Michel de Montaigne, the pen name for Michel Eyquem, seemed to begin his essays before having a strong idea about where he wanted to go with them, and in this particular one, he wrote without even settling on a strong opinion. He’s carefully wading into the water with his first essay, touching on some military themes and offering tactical advice, without explicitly addressing the more personal issues he was grappling with or exposing his overarching mission of applying stoic philosophy to his age.
Probably the best way for a contemporary reader of Montaigne to approach this piece is to think of political analogies rather than martial ones. In politics, it is generally considered good form and good politics for the defeated to show humility and to concede to the victor. As I write this in November 2020, that is definitely not the tactic that President Donald Trump has taken towards President-Elect Joe Biden.
Montaigne raises the question, is it better to show courage after a defeat or to evoke pathos? Here’s how Montaigne assayed it:
The most common way of softening the hearts of those we have offended once they have us at their mercy with vengeance at hand is to move them to commiseration and pity by our submissiveness. Yet flat contrary means, bravery and steadfastness, have sometimes served to produce the same effect.
So Montaigne is holding out some hope for the Trump loyalists that the approach taken so far — based on hare brained “election fraud” arguments, with scant evidence — might pay off in the long run. Whether Trump’s actions constitute steadfastness and bravery could be in the eye of the beholder, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment to see if Montaigne has some useful thoughts.
After the 2016 election, President Barack Obama quickly invited then President-Elect Donald Trump to the White House and treated him so well that you could even hear Trump muttering how Obama is “a great man” during the press gaggle. This charade kept up for several weeks, with Trump even speculating at times that Obama liked him. Much of Obama’s personal lobbying at the time was for Trump to keep Obamacare in some form and to focus on dealing with a thorny North Korea nukes problem. He succeeded at this, at least for awhile.
Montaigne would have appreciated this approach:
I have a marvellous weakness towards mercy and clemency – so much so that I would be more naturally moved by compassion than by respect.
So Montaigne would approve of the way Obama handled the transition, but what of Trump’s 2020 approach? From the same essay:
disdaining tears and supplications and then yielding only out of respect for the holy image of valour is the action of a strong, unbending soul, reserving its good-will and honour for stubborn, masculine vigour.
So does Montaigne come down on one side here? Not really. He expressed admiration both for throwing in the towel and trying to appease the incoming power and for holding your ground and fighting until the end. The most famous line of the essay may, in fact, be a better reflection of Montaigne’s state of mind on the subject than words of wisdom that could be broadly applied:
Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform.