Montaigne on Violence
Abstract and Keywords
This article explores the treatment of violence in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. Although the essayist deplores it as a particularly human evil, violence is neither universally destructive nor lacking in value in his book, which proposes an agonistic view of violence that tracks an equally agonistic conception of virtue. An examination of cruelty, torture, valor, and vulnerability shows the ways in which violence’s destabilization works to provide an ethical testing grounds for the stability of the soul. Rather than turning to pacifist or compassionate alternatives, Montaigne praises valor as the quality that emerges out of the moral struggle that is violence—not the highest of virtues, but perhaps the most human in a fallen, brutal age.
“I want my voice not only to reach my listener,” the essayist writes, “but perhaps to strike him and pierce him.”1 This forceful inversion of the traditional captatio benevolentiae suggests how attuned Montaigne is to the rhetorical possibilities of violence. The most striking example is perhaps his condemnation of atheists in the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” Here, his lines spit derisively, “they will not fail to clasp their hands to heaven if you stick them a good sword-thrust in the chest.”2 While neither citation advocates real violence, both mobilize its imagery to convince and to authenticate. Although he condemns it as a particularly human evil, the following essay will argue that Montaigne does not portray violence as either universally destructive or lacking in value. Rather, the Essays shows how violence’s very unruliness and destabilizating potential render it productive and revelatory, and allow it to provide central grounds for ethical self-definition.
What is violence? The paucity of its synonyms already suggests violence’s exceptionality, its incommensurability with ideas that approach or approximate it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc.; physically violent behaviour or treatment; (Law) the unlawful exercise of physical force, intimidation by the exhibition of such force.”3 Le Grand Robert says more succinctly that it is “a brutal force to subdue someone.” The English definition emphasizes will and physicality, while the French highlights subjugation and directionality, all of which are central to Montaigne’s own conception.4 Although modern critics have expanded the meaning of violence into increasingly symbolic realms, for Montaigne (p. 494) and for my purposes here, violence is an exertion, a movement, a vector. It cannot be, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, a universal “dark matter” because violence is not a state.5 It implies displacement and force; it has victims and agents. As such, violence in the Essays represents a simultaneously ethical and corporeal intervention, one that may have social, psychological, political, or other causes or consequences, but one that fundamentally engages both physical bodies and moral principles.
On the whole, these principles and bodies are human. Although Montaigne admires the natural armor and valor of various animals as well as the fierce battles of honeybees and other insects, for him war “is the greatest and most pompous of human actions,” as well as a “testimony of our imbecility and imperfection; as indeed the science of undoing and killing one another, of ruining and destroying our own species, seems to have little to make it alluring to the beasts who do not have it.”6 Where the animal kingdom is characterized by order and natural law, the ubiquity of violence among humans leads Montaigne to ask “isn’t man a miserable animal?”7 He observes that we seek to alloy all our pleasures with some measure of misery, and bring pain and violence even into our dealings with our gods, whom we assume to be as bloodthirsty and cruel as we are. For Montaigne this represents a fundamental misreading brought about by human arrogance:
Antiquity thought, I believe, that it was doing something for divine greatness by likening it to man … and to reconcile it to our vicious passions, flattering its justice with inhuman vengeance, delighting it with the destruction and dispersion of things by it created and preserved.8
Rather than being universally systemic or divinely ordained, violence is a human insertion, a symptom of our failure to comprehend both divine truth and our own flawed nature. In this same vein, Montaigne criticizes flagellation and other ascetic mortifications, a position both striking and politically pointed within the context of sixteenth-century Catholic devotional practice, particularly at the court of Henri III. “It was a strange fancy to try to pay for divine goodness with our affliction… . Besides, it is not up to the criminal to have himself whipped at his own rate and time; it is up to the judge.”9 Once again violence, even when turned against oneself, signals human misprision and the will to destruction.
(p. 495) Implicit in these behaviors, for Montaigne, is the application of violence as a form of control, a faulty assertion of order and comprehensibility that belies fallen human understanding. Rather than strength, it reveals weakness. In “Cowardice, mother of cruelty” he announces this clearly from the first line: “I have often heard it said that cowardice is the mother of cruelty. And I have found by experience that the bitterness and hardness of a malicious and inhuman heart are usually accompanied by feminine weakness.”10 Its misogyny notwithstanding, the citation now divides cruelty from the human. Similarly dehumanizing vocabulary appears elsewhere to define bloodthirstiness, “I could hardly be convinced, until I saw it, that there were souls so monstrous that they would commit murder for the mere pleasure of it.”11 Therefore, while the appetite for violence is predominantly human, it also degrades that very humanity through the loss of moral strength and identity.
Violence poses a lifelong threat to the individual, both from within and from without. Montaigne locates the roots of cruelty in childhood: “our being is cemented with sickly qualities … indeed even cruelty, so unnatural a vice. For in the midst of compassion we feel within us I know not what bittersweet pricking of malicious pleasure in seeing others suffer; even children feel it.”12 The term “desnaturé” emphasizes the perversion that a thirst for violence implies. Violence used against children is especially destabilizing. “Of the education of children” deplores pedagogical violence, the preferred practice of Montaigne’s day. Not only does it render learning itself unpleasant and painful, but it also effects a more fundamental transformation of the victim. “Away with violence and compulsion! There is nothing to my mind which so depraves and stupefies a wellborn nature. If you would like him to fear shame and chastisement, don’t harden him to them.”13 Pedagogical violence subverts its own regulatory function; once applied, it swiftly moves beyond control and undoes both the one who applies it and the one against whom it is used.
