The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter XXXVI

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter XXXVI. Of the most excellent men.

Chapter XXXVI. Of the most excellent men.[edit]


If I should be asked my choice among all the men who have come to my
knowledge, I should make answer, that methinks I find three more
excellent than all the rest.

One of them Homer: not that Aristotle and Varro, for example, were not,
peradventure, as learned as he; nor that possibly Virgil was not equal to
him in his own art, which I leave to be determined by such as know them
both. I who, for my part, understand but one of them, can only say this,
according to my poor talent, that I do not believe the Muses themselves
could ever go beyond the Roman:

              "Tale facit carmen docta testudine, quale
               Cynthius impositis temperat articulis:"

     ["He plays on his learned lute a verse such as Cynthian Apollo
     modulates with his imposed fingers."—Propertius, ii. 34, 79.]

and yet in this judgment we are not to forget that it is chiefly from
Homer that Virgil derives his excellence, that he is guide and teacher;
and that one touch of the Iliad has supplied him with body and matter out
of which to compose his great and divine AEneid. I do not reckon upon
that, but mix several other circumstances that render to me this poet
admirable, even as it were above human condition. And, in truth, I often
wonder that he who has produced, and, by his authority, given reputation
in the world to so many deities, was not deified himself. Being blind
and poor, living before the sciences were reduced into rule and certain
observation, he was so well acquainted with them, that all those who have
since taken upon them to establish governments, to carry on wars, and to
write either of religion or philosophy, of what sect soever, or of the
arts, have made use of him as of a most perfect instructor in the
knowledge of all things, and of his books as of a treasury of all sorts
of learning:

         "Qui, quid sit pulcrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non,
          Planius ac melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit:"

     ["Who tells us what is good, what evil, what useful, what not, more
     clearly and better than Chrysippus and Crantor?"
     —Horace, Ep., i. 2, 3.]

and as this other says,

                   "A quo, ceu fonte perenni,
                    Vatum Pieriis ora rigantur aquis"

     ["From which, as from a perennial spring, the lips of the poets
     are moistened by Pierian waters."—Ovid, Amoy., iii. 9, 25.]

and the other,

              "Adde Heliconiadum comites, quorum unus Homerus
               Sceptra potitus;"

     ["Add the companions of the Muses, whose sceptre Homer has solely
     obtained."—Lucretius, iii. 1050.]

and the other:

                         "Cujusque ex ore profusos
               Omnis posteritas latices in carmina duxit,
               Amnemque in tenues ausa est deducere rivos.
               Unius foecunda bonis."

     ["From whose mouth all posterity has drawn out copious streams of
     verse, and has made bold to turn the mighty river into its little
     rivulets, fertile in the property of one man."
     —Manilius, Astyon., ii. 8.]

'Tis contrary to the order of nature that he has made the most excellent
production that can possibly be; for the ordinary birth of things is
imperfect; they thrive and gather strength by growing, whereas he
rendered the infancy of poesy and several other sciences mature, perfect,
and accomplished at first. And for this reason he may be called the
first and the last of the poets, according to the fine testimony
antiquity has left us of him, "that as there was none before him whom he
could imitate, so there has been none since that could imitate him."
His words, according to Aristotle, are the only words that have motion
and action, the only substantial words. Alexander the Great, having
found a rich cabinet amongst Darius' spoils, gave order it should be
reserved for him to keep his Homer in, saying: that he was the best and
most faithful counsellor he had in his military affairs. For the same
reason it was that Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandridas, said that he was
the poet of the Lacedaemonians, for that he was an excellent master for
the discipline of war. This singular and particular commendation is also
left of him in the judgment of Plutarch, that he is the only author in
the world that never glutted nor disgusted his readers, presenting
himself always another thing, and always flourishing in some new grace.
That wanton Alcibiades, having asked one, who pretended to learning, for
a book of Homer, gave him a box of the ear because he had none, which he
thought as scandalous as we should if we found one of our priests without
a Breviary. Xenophanes complained one day to Hiero, the tyrant of
Syracuse, that he was so poor he had not wherewithal to maintain two
servants. "What!" replied he, "Homer, who was much poorer than thou
art, keeps above ten thousand, though he is dead." What did Panaetius
leave unsaid when he called Plato the Homer of the philosophers? Besides
what glory can be compared to his? Nothing is so frequent in men's
mouths as his name and works, nothing so known and received as Troy,
Helen, and the war about her, when perhaps there was never any such
thing. Our children are still called by names that he invented above
three thousand years ago; who does not know Hector and Achilles? Not
only some particular families, but most nations also seek their origin in
his inventions. Mohammed, the second of that name, emperor of the Turks,
writing to our Pope Pius II., "I am astonished," says he, "that the
Italians should appear against me, considering that we have our common
descent from the Trojans, and that it concerns me as well as it does them
to revenge the blood of Hector upon the Greeks, whom they countenance
against me." Is it not a noble farce wherein kings, republics, and
emperors have so many ages played their parts, and to which the vast
universe serves for a theatre? Seven Grecian cities contended for his
birth, so much honour even his obscurity helped him to!

