The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXXI

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Chapter XXXI. Of anger.[edit]

Plutarch is admirable throughout, but especially where he judges of human
actions. What fine things does he say in the comparison of Lycurgus and
Numa upon the subject of our great folly in abandoning children to the
care and government of their fathers? The most of our civil governments,
as Aristotle says, "leave, after the manner of the Cyclopes, to every one
the ordering of their wives and children, according to their own foolish
and indiscreet fancy; and the Lacedaemonian and Cretan are almost the
only governments that have committed the education of children to the
laws. Who does not see that in a state all depends upon their nurture
and bringing up? and yet they are left to the mercy of parents, let them
be as foolish and ill-conditioned as they may, without any manner of

Amongst other things, how often have I, as I have passed along our
streets, had a good mind to get up a farce, to revenge the poor boys whom
I have seen hided, knocked down, and miserably beaten by some father or
mother, when in their fury and mad with rage? You shall see them come
out with fire and fury sparkling in their eyes:

              "Rabie jecur incendente, feruntur,
               Praecipites; ut saxa jugis abrupta, quibus mons
               Subtrahitur, clivoque latus pendente recedit,"

     ["They are headlong borne with burning fury as great stones torn
     from the mountains, by which the steep sides are left naked and
     bare."—Juvenal, Sat., vi. 647.]

(and according to Hippocrates, the most dangerous maladies are they that
disfigure the countenance), with a roaring and terrible voice, very often
against those that are but newly come from nurse, and there they are
lamed and spoiled with blows, whilst our justice takes no cognisance of
it, as if these maims and dislocations were not executed upon members of
our commonwealth:

         "Gratum est, quod patria; civem populoque dedisti,
          Si facis, ut patrix sit idoneus, utilis agris,
          Utilis et bellorum et pacis rebus agendis."

     ["It is well when to thy country and the people thou hast given a
     citizen, provided thou make fit for his country's service; useful to
     till the earth, useful in affairs of war and peace"
     —Juvenal, Sat., xiv. 70.]

There is no passion that so much transports men from their right judgment
as anger. No one would demur upon punishing a judge with death who
should condemn a criminal on the account of his own choler; why, then,
should fathers and pedagogues be any more allowed to whip and chastise
children in their anger? 'Tis then no longer correction, but revenge.
Chastisement is instead of physic to children; and would we endure a
physician who should be animated against and enraged at his patient?

We ourselves, to do well, should never lay a hand upon our servants
whilst our anger lasts. When the pulse beats, and we feel emotion in
ourselves, let us defer the business; things will indeed appear otherwise
to us when we are calm and cool. 'Tis passion that then commands, 'tis
passion that speaks, and not we. Faults seen through passion appear much
greater to us than they really are, as bodies do when seen through a
mist. He who is hungry uses meat; but he who will make use of
chastisement should have neither hunger nor thirst to it. And, moreover,
chastisements that are inflicted with weight and discretion are much
better received and with greater benefit by him who suffers; otherwise,
he will not think himself justly condemned by a man transported with
anger and fury, and will allege his master's excessive passion, his
inflamed countenance, his unwonted oaths, his emotion and precipitous
rashness, for his own justification:

              "Ora tument ira, nigrescunt sanguine venae,
               Lumina Gorgoneo saevius igne micant."

     ["Their faces swell, their veins grow black with rage, and their
     eyes sparkle with Gorgonian fire."—Ovid, De Art. Amandi, iii. 503.]

Suetonius reports that Caius Rabirius having been condemned by Caesar,
the thing that most prevailed upon the people (to whom he had appealed)
to determine the cause in his favour, was the animosity and vehemence
that Caesar had manifested in that sentence.