This is a degeneration that worsens over time, as signs of violent propensities in children foreshadow future brutality. “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law” criticizes parents who interpret their children’s aggression toward animals or servants as signs of future martial prowess. On the contrary, “these are the true seeds and roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason; they sprout here, and afterwards shoot up lustily, and (p. 496) flourish mightily in the hands of habit.”14 Here, violence is not only denaturing, but also self-proliferating.15 Similarly, as Montaigne turns from considering the impact on the individual to society at large, violence becomes increasingly destabilizing and unruly. Wars have deplorable, inane causes and armies prove surprisingly weak, while one individual’s propensity toward quarrel can have massive consequences when unleashed on society. “The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mold,” he warns us in the “Apology,” “the same reason that makes us bicker with a neighbor creates a war between princes; the same reason that makes us whip a lackey, when it happens in a king makes him ruin a province.”16 Once violence is unleashed, it only grows: “the first cruelties are practiced for their own sake; thence arises the fear of a just revenge, which afterward produces a string of new cruelties, in order to stifle the first by the others.”17 Social violence in the Essays seems to foreshadow René Girard’s cyclical conception of it, but without a mechanism to purge it.18 In Montaigne’s own time, instead of finding an external outlet, which foreign wars once provided, it has turned inwards, as his repeated references to the corrosive disruptions of the Wars of Religion, to which he is a firsthand witness, demonstrate:19
Monstrous war! Other wars act outward; this one acts also against itself, eats and destroys itself by its own venom… . All discipline flies from it. It comes to cure sedition and is full of it, would chastise disobedience and sets the example of it; and employed in defense of the laws, plays the part of rebel against its own laws. What have we come to? Our medicine carries infection… . In these epidemics one can distinguish at the beginning the well from the sick; but when they come to last, like ours, the whole body is affected, head and heels alike; no part is free from corruption. For there is no air that is inhaled so greedily, that so spreads and penetrates, as does license.20
(p. 497) Montaigne’s tone channels Lucan in its emphasis on disorder and upheaval. Boundaries have been blurred beyond recognition, and cures are now worse than their diseases. Just as violence that seeks to correct children instead hardens them to cruelty, violence applied for social control often backfires. Although the passage describes communal conflict, Montaigne’s imagery repeatedly suggests a single organism bent on undoing itself. The effects of violence on the individual and on society are analogous: for both it is destabilizing, denaturing (monstrueuse), and increasingly self-destructive.
The term “licence” emphasizes an additional effect of collective violence: a rupture of rules of conduct, a usurpation of illicit freedom. The ethical degradation of the individual becomes the political breakdown of society. Montaigne applies the term repeatedly to describe the civil wars, emphasizing the weakening of civic law and order and institutions. With this in mind, although the essayist imposes strict limits on the practice of violence in other situations, in the case of disruptive, societal conflict, he does the opposite. The essay “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law” defends the status quo for the sake of public order, even when existing institutions can be justifiably criticized. Nevertheless, there is an important exception:
[B] And when you resist the growth of an innovation that has come to introduce itself by violence, it is a dangerous obligation and a handicap to keep yourself in check and within the rules, in all matters and places, against those who are free as air, to whom everything is permissible that can advance their plan, who have neither law nor order except to follow their advantage… . [C] The law-abiding pace is a cold, deliberate, and constrained one, and is not the kind that can hold up against a lawless and unbridled pace… . [A] For in truth, in these ultimate necessities where there is nothing more to hold on to, it would perhaps be more wisely done to lower your head and give way a little to the blow, than, by struggling to let nothing go when this is impossible, to give violence an occasion to trample everything underfoot; and it would be better to make the laws will what they can do, since they cannot do what they will.21
That Montaigne should have added to these comments in each version of the Essays indicates their importance and the growing immediacy of the subject over the course of the civil wars. Once again, what is at issue is a violent licence presented as a threat to civic order. As in the previous citation, the impact is felt at the level of the laws. In his “Critique of violence” Walter Benjamin argues that “all [state] violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it (p. 498) forfeits all validity.”22 Although Montaigne’s proposed response seeks to preserve order, his response to lawless violence is lawlessness in return. His call to suspend the laws to save the laws positions Montaigne, centuries before Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben, as an early theorist of the state of exception.23 He proposes to confront lawless violence on its own terrain, through praxis rather than avoidance.
That violence should provide the arena for this theorizing is especially significant. Once again, although the Essays often deplores violence, it nonetheless represents an important analytical tool, one that diagnoses the existing weaknesses of the very order it threatens. In the same essay, Montaigne uses violence as a lens through which to criticize the incommensurability of the nobility’s traditional honor-based codes and the nascent state’s laws that seek to control violence through its juridical apparatus.24 The same is at work in Montaigne’s discussion of violent propensities in children: while these early signs of violence may be disturbing, they also perform an important analytic and predictive function. Violence may proliferate and destabilize, but it also provides the means for its own diagnosis and control. Indeed, it represents a unique space for analysis and critique because of its combined destabilizing and diagnostic functions. Violence’s very unruliness can be repurposed—paradoxically, if not hypocritically—to establish stability. Its deep connection to flawed human nature allows it to reveal the weaknesses in human ethics and institutions.
