The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIII. Of ill means employed to a good end.
There is wonderful relation and correspondence in this universal
government of the works of nature, which very well makes it appear that
it is neither accidental nor carried on by divers masters. The diseases
and conditions of our bodies are, in like manner, manifest in states and
governments; kingdoms and republics are founded, flourish, and decay with
age as we do. We are subject to a repletion of humours, useless and
dangerous: whether of those that are good (for even those the physicians
are afraid of; and seeing we have nothing in us that is stable, they say
that a too brisk and vigorous perfection of health must be abated by art,
lest our nature, unable to rest in any certain condition, and not having
whither to rise to mend itself, make too sudden and too disorderly a
retreat; and therefore prescribe wrestlers to purge and bleed, to qualify
that superabundant health), or else a repletion of evil humours, which is
the ordinary cause of sickness. States are very often sick of the like
repletion, and various sorts of purgations have commonly been applied.
Some times a great multitude of families are turned out to clear the
country, who seek out new abodes elsewhere and encroach upon others.
After this manner our ancient Franks came from the remotest part of
Germany to seize upon Gaul, and to drive thence the first inhabitants;
so was that infinite deluge of men made up who came into Italy under the
conduct of Brennus and others; so the Goths and Vandals, and also the
people who now possess Greece, left their native country to go settle
elsewhere, where they might have more room; and there are scarce two or
three little corners in the world that have not felt the effect of such
removals. The Romans by this means erected their colonies; for,
perceiving their city to grow immeasurably populous, they eased it of the
most unnecessary people, and sent them to inhabit and cultivate the lands
conquered by them; sometimes also they purposely maintained wars with
some of their enemies, not only to keep their own men in action, for fear
lest idleness, the mother of corruption, should bring upon them some
"Et patimur longae pacis mala; saevior armis
["And we suffer the ills of a long peace; luxury is more pernicious
than war."—Juvenal, vi. 291.]
but also to serve for a blood-letting to their Republic, and a little to
evaporate the too vehement heat of their youth, to prune and clear the
branches from the stock too luxuriant in wood; and to this end it was
that they maintained so long a war with Carthage.
In the treaty of Bretigny, Edward III., king of England, would not, in
the general peace he then made with our king, comprehend the controversy
about the Duchy of Brittany, that he might have a place wherein to
discharge himself of his soldiers, and that the vast number of English he
had brought over to serve him in his expedition here might not return
back into England. And this also was one reason why our King Philip
consented to send his son John upon a foreign expedition, that he might
take along with him a great number of hot young men who were then in his
There—are many in our times who talk at this rate, wishing that
this hot emotion that is now amongst us might discharge itself in some
neighbouring war, for fear lest all the peccant humours that now reign in
this politic body of ours may diffuse themselves farther, keep the fever
still in the height, and at last cause our total ruin; and, in truth, a
foreign is much more supportable than a civil war, but I do not believe
that God will favour so unjust a design as to offend and quarrel with
others for our own advantage:
"Nil mihi tam valde placeat, Rhamnusia virgo,
Quod temere invitis suscipiatur heris."
["Rhamnusian virgin, let nothing ever so greatly please me which is
taken without justice from the unwilling owners"
—Catullus, lxviii. 77.]
And yet the weakness of our condition often pushes us upon the necessity
of making use of ill means to a good end. Lycurgus, the most perfect
legislator that ever was, virtuous and invented this very unjust practice
of making the helots, who were their slaves, drunk by force, to the end
that the Spartans, seeing them so lost and buried in wine, might abhor
the excess of this vice. And yet those were still more to blame who of
old gave leave that criminals, to what sort of death soever condemned,
should be cut up alive by the physicians, that they might make a true
discovery of our inward parts, and build their art upon greater
certainty; for, if we must run into excesses, it is more excusable to do
it for the health of the soul than that of the body; as the Romans
trained up the people to valour and the contempt of dangers and death by
those furious spectacles of gladiators and fencers, who, having to fight
it out to the last, cut, mangled, and killed one another in their
"Quid vesani aliud sibi vult ars impia ludi,
Quid mortes juvenum, quid sanguine pasta voluptas?"
["What other end does the impious art of the gladiators propose to
itself, what the slaughter of young men, what pleasure fed with
blood."—Prudentius, Contra Symmachum, ii. 643.]
and this custom continued till the Emperor Theodosius' time:
"Arripe dilatam tua, dux, in tempora famam,
Quodque patris superest, successor laudis habeto
Nullus in urbe cadat, cujus sit poena voluptas....
Jam solis contenta feris, infamis arena
Nulla cruentatis homicidia ludat in armis."
["Prince, take the honours delayed for thy reign, and be successor
to thy fathers; henceforth let none at Rome be slain for sport. Let
beasts' blood stain the infamous arena, and no more homicides be
there acted."—Prudentius, Contra Symmachum, ii. 643.]
It was, in truth, a wonderful example, and of great advantage for the
training up the people, to see every day before their eyes a hundred; two
hundred, nay, a thousand couples of men armed against one another, cut
one another to pieces with so great a constancy of courage, that they
were never heard to utter so much as one syllable of weakness or
commiseration; never seen to turn their backs, nor so much as to make one
cowardly step to evade a blow, but rather exposed their necks to the
adversary's sword and presented themselves to receive the stroke; and
many of them, when wounded to death, have sent to ask the spectators if
they were satisfied with their behaviour, before they lay down to die
upon the place. It was not enough for them to fight and to die bravely,
but cheerfully too; insomuch that they were hissed and cursed if they
made any hesitation about receiving their death. The very girls
themselves set them on:
"Consurgit ad ictus,
Et, quoties victor ferrum jugulo inserit, illa
Delicias ait esse suas, pectusque jacentis
Virgo modesta jubet converso pollice rumpi."
["The modest virgin is so delighted with the sport, that she
applauds the blow, and when the victor bathes his sword in his
fellow's throat, she says it is her pleasure, and with turned thumb
orders him to rip up the bosom of the prostrate victim."
—Prudentius, Contra Symmachum, ii. 617.]
The first Romans only condemned criminals to this example: but they
afterwards employed innocent slaves in the work, and even freemen too,
who sold themselves to this purpose, nay, moreover, senators and knights
of Rome, and also women:
"Nunc caput in mortem vendunt, et funus arena,
Atque hostem sibi quisque parat, cum bella quiescunt."
["They sell themselves to death and the circus, and, since the wars
are ceased, each for himself a foe prepares."
—Manilius, Astron., iv. 225.]
"Hos inter fremitus novosque lusus....
Stat sexus rudis insciusque ferri,
Et pugnas capit improbus viriles;"
["Amidst these tumults and new sports, the tender sex, unskilled in
arms, immodestly engaged in manly fights."
—Statius, Sylv., i. 6, 51.]
which I should think strange and incredible, if we were not accustomed
every day to see in our own wars many thousands of men of other nations,
for money to stake their blood and their lives in quarrels wherein they
have no manner of concern.