Saying is a different thing from doing; we are to consider the sermon
apart and the preacher apart. These men lent themselves to a pretty
business who in our times have attempted to shake the truth of our Church
by the vices of her ministers; she extracts her testimony elsewhere; 'tis
a foolish way of arguing and that would throw all things into confusion.
A man whose morals are good may have false opinions, and a wicked man may
preach truth, even though he believe it not himself. 'Tis doubtless a
fine harmony when doing and saying go together; and I will not deny but
that saying, when the actions follow, is not of greater authority and
efficacy, as Eudamidas said, hearing a philosopher talk of military
affairs: "These things are finely said, but he who speaks them is not to
be believed for his ears have never been used to the sound of the
trumpet." And Cleomenes, hearing an orator declaiming upon valour, burst
out into laughter, at which the other being angry; "I should," said he to
him, "do the same if it were a swallow that spoke of this subject; but if
it were an eagle I should willingly hear him." I perceive, methinks, in
the writings of the ancients, that he who speaks what he thinks, strikes
much more home than he who only feigns. Hear Cicero speak of the love of
liberty: hear Brutus speak of it, the mere written words of this man
sound as if he would purchase it at the price of his life. Let Cicero,
the father of eloquence, treat of the contempt of death; let Seneca do
the same: the first languishingly drawls it out so you perceive he would
make you resolve upon a thing on which he is not resolved himself; he
inspires you not with courage, for he himself has none; the other
animates and inflames you. I never read an author, even of those who
treat of virtue and of actions, that I do not curiously inquire what kind
of a man he was himself; for the Ephori at Sparta, seeing a dissolute
fellow propose a wholesome advice to the people, commanded him to hold
his peace, and entreated a virtuous man to attribute to himself the
invention, and to propose it. Plutarch's writings, if well understood,
sufficiently bespeak their author, and so that I think I know him even
into his soul; and yet I could wish that we had some fuller account of
his life. And I am thus far wandered from my subject, upon the account
of the obligation I have to Aulus Gellius, for having left us in writing
this story of his manners, that brings me back to my subject of anger.
A slave of his, a vicious, ill-conditioned fellow, but who had the
precepts of philosophy often ringing in his ears, having for some offence
of his been stript by Plutarch's command, whilst he was being whipped,
muttered at first, that it was without cause and that he had done nothing
to deserve it; but at last falling in good earnest to exclaim against and
rail at his master, he reproached him that he was no philosopher, as he
had boasted himself to be: that he had often heard him say it was
indecent to be angry, nay, had written a book to that purpose; and that
the causing him to be so cruelly beaten, in the height of his rage,
totally gave the lie to all his writings; to which Plutarch calmly and
coldly answered, "How, ruffian," said he, "by what dost thou judge that
I am now angry? Does either my face, my colour, or my voice give any
manifestation of my being moved? I do not think my eyes look fierce,
that my countenance appears troubled, or that my voice is dreadful: am I
red, do I foam, does any word escape my lips I ought to repent? Do I
start? Do I tremble with fury? For those, I tell thee, are the true
signs of anger." And so, turning to the fellow that was whipping him,
"Ply on thy work," said he, "whilst this gentleman and I dispute." This
is his story.

Archytas Tarentinus, returning from a war wherein he had been
captain-general, found all things in his house in very great disorder,
and his lands quite out of tillage, through the ill husbandry of his
receiver, and having caused him to be called to him; "Go," said he, "if I
were not in anger I would soundly drub your sides." Plato likewise,
being highly offended with one of his slaves, gave Speusippus order to
chastise him, excusing himself from doing it because he was in anger.
And Carillus, a Lacedaemonian, to a Helot, who carried himself insolently
towards him: "By the gods," said he, "if I was not angry, I would
immediately cause thee to be put to death."

'Tis a passion that is pleased with and flatters itself. How often,
being moved under a false cause, if the person offending makes a good
defence and presents us with a just excuse, are we angry against truth
and innocence itself? In proof of which, I remember a marvellous example
of antiquity.

Piso, otherwise a man of very eminent virtue, being moved against a
soldier of his, for that returning alone from forage he could give him no
account where he had left a companion of his, took it for granted that he
had killed him, and presently condemned him to death. He was no sooner
mounted upon the gibbet, but, behold, his wandering companion arrives, at
which all the army were exceedingly glad, and after many embraces of the
two comrades, the hangman carried both the one and the other into Piso's
presence, all those present believing it would be a great pleasure even
to himself; but it proved quite contrary; for through shame and spite,
his fury, which was not yet cool, redoubled; and by a subtlety which his
passion suddenly suggested to him, he made three criminals for having
found one innocent, and caused them all to be despatched: the first
soldier, because sentence had passed upon him; the second, who had lost
his way, because he was the cause of his companion's death; and the
hangman, for not having obeyed the order which had been given him.
Such as have had to do with testy and obstinate women, may have
experimented into what a rage it puts them to oppose silence and coldness
to their fury, and that a man disdains to nourish their anger. The
orator Celius was wonderfully choleric by nature; and to one who supped
in his company, a man of a gentle and sweet conversation, and who, that
he might not move him, approved and consented to all he said; he,
impatient that his ill-humour should thus spend itself without aliment:
"For the love of the gods deny me something," said he, "that we may be
two." Women, in like manner, are only angry that others may be angry
again, in imitation of the laws of love. Phocion, to one who interrupted
his speaking by injurious and very opprobrious words, made no other
return than silence, and to give him full liberty and leisure to vent his
spleen; which he having accordingly done, and the storm blown over,
without any mention of this disturbance, he proceeded in his discourse
where he had left off before. No answer can nettle a man like such a

Of the most choleric man in France (anger is always an imperfection, but
more excusable in, a soldier, for in that trade it cannot sometimes be
avoided) I often say, that he is the most patient man that I know, and
the most discreet in bridling his passions; which rise in him with so
great violence and fury,

                    "Magno veluti cum flamma sonore
          Virgea suggeritur costis undantis ahem,
          Exsultantque aatu latices, furit intus aquae vis.
          Fumidus atque alte spumis exuberat amnis,
          Nec jam se capit unda; volat vapor ater ad auras;"

     ["When with loud crackling noise, a fire of sticks is applied to the
     boiling caldron's side, by the heat in frisky bells the liquor
     dances; within the water rages, and high the smoky fluid in foam
     overflows. Nor can the wave now contain itself; the black steam
     flies all abroad."—AEneid, vii. 462.]

that he must of necessity cruelly constrain himself to moderate it. And
for my part, I know no passion which I could with so much violence to
myself attempt to cover and conceal; I would not set wisdom at so high a
price; and do not so much consider what a man does, as how much it costs
him to do no worse.