The efficacy of violence as a diagnostic and analytic tool derives from its privileged though deeply ambivalent relationship to truth. Montaigne explores this connection most directly in his discussions of torture. Although modern colloquial usage has expanded the meaning of the term, torture was originally an investigative rather than a punitive tool,25 a forensic procedure that inflicted pain to uncover truth. In classical Greece, torture specifically sought to elicit confession, the “queen of proofs.” This standard spread to the Roman Empire, and thence via Roman canon law into continental Europe from the thirteenth century onward.26 In France, the Ordinance of (p. 499) Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 codified torture, which then increased exponentially in practice during the French Wars of Religion. However, commentators as far back as Aristotle had already cast doubt on its effectiveness, arguing that torture would compel a victim to say whatever a torturer wished. Montaigne is of the same opinion, as he declares repeatedly in his essay “Of conscience”:
Tortures are a dangerous invention, and seem to be a test of endurance rather than of truth. Both the man who can endure them and the man who cannot endure them conceal the truth. For why shall pain rather make me confess what is, than force me to say what is not? …I think that the basis of this invention rests on the consideration of the power of conscience. For the guilty man’s conscience seems to abet the torture in making him confess his fault, and to weaken him; whereas the innocent man’s conscience seems to fortify him against his torture. To tell the truth, torture is a means full of uncertainty and danger.27
Montaigne could not be clearer in doubting the efficacy of violence in accessing truth. Nevertheless, he also acknowledges a connection between torture and conscience that suggests how the latter may find a voice through violence.
The key to this seeming contradiction lies in Montaigne’s phrase “test of endurance rather than of truth.” As torture was considered investigative rather than punitive, it established a kind of contest between torturer and victim: should it fail to elicit a confession, the accused would go free. The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts not only required the defendants’ release, but also allowed them to sue any private party that had accused them.28 Thus, when Montaigne refers to torture as a test, he locates the possibility of agency in two different positions, in the tester and the tested. He clearly condemns the torturer, not only because his practice is cruel, but also because his results are too unreliable to justify the application of violence: “After all, it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”29 However, Montaigne’s position on the tortured is more complex.30 In fact, in pivoting from the application (p. 500) to the endurance of violence, he allows that its connection to truth strengthens considerably: whereas violence fails as an investigative tool, it can succeed as a means of self-justification. “It is a common practice in many nations of our time for people to wound themselves intentionally to give credit to their word.”31 Closer to home he finds additional examples in the annals of Christian piety and martyrdom, from which he concludes that from the victim’s perspective violence channels emphasis and authentication, thereby affirming the connection between violence and conscience implied in his critique of torture.
Furthermore, the endurance of violence plays an important critical role by shifting power between agents and victims of violence. In “Defense of Seneca and Plutarch” Montaigne gives numerous examples of people undergoing extremes of violence without faltering. One, a Spanish peasant who refuses to confess under torture, escapes his captors and kills himself as an act of defiance. In his 1592 revision, Montaigne adds another describing a woman named Epicharis who endured Nero’s tortures, then succeeded in killing herself. He asks, “having the courage to die thus and escape more tortures like the first ones, does she not seem to have lent her life purposely to this test of her endurance in order to mock this tyrant and encourage others to a like attempt against him?”32 This reasoning opens a space within violence for critique and resistance: although the one who inflicts it is dehumanized and destabilized, the one who endures it is paradoxically strengthened, even in death.
These dual possibilities suggest how violence can be productive even in destruction. Its truth lies in revelation, as it uncovers the ethical makeup of both its practitioners and victims. It is deeply significant that almost all of the numerous examples in “Of virtue” depict self-harm or killing. Simply put, the essay posits violence as the arena in which to think through virtue. Furthermore, the potential for self-justification is not limited to endurance but also applies to practice: Montaigne does not condemn all violent action. On the contrary, his most common exempla of greatness throughout the Essays are military commanders ancient and contemporary. In “Of virtue” among the individuals mutilating themselves to control their appetites and the numerous descriptions of honorable women, all either self-harming or willing to undergo brutalization for the good of their husbands, we also find assassins:
There has not yet occurred within our memory a more admirable act of resolution than that of those two who plotted the death of the prince of Orange… . Certainly (p. 501) he employed a very determined hand and a courage moved by a vigorous passion… . That that man ran to a certain death I have no doubt; for the hopes with which he might have been beguiled could find no lodging in a sober understanding; and his conduct of his exploit shows that he had no lack of this, any more than of courage.33
The essay makes no pronouncement on the justice or motivations of this act; rather, it focuses on the assassin’s steadfastness in the face of danger. In this way, it fits him among other exempla of resoluteness and endurance, even though he is an aggressor rather than a victim of violence. He is not alone, either:
the essay ends with the assassins, who are considered among the Mohammedans as being of supreme devoutness and purity of morals. They hold that the most certain way to deserve Paradise is to kill someone of a different religion. Since they scorn all personal dangers in order to carry out so useful a mission, there have been many instances in which they presented themselves … to assassinate … their enemy in the midst of his forces.34
Montaigne’s striking illustration of virtue by means of self-mutilating, self-harming, as well as murderous figures suggests a common idea underlying both the practice and the experience of violence: that it provides ideal grounds for proving oneself ethically.
These observations complicate the critical perspective that sees in the Essays an argument for pacifism or a politics of concession or compassion.35 Beyond the enormous amount of space that Montaigne grants to examples of martial valor, discussions of battlefield techniques and innovations, and his full-throated praise of military life in the essay “Of experience,” the fact remains that he defines valor as the true vocation of both the nobility and the ruler.36 Furthermore, Montaigne comes to the defense of his younger (p. 502) brother, Bertrand de Mattecoulon, both in person and in the Essays when the latter is imprisoned for his involvement in a bloody duel in Rome.37 Rather than condemning dueling as so many of his contemporaries did, Montaigne criticizes only the use of seconds; on the contrary, he notes in a later essay that “vengeance is a sweet passion, whose impact is great and natural.”38 Rarely is Montaigne as direct as he is in stating that
our nation gives valor the highest rank among the virtues, as its name shows, which comes from value …when we say a very valuable man, or a worthy man, in the language of our court and our nobility, we are saying nothing else than a valiant man. …The proper, the only, the essential, form of nobility in France is the military profession.39
Moreover, Montaigne is pragmatic in discussing the utility of violence throughout “Of evil means employed to a good end.” Here, he even interprets the brutal spectacle of Roman gladiatorial combat as exemplary, the means by which “the Romans trained the people to valor and contempt for dangers and death.” Rather than condemning, he praises:
It was in truth an admirable example, and very fruitful for the education of the people, to see every day before their eyes a hundred, two hundred, even a thousand pairs of men, armed against one another, hack each other to pieces with such extreme firmness of courage that they were observed never to let slip a word of weakness or commiseration, never to turn their back or make even a cowardly movement to avoid their adversary’s blow, but rather to extend their neck to his sword and offer themselves to the blow.40
Although the essay’s title conveys Montaigne’s recognition that violence is a distasteful means of accomplishing most things, its utility is equally clear. Within even the extremes of violence, there is the potential for revelation.
