In a week when the news cycle is dominated by news of uprising and violent retribution in Libya and Bahrain – and the spectre of the West’s violent intervention in the former – these thoughts by Michel de Montaigne about tyrants, from his essay “Cowardice, mother of cruelty,” seem to have something useful to add to the discussion. Aside from the informal, fluid style of the translation, the best thing about the Everyman’s Library edition is that it marks at what stage in the revision process Montaigne added to his original essay. Originally published in 1580, Montaigne revised the Essays in 1588 and added more notes in the margins to the second edition until his death in 1592. I mention this because it’s important to think of these essays as a project Montaigne returned to again and again over the course of twenty years – adding, rearranging, changing his mind – which lends them their fluid and happily contradictory character.

In the quotation below, the sentence after the line from Claudian (a late Roman poet) was originally written in the margins of the second edition sometime after 1588. After that sentence, the remainder reverts back to the original 1572 edition. The way the essay wends its way backwards and forwards through time is pleasing – Montaigne in the late 1580s writing to himself in early 1570s, roping in Claudian from the fourth century AD, providing us a way to think about tyranny in 2011.

What makes tyrants so bloodthirsty? It is concern for their security, and the fact that their cowardly heart furnishes them with no other means of making themselves secure than by exterminating those who can injure them, even to the women, for fear of a scratch:

He strikes all things because he fears all things. (Claudian)

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.
Tyrants, in order to do both things together, both to kill and to make their anger felt, have used all their ingenuity to prolong death. They want their enemies to be gone, but not so fast that they may not have leisure to savor their vengence. Thereupon they are in great perplexity; for if the tortures are violent, they are short; if they are long, they are not painful enough to suit them. So they go dispensing their instruments of torture. We see a thousand examples of it in antiquity, and I know not whether, without thinking about it, we do not retain some trace of this barbarity.

All that is beyond plain death seems to me pure cruelty.

(The quotation is from p. 641-3 of Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s Complete Works, Everyman’s Library, 1943 (reprinted 2003). The painting above is Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1566) by Pieter Brughel the Elder, Montaigne’s rough contemporary. In a similar act of using the antique as a gloss for the contemporary, Brueghel sets King Herod’s mass murder of children from Matthew 2:16 in the Netherlands, with an army of Spanish colonizers bearing down on them. It hangs in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, and is one of the most transfixing and appalling paintings I’ve ever seen.)