Another boasted himself to me of the regularity and gentleness of his
manners, which are to truth very singular; to whom I replied, that it was
indeed something, especially m persons of so eminent a quality as
himself, upon whom every one had their eyes, to present himself always
well-tempered to the world; but that the principal thing was to make
provision for within and for himself; and that it was not in my opinion
very well to order his business outwardly well, and to grate himself
within, which I was afraid he did, in putting on and maintaining this
mask and external appearance.

A man incorporates anger by concealing it, as Diogenes told Demosthenes,
who, for fear of being seen in a tavern, withdrew himself the more
retiredly into it: "The more you retire backward, the farther you enter
in." I would rather advise that a man should give his servant a box of
the ear a little unseasonably, than rack his fancy to present this grave
and composed countenance; and had rather discover my passions than brood
over them at my own expense; they grow less inventing and manifesting
themselves; and 'tis much better their point should wound others without,
than be turned towards ourselves within:

     "Omnia vitia in aperto leviora sunt: et tunc perniciosissima,
     quum simulata sanitate subsident."

     ["All vices are less dangerous when open to be seen, and then most
     pernicious when they lurk under a dissembled good nature."
     —Seneca, Ep. 56]

I admonish all those who have authority to be angry in my family, in the
first place to manage their anger and not to lavish it upon every
occasion, for that both lessens the value and hinders the effect: rash
and incessant scolding runs into custom, and renders itself despised; and
what you lay out upon a servant for a theft is not felt, because it is
the same he has seen you a hundred times employ against him for having
ill washed a glass, or set a stool out of place. Secondly, that they be
not angry to no purpose, but make sure that their reprehension reach him
with whom they are offended; for, ordinarily, they rail and bawl before
he comes into their presence, and continue scolding an age after he is

               "Et secum petulans amentia certat:"

          ["And petulant madness contends with itself."
          —Claudian in Eutrop., i. 237.]

they attack his shadow, and drive the storm in a place where no one is
either chastised or concerned, but in the clamour of their voice.
I likewise in quarrels condemn those who huff and vapour without an
enemy: those rhodomontades should be reserved to discharge upon the
offending party:

         "Mugitus veluti cum prima in praelia taurus
          Terrificos ciet, atque irasci in cornua tentat,
          Arboris obnixus trunco, ventospue lacessit
          Ictibus, et sparsa ad pugnum proludit arena."

     ["As when a bull to usher in the fight, makes dreadful bellowings,
     and whets his horns against the trunk of a tree; with blows he beats
     the air, and rehearses the fight by scattering the sand."
     —AEneid, xii. 103.]

When I am angry, my anger is very sharp but withal very short, and as
private as I can; I lose myself indeed in promptness and violence, but
not in trouble; so that I throw out all sorts of injurious words at
random, and without choice, and never consider pertinently to dart my
language where I think it will deepest wound, for I commonly make use of
no other weapon than my tongue.

My servants have a better bargain of me in great occasions than in
little; the little ones surprise me; and the misfortune is, that when you
are once upon the precipice, 'tis no matter who gave you the push, you
always go to the bottom; the fall urges, moves, and makes haste of
itself. In great occasions this satisfies me, that they are so just
every one expects a reasonable indignation, and then I glorify myself in
deceiving their expectation; against these, I fortify and prepare myself;
they disturb my head, and threaten to transport me very far, should I
follow them. I can easily contain myself from entering into one of these
passions, and am strong enough, when I expect them, to repel their
violence, be the cause never so great; but if a passion once prepossess
and seize me, it carries me away, be the cause never so small. I bargain
thus with those who may contend with me when you see me moved first, let
me alone, right or wrong; I'll do the same for you. The storm is only
begot by a concurrence of angers, which easily spring from one another,
and are not born together. Let every one have his own way, and we shall
be always at peace. A profitable advice, but hard to execute. Sometimes
also it falls out that I put on a seeming anger, for the better governing
of my house, without any real emotion. As age renders my humours more
sharp, I study to oppose them, and will, if I can, order it so, that for
the future I may be so much the less peevish and hard to please, as I
have more excuse and inclination to be so, although I have heretofore
been reckoned amongst those who have the greatest patience.

A word more to conclude this argument. Aristotle says, that anger
sometimes serves for arms to virtue and valour. That is probable;
nevertheless, they who contradict him pleasantly answer, that 'tis a
weapon of novel use, for we move all other arms, this moves us; our hand
guides it not, 'tis it that guides our hand; it holds us, we hold not it.