(p. 503) In this citation, Montaigne once again focuses on the notion of fortitude (“si extreme fermeté”) in the face of violence, as he did in his many examples of virtuous self-harm, where synonyms such as “resolution,” “determination,” “constance,” and “perseverance” abound. Ethical exemplarity derives from the ways in which one withstands violence’s destabilizing, dehumanizing effects: the Essays repeatedly frames immovability and the unwillingness to yield in the face of violence as forms of resistance and ethical modelling. The famous essay “Of cannibals” engages in an almost lyrical praise of fortitude in the context of violence, one that distinguishes it from a purely physical strength:
[A] The worth and value of a man is in his heart and his will; there lies his real honor. Valor is strength, not of legs and arms, but of heart and soul; it consists not in the worth of our horse or our weapons, but in our own. He who falls obstinate in his courage, [C] if he has fallen, he fights on his knees (Seneca). [A] He who relaxes none of his assurance, no matter how great the danger of imminent death; who, giving up his soul, still looks firmly and scornfully at his enemy—he is beaten not by us, but by fortune, he is killed, not conquered. [B] The most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. [C] Thus there are triumphant defeats that rival victories… . The role of true victory is in fighting, not in coming off safely; and the honor of valor consists in combating, not in beating.41
In each version of his book, Montaigne adds to this remarkable passage, honing his praise of fortitude and reinforcing the centrality of violence as the means through which it is proven: violence’s instability provides the arena for trying the stability of the soul.42 However, this raises an important question: what allows violence, which fails to compel truth, to nonetheless succeed as a testing grounds for it? The key lies in the last line of the citation: Montaigne claims that the true ends of honor and valor are struggle, not victory. This conception of violence aligns closely with Montaigne’s view of virtue itself. Therefore, it is no coincidence to find that he states his thesis on the nature of virtue in the essay “Of cruelty,” as
what I was trying to prove: that virtue refuses facility for her companion; and that the easy, gentle, and sloping path that guides the footsteps of a good natural (p. 504) disposition is not the path of true virtue. It demands a rough and thorny road; it wants to have either external difficulties to struggle with …by means of which fortune takes pleasure in breaking up the unwaveringness of a man’s career; or internal difficulties created by the disordered appetites and imperfections of our nature.43
Those disordered appetites might very well describe the human impulse toward violence. Indeed, Montaigne’s conception of honorable violence virtually tracks this deeply agonistic conception of virtue; it requires identical opposition against which to prove itself:
‘Valor, whose effect it is to act only against resistance’—‘Nor is it joy to kill the bull unless he fights’ (Claudian)—stops on seeing the enemy at its mercy. But pusillanimity, in order to say that it is also in the game, having been unable to take part in this first act, takes as its part the second, that of massacre and bloodshed… . And what causes so many unheard-of cruelties in wars in which the people take part is that the beastly rabble tries to be warlike and brave by ripping up a body at their feet and bloodying themselves up to their elbows, having no sense of any other kind of valor … like cowardly curs, that in the house tear and bite the skins of wild beasts that they did not dare attack in the fields.44
The destabilizing, dehumanizing chaos of violence that turns the populace into “curs” and a “beastly rabble” also allows the valorous to distinguish themselves by resisting it. As Arlette Jouanna notes, “ce qui l’intéresse dans la vaillance, c’est sa différence, c’est-à-dire sa capacité à distinguer, à séparer.”45 However, as violence has become more widespread during the Wars of Religion, so too has valor; indeed, for Montaigne valor seems the only virtue prized in his fallen, cruel age.46 Nevertheless, for all that we might wish to see in this position a rejection of valor or of violence itself, it remains (p. 505) true that Montaigne’s highest exemplum of virtue, Socrates, is praised in the last book of the Essays not as a sage but as a fighter.47 Another of Montaigne’s favored exempla, Epaminondas, shows how the ethical practice of violence, rather than its avoidance, provides the means for overcoming its destabilizing effects:
Truly that man was in command of war itself, who made it endure the curb of benignity at the point of its greatest heat, all inflamed as it was and foaming with frenzy and slaughter. It is a miracle to be able to mingle some semblance of justice with such actions; but it belongs only to the strength of Epaminondas to be able to mingle with them the sweetness and ease of the gentlest ways, and pure innocence.48
Although Montaigne remarks that the virtue that may be accessed through violence is by no means its most elevated form, he shows that in these brutal, fallen times it may well be the most human.49
The reason for this lies in violence’s straddling of the ethical and the corporeal, as the struggle that allows violence to test virtue plays itself out in the arena of human flesh. Although some of us are unafraid of death, as Montaigne wishes us to be, we are all susceptible to immediate danger and to pain, which Nature has contrived to test us, and to remind us of our mortality and infirmity.50 In “That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them” Montaigne dwells at length on the problem of pain, which he defines as a universal vulnerability:
Shall we make our skin believe that the lashes of a stirrup strap tickle it, and our palate that aloes is Graves wine? … Shall we violate the general law of nature, which can be observed in all that lives under heaven, that we shall tremble under pain? The very trees seem to groan at the blows that are given them.51
