to the
Order of the Saint-Esprit, instituted by Henry III. in 1578.]—The
rules for dispensing this new order had need to be extremely clipt and
bound under great restrictions, to give it authority; and this tumultuous
season is incapable of such a curb: besides that, before this can be
brought into repute, 'tis necessary that the memory of the first, and of
the contempt into which it is fallen, be buried in oblivion.

This place might naturally enough admit of some discourse upon the
consideration of valour, and the difference of this virtue from others;
but, Plutarch having so often handled this subject, I should give myself
an unnecessary trouble to repeat what he has said. But this is worth
considering: that our nation places valour, vaillance, in the highest
degree of virtue, as its very word evidences, being derived from valeur,
and that, according to our use, when we say a man of high worth a good
man, in our court style—'tis to say a valiant man, after the Roman way;
for the general appellation of virtue with them takes etymology from vis,
force. The proper, sole, and essential profession of, the French
noblesse is that of arms: and 'tis likely that the first virtue that
discovered itself amongst men and has given to some advantage over
others, was that by which the strongest and most valiant have mastered
the weaker, and acquired a particular authority and reputation, whence
came to it that dignified appellation; or else, that these nations, being
very warlike, gave the pre-eminence to that of the virtues which was most
familiar to them; just as our passion and the feverish solicitude we have
of the chastity of women occasions that to say, a good woman, a woman of
worth, a woman of honour and virtue, signifies merely a chaste woman as
if, to oblige them to that one duty, we were indifferent as to all the
rest, and gave them the reins in all other faults whatever to compound
for that one of incontinence.