84 Power: On Cowardice, The Mother of Cruelty

There are two types of cruelty. The first is obvious to everyone – torturing a defenseless animal or a small child, for example. These acts are purely inhumane and only the sociopathic fail to recognize this cruelty for what it is.

But the other type of cruelty cannot always be recognized objectively. Rather, it’s an emotion elicited in the victim, a feeling of being piled on, singled out and purposefully punished in a disproportionate manner. Very often, the perpetrator of such abuse is shocked when the victim makes an accusation of cruelty. Not seeing oneself capable of first-category abuse, the elicitors of emotional cruelty cannot fathom how his or her actions could lead to such feelings.

Montaigne starts out this essay with a controversial – and highly sexist – interpretation of such emotional cruelty:

I have often heard it said that cowardice is the mother of cruelty. And I have learned from experience that that harsh rage of wicked inhuman minds is usually accompanied by womanish weakness.

I think if you removed the word ‘womanish,’ the thought is quite a bit more powerful. I have not found men to be any less capable of this kind of emotional cruelty than women. But I do agree with Montaigne that these actions are often a sign of weakness and an inability to confront the genuine issues at hand.

Montaigne’s thought is better understood at the extreme example, which takes us back to his discussion of torture. It is often much less cruel to kill than to torture. And the true sign of bravery is to know when to walk away entirely:

Everyone knows that there is more bravery in beating an enemy than in finishing him off; more contempt in making him bow his head than in making him die; that, moreover, the thirst for vengeance is better slaked and satisfied by doing so, since the only intention is to make it felt. That is why we do not attack a stone or an animal if it hurts us, since they are incapable of feeling our revenge. To kill a man is to shield him from our attack.

From here, Montaigne makes a very interesting psychological connection between chains of lies and chains of cruelty. Just as a liar has to keep inventing new lies to cover up the original untruth, so too must the cruel punisher continue a series of cruel acts to prevent the abused from seeking revenge:

The first acts of cruelty are done for their sake; from them there is born fear of a just revenge; that produces a succession of fresh cruelties, each intended to smother each other.

This bloodlust then gets out of hand – the inflictor of pain no longer wishes to punish an act, but to remain in control:

What is it that makes tyrants so lust for blood? It is their worries about their own safety and the fact that when they fear a scratch their cowardly minds can furnish them with no other means of security save exterminating all those who simply have the means of hurting them, women included.

By staying on offense, the inflictor turns every counterattack into an act of defiance and retribution – he or she deserved the punishment for a bad act, I on the other hand am only being retaliated against because he or she didn’t like the punishment. I have the power to punish, therefore I am in the right.

If someone suffers abuse long enough, he or she eventually becomes steeled to it and loses the ability to react to the punishment as something cruel and unusual. Montaigne finds punishment inflicted in this stage especially heinous:

Vengeance is at its most wretched when it is wreaked upon someone who has lost the means of feeling it; for, as the one who seeks revenge wishes to see it if he is to enjoy it, the one who receives it must see it too if he is to suffer the pain and be taught a lesson.

The worst thing that can happen to anyone who inflicts cruelty is for the punished to escape: in a marriage, to divorce; in a job, to quit; in life, to die:

If we had thought that we had for ever overcome our enemy by valour and could dominate him as we pleased, we would be sorry indeed if he were to escape: he does that when he dies. We do want to beat him, but with more security than honour, and we seek not so much glory through our quarrel but the end of that quarrel.

The end goal of cruelty isn’t the end of a relationship, but transformation of that relationship into pure submission. The inflictor of punishment wants the punished to bow down in defeat. When in a situation like this – other than appeal to a higher authority with the ability to stop it – the only solution is to sever the relationship and walk away.

Some people do not do this – and by submitting, that person entrusts his or her future to the submitted. Montaigne finds such submission a form of enslavement for both parties:

I find it derogatory to anyone who does fully trust in himself to go and confound his fortune with that of another. Each of us runs risks enough for himself without doing so for another: each has enough to do to defend his life on behalf of his own valour without entrusting so dear a possession into the hands of third parties. For unless it be not expressly agreed to the contrary, the four of them form one party under bond. If your second is downed you are faced, by the rules, with two to contend with; you may say that that is unfair. And indeed it is – like charging well-armed against a man who has only the stump of his sword, or when you are still sound against a man who is already grievously wounded.

Undoubtedly, there is a matter of bullying in all of this – but the interesting part of emotional cruelty is that the bullying is often done by the weaker partner, the one who feels so intimidated by a relationship of equals that he or she feels obliged to demand subservience. And for that reason, I believe Montaigne is right – cowardice is the mother of cruelty.

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