Montaigne adds in a later essay a call to set aside judgment of those who cry out in pain.52 We might see in these gestures a humanist precursor to the theory of precarity (p. 506) recently proposed by Judith Butler, one that would advocate a compassionate ethics and politics in the midst of the French Wars of Religion.53 However, this is not the response that Montaigne proposes to human vulnerability: his is neither lamentational nor compassionate, but once again agonistic:
Thus let us deal only with pain. I grant them, and that willingly, that it is the worst accident of our being; for in all the world I am the man who bears it the most ill will and who flees it the most, the more so because until now, thank God, I have had no great association with it. But it is in us, if not to annihilate it, at least to lessen it by patience, and, even should the body be disturbed by it, to maintain nevertheless our soul and reason in good trim. And if this were not so, 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?54
Montaigne’s discussion of pain, much like his explorations of violence, emphasizes its utility and ethical efficacy. Like violence itself, physical vulnerability provides an opportunity for ethical self-distinction, another struggle through which to “acquire the advantage we wish to have over the common herd.”55
Montaigne himself uses vulnerability as a way to counter violence’s destabilizing effects. He argues that he has kept his properties free from the upheavals of the Wars of Religion, which raged very close to his seat,56 by leaving them entirely defenseless rather than fortifying them. In so doing:
I have weakened the intent of the soldiers by taking from their enterprise the elements of risk and military glory, which customarily served them as pretext and excuse. What is done courageously is always done honorably, in a time when justice is dead. I make the conquest of my house cowardly and treacherous for them.57
(p. 507) His counterintuitive attitude to the threat of violence is to combine fortitude and deliberate vulnerability, as he continues to do even in the last essays, where he describes two violent threats—a neighbor who plans to invade his home and a hold-up by a ligueur brigand—both of which he escapes not by defending himself but rather by “my face and my frankness.”58 Rather than fleeing or bemoaning susceptibility, Montaigne redeploys it as resistance against violence. In his critique of armor, he paradoxically transforms vulnerability into a mark of valor even in the very heart of battle.59
Although valor, because of its relation to violence, is an imperfect, fallen virtue, it nonetheless appears in the Essays to be among the best that we can do as humans. It is so moving, in fact, that Montaigne proposes it as an alternative to humankind’s abject vulnerability as a way of resolving violence: where compassion fails, admiration succeeds in soothing the victor’s bloodlust. He notes:
it may be said that to subdue your heart to commiseration is the act of an 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.60
What resolves violence is not the recognition of sameness in shared vulnerability, but rather the individual distinction that honorable responses to torture, war, cruelty, or pain afford. Rather than turning universally to lamentation or to pacifist alternatives, Montaigne’s Essays posits violence as a central ground for ethical contest: at once so human and so dehumanizing, it is nonetheless deeply revelatory and productive. Proposing an agonistic conception of violence that tracks an equally agonistic vision of virtue, the Essays uses violence’s destabilizing forces to try and, ultimately, to prove the stability of the soul.
(1) All quotations from Montaigne are taken from The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), and Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne, ed. Pierre Villey and V. L. Saulnier (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1978). III, 13, 834 : “Je veux que ma voix, non seulement arrive à luy, mais à l’avanture qu’elle le frape et qu’elle le perse.”
(2) II, 12, 325 : “Ils ne lairront de joindre les mains vers le ciel, si vous leur attachez un bon coup d’espée en la poitrine.”
(3) “Violence,” OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
(4) “Force brutale pour soumettre quelqu’un,” “Violence,” Le Grand Robert (Paris: Le Robert, 2013), web. Translation mine.
(5) Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Profile, 2008), 2.
(6) II, 12, 347–348 : “qui est la plus grande et pompeuse des actions humaines … tesmoignage de nostre imbecillité et imperfection; comme de vray la science de nous entredesfaire et entretuer, de ruiner et perdre nostre proper espece, il semble qu’elle n’a pas beaucoup dequoy se faire desirer aux bestes qui ne l’ont pas.”
(7) I, 30, 148 : “est-ce pas un miserable animal que l’homme?”
(8) II, 12, 386 [520–521]: “L’ancienneté pensa, ce croy-je, faire quelque chose pour la grandeur divine, de l’apparier à l’homme … et, pour l’accommoder à noz vicieuses passions, flatant sa justice d’une inhumaine vengeance, l’esjouïssant de la ruine et dissipation des choses par elle crées et conservées.”
(9) II, 12, 368 [521–522]: “C’estoit une estrange fantasie de vouloir payer la bonté divine de nostre affliction… . Joint que ce n’est pas au criminel de se faire foiter à sa mesure et à son heure: c’est au juge.”
(10) II, 27, 523 : “J’ay souvent ouy dire que la couardise est mere de cruauté. Et ay par experience apperçeu que cette aigreur et aspreté de courage malitieux et inhumain s’accompaigne coustumierement de mollesse feminine.”
(11) II, 11, 315–316 : “A peine me pouvoy-je persuader, avant que je l’eusse veu, qu’il se fut touvé des ames si monstrueuses, qui, pour le seul plaisir du meurtre, le voulussent commettre.”
(12) III, 1, 599 [790–791]: “Nostre estre est simenté de qualitez maladives … voire et la cruauté, vice si desnaturé: car, au milieu de la compassion, nous sentons au dedans je ne scay quelle aigre-douce poincte de volupté maligne à voir souffrir autruy; et les enfans le sentent.”
