The Essays of Montaigne/Book III/Chapter VII

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter VII. Of the Inconvenience of Greatness.

Chapter VII. Of the Inconvenience of Greatness.[edit]


Since we cannot attain unto it, let us revenge our selves by railing at
it; and yet it is not absolutely railing against anything to proclaim its
defects, because they are in all things to be found, how beautiful or how
much to be coveted soever. Greatness has, in general, this manifest
advantage, that it can lower itself when it pleases, and has, very near,
the choice of both the one and the other condition; for a man does not
fall from all heights; there are several from which one may descend
without falling down. It does, indeed, appear to me that we value it at
too high a rate, and also overvalue the resolution of those whom we have
either seen or heard have contemned it, or displaced themselves of their
own accord: its essence is not so evidently commodious that a man may
not, with out a miracle, refuse it. I find it a very hard thing to
undergo misfortunes, but to be content with a moderate measure of
fortune, and to avoid greatness, I think a very easy matter. 'Tis,
methinks, a virtue to which I, who am no conjuror, could without any
great endeavour arrive. What, then, is to be expected from them that
would yet put into consideration the glory attending this refusal,
wherein there may lurk worse ambition than even in the desire itself,
and fruition of greatness? Forasmuch as ambition never comports itself
better, according to itself, than when it proceeds by obscure and
unfrequented ways.

I incite my courage to patience, but I rein it as much as I can towards
desire. I have as much to wish for as another, and allow my wishes as
much liberty and indiscretion; but yet it never befell me to wish for
either empire or royalty, or the eminency of those high and commanding
fortunes: I do not aim that way; I love myself too well. When I think to
grow greater, 'tis but very moderately, and by a compelled and timorous
advancement, such as is proper for me in resolution, in prudence, in
health, in beauty, and even in riches too; but this supreme reputation,
this mighty authority, oppress my imagination; and, quite contrary to
that other,—[Julius Caesar.]—I should, peradventure, rather choose to
be the second or third in Perigord than the first at Paris at least,
without lying, rather the third at Paris than the first. I would neither
dispute with a porter, a miserable unknown, nor make crowds open in
adoration as I pass. I am trained up to a moderate condition, as well by
my choice as fortune; and have made it appear, in the whole conduct of my
life and enterprises, that I have rather avoided than otherwise the
climbing above the degree of fortune wherein God has placed me by my
birth; all natural constitution is equally just and easy. My soul is
such a poltroon, that I measure not good fortune by the height, but by
the facility.

But if my heart be not great enough, 'tis open enough to make amends, at
any one's request, freely to lay open its weakness. Should any one put
me upon comparing the life of L. Thorius Balbus, a brave man, handsome,
learned, healthful, understanding, and abounding in all sorts of
conveniences and pleasures, leading a quiet life, and all his own, his
mind well prepared against death, superstition, pain, and other
incumbrances of human necessity, dying, at last, in battle, with his
sword in his hand, for the defence of his country, on the one part; and
on the other part, the life of M. Regulus, so great and high as is known
to every one, and his end admirable; the one without name and without
dignity, the other exemplary and glorious to a wonder. I should
doubtless say, as Cicero did, could I speak as well as he.

     [Cicero, De Finibus, ii. 20, gives the preference to Regulus, and
     proclaims him the happier man.]

But if I was to compare them with my own, I should then also say that the
first is as much according to my capacity, and from desire, which I
conform to my capacity, as the second is far beyond it; that I could not
approach the last but with veneration, the other I could readily attain
by use.

Let us return to our temporal greatness, from which we are digressed. I
disrelish all dominion, whether active or passive. Otanes, one of the
seven who had right to pretend to the kingdom of Persia, did as I should
willingly have done, which was, that he gave up to his competitors his
right of being promoted to it, either by election or by lot, provided
that he and his might live in the empire out of all authority and
subjection, those of the ancient laws excepted, and might enjoy all
liberty that was not prejudicial to these, being as impatient of
commanding as of being commanded.

The most painful and difficult employment in the world, in my opinion, is
worthily to discharge the office of a king. I excuse more of their
mistakes than men commonly do, in consideration of the intolerable weight
of their function, which astounds me. 'Tis hard to keep measure in so
immeasurable a power; yet so it is that it is, even to those who are not
of the best nature, a singular incitement to virtue to be seated in a
place where you cannot do the least good that shall not be put upon
record, and where the least benefit redounds to so many men, and where
your talent of administration, like that of preachers, principally
addresses itself to the people, no very exact judge, easy to deceive, and
easily content. There are few things wherein we can give a sincere
judgment, by reason that there are few wherein we have not, in some sort,
a private interest. Superiority and inferiority, dominion and subjection
are bound to a natural envy and contest, and must of necessity
perpetually intrench upon one another. I believe neither the one nor the
other touching the rights of the other party; let reason therefore, which
is inflexible and without passion, determine when we can avail ourselves
of it. 'Tis not above a month ago that I read over, two Scottish authors
contending upon this subject, of whom he who stands for the people makes
the king to be in a worse condition than a carter; he who writes for
monarchy places him some degrees above God in power and sovereignty.

