Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the

Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the "Essais"

by David Quint

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In a fresh reading of Montaigne's Essais, David Quint portrays the great Renaissance writer as both a literary man and a deeply engaged political thinker concerned with the ethical basis of society and civil discourse. From the first essay, Montaigne places the reader in a world of violent political conflict reminiscent of the French Wars of Religion through which he


In a fresh reading of Montaigne's Essais, David Quint portrays the great Renaissance writer as both a literary man and a deeply engaged political thinker concerned with the ethical basis of society and civil discourse. From the first essay, Montaigne places the reader in a world of violent political conflict reminiscent of the French Wars of Religion through which he lived and wrote. Quint shows how a group of interrelated essays, including the famous one on the cannibals of Brazil, explores the confrontation between warring adversaries: a clement or vindictive victor and his suppliant or defiant captive. How can the two be reconciled? In a climate of hatred and obstinacy, Montaigne argues not only for the political necessity but also for the moral imperative of trusting and submitting to others and of extending mercy to them.For Quint, this ethical message informs other topics of the Essais: Montaigne's criticism of stoic models of virtue, his project to reform the cruel behavior of his noble class, his self-portrait that depicts his relaxed and unstudied nature, and his measuring of his own behavior against the classical virtue of Socrates. Quint's reading, attentive to Montaigne's verbal artistry and to his historical and cultural context, shows the essayist always aware of the other side of the issue. The moral thought of the Essais emerges as startlingly modern, both in the perennial urgency of Montaigne's concerns and in the self-questioning open- endedness of his doctrine.

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Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy

Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais

By David Quint


Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04836-9



the Essais Begin with a fearful showdown. Put yourself, Montaigne asks his reader in the opening essay, in the position of the defeated, face to face with your enemy, who "has vengeance in hand." By which tactic can you soften the heart of your foe and save your life: by humble submission that seeks to stir pity and commiseration, or by a brave defiance and constancy that will impress your foe with your valor?

Which, indeed, of these "entirely contrary means," those of the essay's tide, "Par divers moyens on arrive a pareille fin" ("By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End")? The answer changes subtly through the progressive revisions of the essay from the so-called A text of the 1580 first edition to the later B and C texts of 1588 and 1595. These changes are both shifts of emphasis and a rethinking: they suggest both an evolution and a filling out of Montaigne's reflections upon moral and political issues that, through links between this first essay and subsequent ones, will become one of the central strands of his book. We shall watch this initial showdown between victor and vanquished reappear through the pages of the Essais with changing protagonists: Stoics, cannibals, gladiators, martyrs, Socrates before his judges, and finally Montaigne himself. How these encounters will end—with life or death, with clemency or revenge?—is the repeated question of Montaigne's book.

This first chapter looks in detail at "Par divers moyens" and at a later essay in Book One that symmetrically responds to it, "Divers evenemens de mesme conseil" (1:24). The focus of the first essay on the question of how you may obtain clemency from your foe—by submission or valorous defiance—shifts in the second to whether or not you, in turn, should grant clemency to a dangerous enemy. Montaigne cites, only to attack, the Stoic doctrine that condemns the fellow-feeling of pity and detaches it from virtue, and, in doing so, he links the Stoic drive for ethical self-sufficiency with the code of personal honor of the sixteenth century warrior-noble: both are inhuman, neither is apt to be merciful. Nonetheless, Montaigne acknowledges and seeks to preserve the self-respect that is the desired goal of this Stoic/aristocratic ethos even as he advances the paradox in "Divers evenemens" that you will most fully respect yourself when you freely submit to and acknowledge the power of others. The reciprocal arguments of the two essays allow Montaigne in "Divers evenemens" to overturn the terms of "Par divers moyens" and to argue that clemency requires more courage than revenge, since the enemy you leave alive may continue to be a threat to you, that submission is more valorous than defiant valor itself, since it means disarming yourself and trusting in your foes. We shall see that this difficult ethical and political balance—yielding with honor—is one that Montaigne repeatedly prescribes through the course of the Essais: a prescription to cure his France of the malady of civil war. A coda to the chapter shows how the inexplicably vengeful Alexander who appears at the end of "Par divers moyens" is subsequentiy contrasted in the Essais with the idealized figure of another ancient hero: the Theban captain Epaminondas, who perfecdy balanced valor and clemency in himself and in his actions. The reappearances of Alexander and Epaminondas at the beginnings and endings of the books of the Essais constitute a framing device, intended or not, that writes large the central ethical issue of mercy raised by Montaigne's text.