(13) I, 26, 122 : “Ostez moy la violence et la force: il n’est rien à mon advis qui abastardisse et estourdisse si fort une nature bien née. Si vous avez envie qu’il craigne la honte et le chastiement, ne l’y endurcissez pas.” Montaigne returns to this theme again in “Of the affection of fathers for their children.” See II, 8, 281–282 .
(14) I, 23, 78 : “Ce sont pourtant les vrayes semences et racines de la cruauté, de la tyrannie, de la trahyson: elles se germent là, et s’eslevent apres gaillardement, et profittent à force entre les mains de la coustume.”
(15) Montaigne similarly describes violence against animals as the precursor to gladiatorial games in the essay “Of cruelty,” II, 11, 316 .
(16) II, 12, 350 : “Les ames des Empereurs et des savatiers sont jettées à mesme moule… . La mesme raison qui nous fait tanser avec un voisin, dresse entre les Princes une guerre; la mesme raison qui nous faict foïter un lacquais, tombant en un Roy, luy fait ruiner une province.”
(17) II, 27, 528 : “Les premiers cruautez s’exercent pour elles mesmes: de là s’engendre la crainte d’une juste revanche, qui produict apres une enfilure de nouvelles cruautez pour les estouffer les unes par les autres.”
(18) See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).
(19) In multiple essays he deplores the torments unleashed on the populace by soldiers, and the extent to which religious zeal has become the pretext for brutality practiced even by civilians upon one another. See I, 6, 18 ; I, 47, 208 ; II, 6, 270  for the former and II, 19, 506  for the latter.
(20) III, 12, 796 [1041–1042]: “Monstrueuse guerre: les autres agissent au dehors; cette-cy encore contre soy se ronge et se desfaict par son propre venin… . Toute discipline la fuyt. Elle vient guarir la sedition et en est pleine, veut chastier la desobeyssance et en montre l’exemple; et, employée à la deffence des loix, faict sa part de rebellion à l’encontre des siennes propres. Où en sommes nous? Nostre medecine porte infection… . En ces maladies populaires, on peut distinguer sur le commencement les sains des malades; mais quand elles viennent à durer, comme la nostre, tout le corps s’en sent, et la teste et les talons; aucune partye n’est exempte de corruption. Car il n’est air qui se hume si gouluement, qui s’espande et penetre, comme faict la licence.”
(21) I, 23, 89 : “[B] Et quand on resiste à l’accroissance d’une innovation qui vient par violence à s’introduire, de se tenir, en tout et par tout, en bride et en reigle, contre ceux qui ont la clef des champs, ausquels tout cela est loisible qui peut avancer leur dessein, qui n’ont ny loy ny ordre que de suyvre leur advantage, c’est une dangereuse obligation et inequalité… . [C] L’aller legitime est un aller froid, poisant et contraint, et n’est pas pour tenir bon à un aller licencieux et effrené… . Car, à la verité, en ces dernieres necessitez où il n’y a plus que tenir, il seroit à l’avanture plus sagement fait de baisser la teste et prester un peu au coup que, s’ahurtant outre la possibilité à ne rien relascher, donner occasion à la violance de fouler tout aux pieds; et vaudroit mieux faire vouloir aux loix ce qu’elles peuvent, puis qu’elles ne peuvent ce qu’elles veulent.” Emphases added.
(22) Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken, 1986), 287.
(23) See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
(24) As Philippe Desan argues, in this conflict Montaigne puts himself squarely on the side of the nobility: “Témoin de la dégradation des valeurs nobiliaires, Montaigne se réclame le dernier bastion de cet idéal. Il tente en fait de sauvegarder les anciennes valeurs de la noblesse et de reproduire une écriture qui ne se conçoit qu’en dehors du réseau commercial.” Philippe Desan, “Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantès, ou la dégradation de l’idéal nobiliaire,” Cahiers parisiens/Parisian Notebooks 4 (2008): 299.
(25) John H. Langbein, Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe in the Ancien Régime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 3.
(26) Edward Peters, Torture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 44.
(27) II, 5, 266 [368–369]: “C’est une dangereuse invention que celle des gehenes, et semble que ce soit plustost un essay de patience que de vérité. [C] Et celuy qui les peut souffrir, cache la verité, et celuy qui ne les peut souffrir. [A] Car pourquoy la douleur ne me fera elle plustost confesser ce qui en est, qu’elle ne me forcera de dire ce qui n’est pas? … Je pense que le fondement de cette invention est appuyé sur la consideration de l’effort de la conscience. Car, au coulpable, il semble qu’elle aide à la torture pour luy faire confesser sa faute, et qu’elle l’affoiblisse; et, de l’autre part, qu’elle fortifie l’innocent contre la torture. Pour dire vray, c’est un moyen plein d’incertitude et de danger.”
(29) III, 11, 790 : “Apres tout, c’est mettre ses conjectures à bien haut pris que d’en faire cuire un homme tout vif.” We know, of course, that Montaigne is deeply suspicious of any claims to certainty among humankind to beging with. It stands to reason that his doubt forms part of his unequivocal condemnation of torture.
