Courage of the Conquered: Montaigne's Tangent

While discussing the humane details of cannibalism, Montaigne separates physical death from demise and places valiant defeat on a higher pedestal than victory. He states that there are "defeats more triumphant than victories," and gives the detailed example of King Leonidas in his battle with the Arcadians. As Montaigne's language becomes more like that of a storyteller and less of an essayist, his example appears to be more of a moral fable than evidence of his point.

Who ever ran with a more glorious desire and greater ambition, to the winning, than Captain Isoclas to the certain loss of battle? Who could have found out a more subtle invention to secure his safety, than he did to assure his destruction? He was set to defend a certain pass of Peloponnesus against the Arcadians, which, considering the nature of the place and the inequality of forces, finding it utterly impossible for him to do, and seeing that all who were presented to the enemy, must certainly be left upon the place; and on the other side, reputing it unworthy of his own virtue and magnanimity and of the Lacedaemonian name to fail in any part of his duty, he chose a mean betwixt these two extremes after this manner; the youngest and most active of his men, he preserved for the service and defence of their country, and sent them back; and with the rest, whose loss would be of less consideration, he resolved to make good the pass, and with the death of them, to make the enemy buy their entry as dear as possibly he could; as it fell out, for being presently environed on all sides by the Arcadians, after having made a great slaughter of the enemy, he and his were all cut in pieces. Is there any trophy dedicated to the conquerors which was not much more due to these who were overcome? The part that true conquering is to play, lies in the encounter, not the coming off; and the hounor of valour consists in fighting, not in subduing.

But to return to my story:

Though Montaigne does not directly mention caniballism anywhere in this example, he does repeat an idea stated earlier, saying the fallen soldiers were "all cut into pieces." Montaigne's tone seems to alter in this portion of the essay with his inclusion of sly implications and questions that challenge the reader to find a better example of his point, or another end to the story. The inclusion of this challenge in what he says is a tangent makes Montaigne seem a little unsure of his own means to an end.


1. Montaigne calls attention to his apparent tangent by saying, "to return to my story" before he continues. Why does he do this? How does it change the tone of his essay?

2. Why does Montaigne's abruptly follow a ten-line sentence with short, curt statements? How does it affect the reader?

3. How important is this comment on valor and courage? What does it have to do with the cannibals? Does it alter or enhance the reader's perception of either society the narrator speaks of?

4. With the line "the honour of valour consists in fighting, not in subduing," is the narrator commenting on the act of writing? Is writing an idea down more important than convincing the reader it is true or correct?

5. Why is this battle in greater detail than the narrator's other examples if it was only a tangent, as he seems to imply?


Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

24 September 2007

24 September 2007