Now, the incommodity of greatness that I have taken to remark in this
place, upon some occasion that has lately put it into my head, is this:
there is not, peradventure, anything more pleasant in the commerce of
many than the trials that we make against one another, out of emulation
of honour and worth, whether in the exercises of the body or in those of
the mind, wherein sovereign greatness can have no true part. And, in
earnest, I have often thought that by force of respect itself men use
princes disdainfully and injuriously in that particular; for the thing I
was infinitely offended at in my childhood, that they who exercised with
me forbore to do their best because they found me unworthy of their
utmost endeavour, is what we see happen to them daily, every one finding
himself unworthy to contend with them. If we discover that they have the
least desire to get the better of us, there is no one who will not make
it his business to give it them, and who will not rather betray his own
glory than offend theirs; and will therein employ so much force only as
is necessary to save their honour. What share have they, then, in the
engagement, where every one is on their side? Methinks I see those
paladins of ancient times presenting themselves to jousts and battle with
enchanted arms and bodies. Brisson,

     [Plutarch, On Satisfaction or Tranquillity of the Mind. But in his
     essay, How a Man may Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend, he calls
     him Chriso.]

running against Alexander, purposely missed his blow, and made a fault in
his career; Alexander chid him for it, but he ought to have had him
whipped. Upon this consideration Carneades said, that "the sons of
princes learned nothing right but to manage horses; by reason that, in
all their other exercises, every one bends and yields to them; but a
horse, that is neither a flatterer nor a courtier, throws the son of a
king with no more ceremony than he would throw that of a porter."

Homer was fain to consent that Venus, so sweet and delicate a goddess as
she was, should be wounded at the battle of Troy, thereby to ascribe
courage and boldness to her qualities that cannot possibly be in those
who are exempt from danger. The gods are made to be angry, to fear, to
run away, to be jealous, to grieve, to be transported with passions, to
honour them with the virtues that, amongst us, are built upon these
imperfections. Who does not participate in the hazard and difficulty, can
claim no interest in the honour and pleasure that are the consequents of
hazardous actions. 'Tis pity a man should be so potent that all things
must give way to him; fortune therein sets you too remote from society,
and places you in too great a solitude. This easiness and mean facility
of making all things bow under you, is an enemy to all sorts of pleasure:
'tis to slide, not to go; 'tis to sleep, and not to live. Conceive man
accompanied with omnipotence: you overwhelm him; he must beg disturbance
and opposition as an alms: his being and his good are in indigence. Evil
to man is in its turn good, and good evil. Neither is pain always to be
shunned, nor pleasure always to be pursued.

Their good qualities are dead and lost; for they can only be perceived by
comparison, and we put them out of this: they have little knowledge of
true praise, having their ears deafened with so continual and uniform an
approbation. Have they to do with the stupidest of all their subjects?
they have no means to take any advantage of him; if he but say: "'Tis
because he is my king," he thinks he has said enough to express that he
therefore suffered himself to be overcome. This quality stifles and
consumes the other true and essential qualities: they are sunk in the
royalty, and leave them nothing to recommend themselves with but actions
that directly concern and serve the function of their place; 'tis so much
to be a king, that this alone remains to them. The outer glare that
environs him conceals and shrouds him from us; our sight is there
repelled and dissipated, being filled and stopped by this prevailing
light. The senate awarded the prize of eloquence to Tiberius; he refused
it, esteeming that though it had been just, he could derive no advantage
from a judgment so partial, and that was so little free to judge.

As we give them all advantages of honour, so do we soothe and authorise
all their vices and defects, not only by approbation, but by imitation
also. Every one of Alexander's followers carried his head on one side,
as he did; and the flatterers of Dionysius ran against one another in his
presence, and stumbled at and overturned whatever was under foot, to shew
they were as purblind as he. Hernia itself has also served to recommend
a man to favour; I have seen deafness affected; and because the master
hated his wife, Plutarch—[who, however, only gives one instance; and in
this he tells us that the man visited his wife privately.]—has seen his
courtiers repudiate theirs, whom they loved; and, which is yet more,
uncleanliness and all manner of dissoluteness have so been in fashion; as
also disloyalty, blasphemy, cruelty, heresy, superstition, irreligion,
effeminacy, and worse, if worse there be; and by an example yet more
dangerous than that of Mithridates' flatterers, who, as their master
pretended to the honour of a good physician, came to him to have
incisions and cauteries made in their limbs; for these others suffered
the soul, a more delicate and noble part, to be cauterised.

But to end where I began: the Emperor Adrian, disputing with the
philosopher Favorinus about the interpretation of some word, Favorinus
soon yielded him the victory; for which his friends rebuking him, "You
talk simply," said he; "would you not have him wiser than I, who commands
thirty legions?" Augustus wrote verses against Asinius Pollio, and "I,"
said Pollio, "say nothing, for it is not prudence to write in contest
with him who has power to proscribe." And they were right. For
Dionysius, because he could not equal Philoxenus in poesy and Plato in
discourse, condemned the one to the quarries, and sent the other to be
sold for a slave into the island of AEgina.