(30) As time progresses, Montaigne seems to harden in his condemnation of torture. While editions prior to 1588 refer to it as “the most effective …” from 1588 onward it becomes “the least ineffective way that human weakness has been able to invent. Very inhumanly, however, and very uselessly, in my opinion. Many nations, less barbarous in this respect than the Greeks and Romans who call them barbarians, consider it horrible and cruel to torture and break in pieces a man of whose guilt you are still in doubt… . Are you not unjust when, in order not to kill him without cause, you do worse than kill him?” II, 5, 266 : “le moins mal que l’humaine foiblesse aye peu inventer. Bien inhumainement pourtant et bien inutilement, à mon advis! Plusieurs nations, moins barbares en cela que la grecque et la romaine qui les en appellent, estiment horrible et cruel de tourmenter et desrompre un homme de la faute duquel vous estses encores en doubte… . Estes-vous pas injustes, qui, pour ne le tuer sans occasion, luy faites pis que le tuer?”
(31) I, 14, 41 : “Il est ordinaire à beaucoup de nations de nostre temps de se blesser à escient, pour donner foy à leur parole.”
(32) II, 32, 547 : “Ayant le corage d’ainsi mourir et se desrober aux premiers tourmens, semble elle pas à escient avoir presté sa vie à cette espreuve de sa patiance pour se moquer de ce tyran et encorager d’autres à semblable entreprinse contre luy?”
(33) II, 29, 537 : “Il n’est point advenu, de nostre memoire, un plus admirable effect de resolution que de ces deux qui conspirèrent la mort de la prince d’Orenge… . Certes, il y employa une main bien determinée et un courage esmeu d’une vigoureuse passion… . Que celuy là ne courut à une mort certaine, je ne fay pas grand doubte: car les esperances de quoy on le pouvoit amuser, ne pouvoient loger en entendement rassis; et la conduite de son exploit montre qu’il n’en avoit pas faute, non plus que de courage.”
(34) II, 29, 538 : “sont estimés entre les Mahumetans d’une souveraine devotion et pureté de meurs. Ils tiennent que le plus certain moyen de meriter Paradis, c’est tuer quelqu’un de religion contraire. Parquoy meprisant tous les dangiers propres, pour une si utile execution, un ou deux se sont veus souvent, au pris d’une certaine mort, se présenter à assassiner … leur ennemi au milieu de ses forces.”
(35) See, for example, David Quint, Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); Biancamaria Fontana, Montaigne’s Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008). For two lively contradictions of the “pacifist” hypothesis based on Montaigne’s personal and literary engagements with war and combat, see Jacques de Feytaud, “Valet de trèfles ou l’Honneur des Armes: I et II,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 5–6 (1981): 43–72; Jacques de Feytaud, “Valet de trèfles ou l’Honneur des Armes: III et IV,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 7–8 (1981): 11–37; Jacques de Feytaud, “Valet de trèfles ou l’Honneur des Armes: V,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 5–6 (1982): 7–26; and John B. Robertson, “La moralité de conflit militaire dans les Essais de Montaigne,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 10–11 (1974): 79–82.
(36) III, 13, 841 [1096–1097]. Some scholars have read this passage as ironic. For a refutation of this position, see James J. Supple, “ ‘Il n’est d’occupation plaisante comme la militaire’: l’ironie de Montaigne,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 31–32 (1979): 9–26.
(37) II, 27, 526 [696–697]. See Lauro-Aimé Colliard, “Le thème du duel chez Montaigne: l’affaire Mattecoulon,” Montaigne Studies 15 (2003): 159–168.
(38) III, 4, 634 : “C’est une douce passion que la vengeance, de grande impression et naturelle.”
(39) II, 7, 277 : “il est digne d’estre consideré que nostre nation donne à la vaillance le premier degré des vertus, comme son nom montre, qui vient de valeur… . quand nous disons un homme qui vaut beaucoup, ou un homme de bien, au stile de nostre court et de nostre noblesse, ce n’est à dire autre chose qu’un vaillant homme… . La forme propre, et seule, et essencielle, de noblesse en France, c’est la vacation militaire.” Emphasis added. In this same vein, Montaigne characterizes the prince’s “office, which consists all in military action” in II, 21, 513 : “son office, qui est tout en action militaire.”
(40) II, 23, 518–519 : “les Romains dressoient le people à la vaillance et au mespris des dangiers et de la mort par ces furieux spectacles… . C’estoit, à la verité, un merveilleux exemple, et de tres-grand fruict pour l’institution du peuple, de voir tous les jours en sa presence cent, deux cens, et mille couples d’hommes, armez les uns contre les autres, se hacher en pieces avecques une si extreme fermeté de courage qu’on ne leur vist lácher une parolle de foiblesse ou commiseration, jamais tourner le dos, ny faire seulement un mouvement láche pour gauchir au coup de leur adversaire, ains tendre le col à son espée et se presenter au coup.”
(41) I, 31, 157 [211–212]: “[A] L’estimation et le pris d’un homme consiste au coeur et en la volonté; c’est là où gist son vray honneur; la vaillance, c’est la fermeté, non pas des jambes et des bras, mais du courage et de l’ame; elle ne consiste pas en la valeur de nostre cheval, ny de nos armes, mais en la nostre. Celuy qui tombe obstiné en son courage, [C] ‘si succiderit, de genu pugnat’. [A] Qui pour quelque dangier de la mort voisine ne relasche aucun point de son asseurance; qui regarde encores, en rendant l’ame, son ennemy d’une veuë ferme et desdaigneuse, il est battu, non pas de nous, mais de la fortune; il est tué, non pas vaincu. [B] Les plus vaillans sont par fois les plus infortunez. [C] Aussi y a il des pertes triomphantes à l’envi des victoires… . Le vray vaincre a pour son roolle l’estour, non pas le salut; et consiste l’honneur de la vertu à combattre, non à battre.”
(42) This is equally applicable to the practice or endurance of violence, as fortitude may take the form of a heroic endurance of brutality, or else the maintenance of ethical limits in the practice of violence in spite of its momentum toward rage and excess. In addition to resolution, Montaigne promotes restraint, moderation and the avoidance of deceit, all of which fit within the framework of aristocratic honor culture and the essayist’s particular brand of stoicism.
