The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, by Michel de Montaigne

Chapter 4

That the Soul Expends its Passions Upon False Objects, where the True are Wanting

A gentleman of my country, marvellously tormented with the gout, being importuned by his physicians totally to abstain from all manner of salt meats, was wont pleasantly to reply, that in the extremity of his fits he must needs have something to quarrel with, and that railing at and cursing, one while the Bologna sausages, and another the dried tongues and the hams, was some mitigation to his pain. But, in good earnest, as the arm when it is advanced to strike, if it miss the blow, and goes by the wind, it pains us; and as also, that, to make a pleasant prospect, the sight should not be lost and dilated in vague air, but have some bound and object to limit and circumscribe it at a reasonable distance.

“Ventus ut amittit vires, nisi robore densa
Occurrant sylvae, spatio diffusus inani.”

[“As the wind loses its force diffused in void space, unless it in
its strength encounters the thick wood.”— Lucan, iii. 362.]

So it seems that the soul, being transported and discomposed, turns its violence upon itself, if not supplied with something to oppose it, and therefore always requires an object at which to aim, and whereon to act. Plutarch says of those who are delighted with little dogs and monkeys, that the amorous part that is in us, for want of a legitimate object, rather than lie idle, does after that manner forge and create one false and frivolous. And we see that the soul, in its passions, inclines rather to deceive itself, by creating a false and fantastical a subject, even contrary to its own belief, than not to have something to work upon. After this manner brute beasts direct their fury to fall upon the stone or weapon that has hurt them, and with their teeth a even execute revenge upon themselves for the injury they have received from another:

“Pannonis haud aliter, post ictum saevior ursa,
Cui jaculum parva Lybis amentavit habena,
Se rotat in vulnus, telumque irata receptum
Impetit, et secum fugientem circuit hastam.”

[“So the she-bear, fiercer after the blow from the Lybian’s thong~hurled dart, turns round upon the wound, and attacking the received
spear, twists it, as she flies.”— Lucan, vi. 220.]

What causes of the misadventures that befall us do we not invent? what is it that we do not lay the fault to, right or wrong, that we may have something to quarrel with? It is not those beautiful tresses you tear, nor is it the white bosom that in your anger you so unmercifully beat, that with an unlucky bullet have slain your beloved brother; quarrel with something else. Livy, speaking of the Roman army in Spain, says that for the loss of the two brothers, their great captains:

“Flere omnes repente, et offensare capita.”

[“All at once wept and tore their hair.”-Livy, xxv. 37.]

’Tis a common practice. And the philosopher Bion said pleasantly of the king, who by handsful pulled his hair off his head for sorrow, “Does this man think that baldness is a remedy for grief?” [Cicero, Tusc. Quest., iii. 26.] Who has not seen peevish gamesters chew and swallow the cards, and swallow the dice, in revenge for the loss of their money? Xerxes whipped the sea, and wrote a challenge to Mount Athos; Cyrus employed a whole army several days at work, to revenge himself of the river Gyndas, for the fright it had put him into in passing over it; and Caligula demolished a very beautiful palace for the pleasure his mother had once enjoyed there.

[Pleasure — unless ‘plaisir’ were originally ‘deplaisir’— must be
understood here ironically, for the house was one in which she had
been imprisoned. — Seneca, De Ira. iii. 22]

I remember there was a story current, when I was a boy, that one of our neighbouring kings [Probably Alfonso XI. of Castile] having received a blow from the hand of God, swore he would be revenged, and in order to it, made proclamation that for ten years to come no one should pray to Him, or so much as mention Him throughout his dominions, or, so far as his authority went, believe in Him; by which they meant to paint not so much the folly as the vainglory of the nation of which this tale was told. They are vices that always go together, but in truth such actions as these have in them still more of presumption than want of wit. Augustus Caesar, having been tossed with a tempest at sea, fell to defying Neptune, and in the pomp of the Circensian games, to be revenged, deposed his statue from the place it had amongst the other deities. Wherein he was still less excusable than the former, and less than he was afterwards when, having lost a battle under Quintilius Varus in Germany, in rage and despair he went running his head against the wall, crying out, “O Varus! give me back my legions!” for these exceed all folly, forasmuch as impiety is joined therewith, invading God Himself, or at least Fortune, as if she had ears that were subject to our batteries; like the Thracians, who when it thunders or lightens, fall to shooting against heaven with Titanian vengeance, as if by flights of arrows they intended to bring God to reason. Though the ancient poet in Plutarch tells us —

“Point ne se faut couroucer aux affaires,
Il ne leur chault de toutes nos choleres.”

[“We must not trouble the gods with our affairs; they take no heed
of our angers and disputes.”— Plutarch.]

But we can never enough decry the disorderly sallies of our minds.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09