1:1, The A-Text Version

La plus commune façon d'amollir les coeurs de ceux qu'on a offensez, lors qu'ayant la vengeance en main, il nous tiennent à leur mercy, c'est de les esmouvoir par submission à commiseration et à pitié. Toutesfois la braverie, et la Constance, moyens tous contraires, ont quelquefois servi à ce mesme effect. (7)

The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission and pity. However, bravery and steadfastness—entirely contrary means—have sometimes served to produced the same effect. (3)

In these opening sentences of the Essais, Montaigne acknowledges that submission is the most common ("commune") recourse of the vanquished; nonetheless bravery and constancy have sometimes worked to obtain the same clemency, and in the first 1580 version of "Par divers moyens" he appears to be fascinated by this latter stance of unbending resolve. Montaigne cites three historical examples of courage and fighting spirit changing the anger of the conqueror into mercy: Edward, prince of Wales, who only stopped the butchery of the unresisting people, women, and children of Limoges at the sight of three French noblemen continuing the fight; Scanderbeg, the Albanian prince, who pardoned his soldier when the latter, after vain supplication, resolved to fight for his life; the Emperor Conrad, who abated his wrath when the women of Bavaria carried their husbands and their duke on their shoulders and brought them out of their besieged city under safe-conduct. The 1580 essay next pauses to comment on these cases.

Or ces exemples me semblent plus à propos, d'autant qu'on voit ces ames assaillies et essayées par ces deux moyens, en soustenir l'un sans s'esbranler, et courber sous l'autre. Il se peut dire, que de rompre son coeur à la commiseration, c'est l'efect de la facilité, débonnaireté, et mollesse, d'où il advient que les natures plus foibles, commes celles des femmes, des enfans, et du vulgaire y sont plus subjettes; mais ayant eu à desdaing les larmes et les prières, de se rendre à la seule reverence de la saincte image de la vertu, que c'est l'effect d'une ame forte et imployable, ayant en affection et en honneur une vigueur masle, et obstinée. (8)

Now these examples seem to me more to the point, inasmuch as we see these souls, assailed and tested by these two means, hold up unshaken against one and bow beneath the other. It may be said that to subdue your heart to commiseration is the act of easygoing indulgence and softness, which is why the weaker natures, such as those of women, children, and the common herd are the most subject to it; but that, having disdained tears and prayers, to surrender simply to reverence for the sacred image of valor is the act of a strong and inflexible soul which holds in affection and honor a masculine and obstinate vigor. (4)

As opposed to a weak-hearted commiseration that is an identification with the weakness and misfortune of the defeated, the admiration for your foe's courage is virtually an act of aesthetic appreciation: for the "sacred image of valor" abstracted from the individual foeman. The victor does not appear to take the continuing resistance of his enemy personally, and this allows for a disinterested veneration of bravery itself. Yet another kind of identification seems to occur as well. It takes one to know one, Montaigne suggests: only the noble male rather than a commoner or a woman, would be able to appreciate a behavior that is also characterized as noble and male—the resistance of those three "gentils-hommes Fran9ois" that stopped the prince of Wales. If the most common way of obtaining pardon is to submit and to seek to arouse pity and commiseration—if it is the means, that is, of commoners—it is precisely commoners who will be most likely to be susceptible to such appeals for pity. And therefore the nobleman will, perhaps must, try other means, those of constancy and courage. For Montaigne will observe in a subsequent essay, "Que le goust des biens et des maux depend en bonne partie de l'opinion que nous en avons" (1:14), it is precisely by this kind of martial valor that the aristocracy defines itself as a class. If the occasions to demonstrate physical courage did not exist, he asks,

qui auroit mis en credit parmy nous la vertu, la vaillance, la force, la magnanimité et la resolution? Ou joueroyent elles leur rolle, s'il n'y a plus de douleur à deffier: "avida estperimli virtus." S'il ne faut coucher sur la dure, soustenir armé de toutes pieces la chaleur du midy, se paistre d'un cheval et d'un asne, se voir detailler en pieces, et arracher une balle d'entre les os, se souffrir recoudre, cauterizer et sonder, par où s'acquerra l'advantage que nous voulons avoir sur Ie vulgaire? (56–57)

who would have brought into credit among us virtue, valor, strength, magnanimity, and resolution? Where would these play their part, if there were no more pain to defy? Courage is greedy of dangers [Seneca]. If we need not sleep on hard ground, sustain fully armed the heat of noon, feed on a horse or an ass, watch ourselves being sliced to pieces and a bullet torn out from between our bones, let ourselves be sewn up again, cauterized, and probed, how shall we acquire the advantage that we wish to have over the common herd? (38)

The nobleman's claim to moral superiority, and to a privileged place in the social hierarchy, depends upon his valor as a soldier, his willingness to pledge his body for his honor. Or, put another way, his pursuit of martial virtue reaffirms an identity that aspires to greatness above others. Montaigne's tone in this passage makes it hard to decide just what he thinks of the trade-off of the aristocrat's body for his social position, just as the ambiguity of the phrase, "nous voulons avoir," may question whether he is really entitled to that position; but one should note for further consideration that Montaigne includes himself in this "we."