(43) II, 11, 308 : “ce que je vouloy verifier, que la vertu refuse la facilité pour compaigne; et que cette aisée, douce et panchante voie, par où se conduisent les pas reglez d’une bonne inclination de nature, n’est pas celle de la vraye vertu. Elle demande un chemin aspre et espineux; elle veut avoir ou des difficultez estrangeres à luicter … par le moyen desquelles fortune se plaist à luy rompre la roideur de sa course; ou des difficultez internes que luy apportent les appetits desordonnez et imperfections de nostre condition.” It is important to note, however, that Montaigne gives virtue a far more pleasant face in “Of the education of children.” Nevertheless, even here, it does not fully escape the implication of combat; he chooses as its image Bradamante from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a beautiful woman disguised as a warrior. II, 26, 119 [161–162].
(44) II, 27, 524 [693–694]: “La vaillance (de qui c’est l’effect de s’exercer seulement contre la resistence, Nec nisi bellantis gaudet cervice juvenci) s’arreste à voir l’ennemy à sa mercy. Mais la pusillanimité, pour dire qu’elle est aussi de la feste, n’ayant peu se mesler à ce premier rolle, prend pour sa part le second, du massacre et du sang… . et ce qui fait voir tant de cruautez inouies aux guerres populaires, c’est que cette canaille de vulgaire s’aguerrit et se gendarme à s’ensanglanter jusques aux coudes et à deschiqueter un corps à ses pieds, n’ayant resentiment d’autre vaillance … comme les chiens coüards, qui deschirent en la maison et mordent les peaux des bestes sauvages qu’ils n’ont osé attaquer aux champs.”
(45) Arlette Jouanna, “Montaigne et la noblesse,” in Les Écrivains et la politique dans le Sud-Ouest de la France autour des années 1580 (Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1982), 115.
(46) II, 17, 502 .
(47) See III, 6, 686 [899–900], and III, 13, 852 [1109–1110].
(48) III, 1, 609 [801–802]: “Vrayement celuy là proprement commandoit bien à la guerre, qui luy faisoit souffrir le mors de la benignité sur le poinct de sa plus forte chaleur, ainsin enflammée qu’elle estoit et escumeuse de fureur et de meurtre. C’est miracle de pouvoir mesler à telles actions quelque image de justice; mais il n’appartient qu’à la roideur d’Epaminondas d’y pouvoir mesler la douceur et la facilité des meurs les plus molles et la pure innocence.” In fact, in extreme cases, the heroic endurance of violence goes even beyond virtue, to something like divine frenzy, or the “miracle” of Epamonidas.
(49) II, 7, 276 [382–383]. See also James Supple, “ ‘Il n’est d’occupation plaisante comme la militaire’: L’ironie de Montaigne,” 16.
(50) II, 3, 250 .
(51) I, 14, 37 [55–56]: “Ferons nous à croire à nostre peau que les coups d’estriviere la chatoüillent? Et à nostre goût que l’aloé soit du vin de graves? … Forcerons nous la generale habitude de nature, qui se voit en tout ce qui est vivant sous le ciel, de trembler sous la douleur? Les arbres mesmes semblent gemir aux offences qu’on leur faict.”
(52) II, 37, 576–577 [760–761].
(53) See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004); Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009).
(54) I, 14, 38 : “Ainsi n’ayons affaire qu’à la douleur. Je leur donne que ce soit le pire accident de mostre estre, et volontiers: car je suis l’homme du monde qui luy veux autant de mal, et qui la fuis autant, pour jusques à présent n’avoir pas eu, Dieu mercy, grand commerce avec elle. Mais il est en nous, si non de l’aneantir, au moins de l’amoindrir par la patience, et quand bien le corps s’en esmouveroit, de maintenir ce neantmoins l’ame et la raison en bonne trampe. Et s’il ne l’estoit, qui auroit mis en credit parmy nous la vertu, la vaillance, la force, la magnanimité et la resolution? Où joüeroyent elles leur rolle, s’il n’y a plus de douleur à deffier.” Montaigne returns to this long passage in the C layer of the text (post 1588) to reemphasize this agonistic conception of pain: “as the body is firmer against attack when stiffened, so is the soul,” I, 14, 39 : “Comme le corps est plus ferme à la charge en la roidissant, aussi est l’ame.”
(55) I, 14, 38 : “s’acquerra l’advantage que nous voulons avoir sur le vulgaire.”
(56) For Montaigne’s political role in these and the other events of the later Wars of Religion, see Philippe Desan, “ ‘Faveur d’autruy’ et ‘ruine publique’: Montaigne et les aléas de l’engagement politique, 1588–1592,” in Les Stratégies de l’échec. Enquêtes sur l’action politique à l’époque moderne, ed. Marie Barral-Baron, Marie-Clarté Lagrée, and Matthieu Lemoine (Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2015), 113–132.
(57) II, 15, 467 : “J’ay affoibly le dessein des soldats, ostant à leur exploit le hasard et toute matiere de gloire militere qui a accoustumé de leur servir de tiltre et d’excuse. Ce qui est faict courageusement, est tousjours faict honorablement, en temps où la justice est morte. Je leur rens la conqueste de ma maison lasche et traistresse.”
(58) III, 12, 812–814 [1061–1063]: “mon visage et ma franchise.”
(59) II, 9, 294 .
(60) I, 1, 4 : “Il se peut dire, que de rompre son cœur a la commisération, c’est l’effect de la facilité, débonnaireté, et mollesse, d’où il advient que les natures plus foibles, comme 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.”