     "Smyrna, Rhodos, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, Athenm."

The other is Alexander the Great. For whoever will consider the age at
which he began his enterprises, the small means by which he effected so
glorious a design, the authority he obtained in such mere youth with the
greatest and most experienced captains of the world, by whom he was
followed, the extraordinary favour wherewith fortune embraced and
favoured so many hazardous, not to say rash, exploits,

               "Impellens quicquid sibi summa petenti
               Obstaret, gaudensque viam fecisse ruins;"

     ["Bearing down all who sought to withstand him, and pleased
     to force his way by ruin."—Lucan, i. 149.]

that greatness, to have at the age of three-and-thirty years, passed
victorious through the whole habitable earth, and in half a life to have
attained to the utmost of what human nature can do; so that you cannot
imagine its just duration and the continuation of his increase in valour
and fortune, up to a due maturity of age, but that you must withal
imagine something more than man: to have made so many royal branches to
spring from his soldiers, leaving the world, at his death, divided
amongst four successors, simple captains of his army, whose posterity so
long continued and maintained that vast possession; so many excellent
virtues as he was master of, justice, temperance, liberality, truth in
his word, love towards his own people, and humanity towards those he
overcame; for his manners, in general, seem in truth incapable of any
manner of reproach, although some particular and extraordinary actions of
his may fall under censure. But it is impossible to carry on such great
things as he did within the strict rules of justice; such as he are to be
judged in gross by the main end of their actions. The ruin of Thebes and
Persepolis, the murder of Menander and of Ephistion's physician, the
massacre of so many Persian prisoners at one time, of a troop of Indian
soldiers not without prejudice to his word, and of the Cossians, so much
as to the very children, are indeed sallies that are not well to be
excused. For, as to Clytus, the fault was more than redeemed; and that
very action, as much as any other whatever, manifests the goodness of his
nature, a nature most excellently formed to goodness; and it was
ingeniously said of him, that he had his virtues from Nature, his vices
from Fortune. As to his being a little given to bragging, a little too
impatient of hearing himself ill-spoken of, and as to those mangers,
arms, and bits he caused to be strewed in the Indies, all those little
vanities, methinks, may very well be allowed to his youth, and the
prodigious prosperity of his fortune. And who will consider withal his
so many military virtues, his diligence, foresight, patience, discipline,
subtlety, magnanimity, resolution, and good fortune, wherein (though we
had not had the authority of Hannibal to assure us) he was the first of
men, the admirable beauty and symmetry of his person, even to a miracle,
his majestic port and awful mien, in a face so young, ruddy, and radiant:

              "Qualis, ubi Oceani perfusus Lucifer unda,
               Quem Venus ante alios astrorum diligit ignes,
               Extulit os sacrum coelo, tenebrasque resolvit;"

     ["As when, bathed in the waves of Ocean, Lucifer, whom Venus loves
     beyond the other stars, has displayed his sacred countenance to the
     heaven, and disperses the darkness"—AEneid, iii. 589.]

the excellence of his knowledge and capacity; the duration and grandeur
of his glory, pure, clean, without spot or envy, and that long after his
death it was a religious belief that his very medals brought good fortune
to all who carried them about them; and that more kings and princes have
written his actions than other historians have written the actions of any
other king or prince whatever; and that to this very day the Mohammedans,
who despise all other histories, admit of and honour his alone, by a
special privilege: whoever, I say, will seriously consider these
particulars, will confess that, all these things put together, I had
reason to prefer him before Caesar himself, who alone could make me
doubtful in my choice: and it cannot be denied that there was more of his
own in his exploits, and more of fortune in those of Alexander. They
were in many things equal, and peradventure Caesar had some greater
qualities they were two fires, or two torrents, overrunning the world by
several ways;

              "Ac velut immissi diversis partibus ignes
               Arentem in silvam, et virgulta sonantia lauro
               Aut ubi decursu rapido de montibus altis
               Dant sonitum spumosi amnes, et in aequora currunt,
               Quisque suum populatus iter:"

     ["And as fires applied in several parts to a dry wood and crackling
     shrubs of laurel, or as with impetuous fall from the steep
     mountains, foaming torrents pour down to the ocean, each clearing a
     destructive course."—AEneid, xii. 521.]

but though Caesar's ambition had been more moderate, it would still be so
unhappy, having the ruin of his country and universal mischief to the
world for its abominable object, that, all things raked together and put
into the balance, I must needs incline to Alexander's side.