This class and gender distinction is nonetheless already and immediately put in question by the other two cited cases in "Par divers moyens": Scanderbeg's soldier, presumably from the rank and file, and the Bavarian women are able, when the situation demands it, to put on a "masculine and obstinate vigor." There is also a problem in the very terminology that links women and commoners with weak softness ("mollesse"), males and aristocrats with inflexible ("imployable"), obstinate strength. For, these latter noble souls, if they are unshaken by supplication, may nonetheless bow and bend ("courber") before the sight of valor. In the next sentence, furthermore, Montaigne concedes that less aristocratic souls—"ames moins genereuses"—can also be impressed by shows of valor and defiance, and he cites, as a fourth historical example, the people of Thebes who put their noble generals on trial: after just barely pardoning their general Pelopidas, who had himself bowed ("plioit") beneath their accusations and resorted to supplication, they refrained even from judging Epaminondas, who braved them with reproaches and arrogance. Here, too, plebeians are capable of acting like their aristocratic betters.

This refusal of individuals to live up to tight and fast social roles appears to lead to the most famous sentence of the essay:

Certes c'est un subject merveilleusement vain, divers et ondoyant, que l'homme. Il est malaisé d'y fonder jugement constant et uniforme. (9) Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment upon him. (5)

But the cause of this celebrated skepticism as it unfolds in the A-text essay's final paragraph is, in fact, much more dark and pessimistic. Montaigne adds two further historical examples. Because of his admiration for the valor of the Mamertine Zeno, who offered himself for punishment in place of his fellow citizens, Pompey spared their city and thus conformed to the cases of clemency so far recorded in the essay. But, the essayist notes, on another analogous occasion, when a Perusine citizen, who had once hosted the conquering general Sulla, demonstrated a similar valor, he obtained no mercy, either for himself or for the other citizens of the city: "ny pour soy ny pour les autres." And here the first version of the essay abruptly ended, with a contrary example of clemency denied, of bravery failing to soften the heart of an implacable enemy.

The skeptical turn at the end of the essay, and the understated horror of the fate of the Perusines, lumped together for slaughter into the chillingly impersonal "les autres," already suggests what, in the subsequent B and C exfoliations of the essay, will be one of its twin themes: the difficulty of finding counsel for present experience in the historical example, itself. That it is Montaigne's present which is at stake is to be inferred from these last two stories drawn from the Roman civil wars, wars that throughout the Essais are paralleled with the French Wars of Religion through which the essayist lived: the parallel was, in fact, a commonplace repeatedly invoked by Montaigne's contemporaries. In a later essay of 1588, where Montaigne brings up the Roman wars in the context of a discussion of the contemporary French conflict, he similarly contrasts the chivalry and moderation of Pompey to the murderous behavior of Sulla (3.10; 1014; 775–76). But if the evocation of the two Roman generals here seems to suggest the present-day relevance of the whole sequence of historical examples of the essay, these final anecdotes nonetheless question what lessons can be learned from history, a history that according to a prevailing Renaissance humanism of Montaigne's time was supposed to teach one the rules of life—Historia magistra vitae. In two parallel historical situations, similar behavior—the demonstration of valor—produced directly contrary results, neatly reversing the proposal of the essay's title. The moral seems to be that no two situations are exactly parallel—neither the two Roman cases nor, more importantiy, the Roman past and the French present—and therefore history can provide no constant and uniform maxims about the proper course of human action. History is an inadequate teacher of life's lessons, Montaigne suggests: it is no help to you when your life is on the line.

The counterexample of Sulla, moreover, unsettles the wishful thinking in which the first version of the essay has theretofore indulged: the idea that one can obtain clemency without suing for it, that it is possible to survive without yielding to the victor and relinquishing a pose of defiant autonomy. Such integrity of the self is identified with the masculine, aristocratic valor that turns the defeated but undaunted warrior into the mirror of his princely conqueror and that wins the latter's reverence and mercy. This noble selfhood defines itself by self-assertion and aggression, and by indifference, bordering on disdain, toward any other human being: it can take or leave the paidon it receives (and receives pardon for just this attitude.) The constancy ("constance") that is said to win pardon in the second sentence of the essay already links such autonomy to the language and doctrine of Roman Stoicism—Seneca devoted a whole treatise, De Constantia, to the virtue of remaining the same and refusing to yield to outside pressure. The link, as we shall see, is made explicit by Montaigne's first addition to the essay in the B text of 1588, and the connection between Stoic philosophy and the codes of martial honor espoused by the sixteenth-century aristocracy is a recurring feature of the Essais. It is tempting to read Montaigne's apparent fascination with this model of selfhood in the original version of his opening essay—particularly with the gratifying fantasy that such reckless and independent behavior can sometimes succeed in the social world with impunity—as part of what Pierre Villey, in his classic study of the evolution of Montaigne's thought, detected as an early flirtation with Stoicism, later replaced by skeptical and then "Epicurean" phases. The final turn of the A-text essay, the story of Sulla that dispels this fantasy, would show Montaigne's skepticism already bearing down upon the Stoic currents of his thinking.


Excerpted from Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy by David Quint. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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