The third and in my opinion the most excellent, is Epaminondas. Of glory
he has not near so much as the other two (which, for that matter, is but
a part of the substance of the thing): of valour and resolution, not of
that sort which is pushed on by ambition, but of that which wisdom and
reason can plant in a regular soul, he had all that could be imagined.
Of this virtue of his, he has, in my idea, given as ample proof as
Alexander himself or Caesar: for although his warlike exploits were
neither so frequent nor so full, they were yet, if duly considered in all
their circumstances, as important, as bravely fought, and carried with
them as manifest testimony of valour and military conduct, as those of
any whatever. The Greeks have done him the honour, without
contradiction, to pronounce him the greatest man of their nation; and to
be the first of Greece, is easily to be the first of the world. As to
his knowledge, we have this ancient judgment of him, "That never any man
knew so much, and spake so little as he";—[Plutarch, On the Demon of
Socrates, c. 23.]—for he was of the Pythagorean sect; but when he did
speak, never any man spake better; an excellent orator, and of powerful
persuasion. But as to his manners and conscience, he infinitely
surpassed all men who ever undertook the management of affairs; for in
this one thing, which ought chiefly to be considered, which alone truly
denotes us for what we are, and which alone I make counterbalance all the
rest put together, he comes not short of any philosopher whatever, not
even of Socrates himself. Innocence, in this man, is a quality peculiar,
sovereign, constant, uniform, incorruptible, compared with which, it
appears in Alexander subject to something else subaltern, uncertain,
variable, effeminate, and fortuitous.

Antiquity has judged that in thoroughly sifting all the other great
captains, there is found in every one some peculiar quality that
illustrates his name: in this man only there is a full and equal virtue
throughout, that leaves nothing to be wished for in him, whether in
private or public employment, whether in peace or war; whether to live
gloriously and grandly, and to die: I do not know any form or fortune of
man that I so much honour and love.

'Tis true that I look upon his obstinate poverty, as it is set out by his
best friends, as a little too scrupulous and nice; and this is the only
feature, though high in itself and well worthy of admiration, that I find
so rugged as not to desire to imitate, to the degree it was in him.

Scipio AEmilianus alone, could one attribute to him as brave and
magnificent an end, and as profound and universal a knowledge, might be
put into the other scale of the balance. Oh, what an injury has time
done me to deprive me of the sight of two of the most noble lives which,
by the common consent of all the world, one of the greatest of the
Greeks, and the other of the Romans, were in all Plutarch. What a
matter! what a workman!

For a man that was no saint, but, as we say, a gentleman, of civilian and
ordinary manners, and of a moderate ambition, the richest life that I
know, and full of the richest and most to be desired parts, all things
considered, is, in my opinion, that of Alcibiades.

But as to what concerns Epaminondas, I will here, for the example of an
excessive goodness, add some of his opinions: he declared, that the
greatest satisfaction he ever had in his whole life, was the contentment
he gave his father and mother by his victory at Leuctra; wherein his
deference is great, preferring their pleasure before his own, so dust and
so full of so glorious an action. He did not think it lawful, even to
restore the liberty of his country, to kill a man without knowing a
cause: which made him so cold in the enterprise of his companion
Pelopidas for the relief of Thebes. He was also of opinion that men in
battle ought to avoid the encounter of a friend who was on the contrary
side, and to spare him. And his humanity, even towards his enemies
themselves, having rendered him suspected to the Boeotians, for that,
after he had miraculously forced the Lacedaemonians to open to him the
pass which they had undertaken to defend at the entrance into the Morea,
near Corinth, he contented himself with having charged through them,
without pursuing them to the utmost, he had his commission of general
taken from him, very honourably upon such an account, and for the shame
it was to them upon necessity afterwards to restore him to his command,
and so to manifest how much upon him depended their safety and honour;
victory like a shadow attending him wherever he went; and indeed the
prosperity of his country, as being from him derived, died with him.