Montaigne begins the main body of the essays with a brief meditation on the nature of mercy as seen in the dynamic interplay between vengeance and pity. Starting with a thought on the contradictory manner by which we might seek mercy from who seeks vengeance, or how we might “move them to commiseration and pity,” Montaigne notes the contradiction that “submission” sometimes has the desired effect, but so do the “contrary means” of “audacity and steadfastness.”
Montaigne quickly shifts focus from the recipient or victim to those who grant or withhold such pity, telling stories of leaders who have–faced with similar situations–taken very different paths when it comes to “subduing the bitter and deadly hatred” within themselves. Edward, prince of Wales, is described as abandoning the “butchery” of a conquered city in the face of the bravery of three Frenchmen fighting alone against an overwhelming force. But Alexander, “the bravest of men and one very gracious to the vanquished,” is unable to control his rage at a brave enemy who refuses to be humbled:
Then Alexander, seeing his [Betis’s] proud and obstinate silence: “Has he bent a knee? Has any suppliant cry escaped him? I’ll conquer your muteness yet; and if I cannot wring a word from it, at least I’ll wring a groan.” And turning his anger into rage, he ordered Betis’ heels to be pierced through and had him thus dragged alive, torn, and dismembered, behind a cart.
Montaigne makes clear that he falls on the side of mercy and forbearance in the face of “bitter and deadly hatred.” He wonders about the example of Alexander, providing another story of Alexander’s utter lack of mercy–which Montaigne speculates could come from “envious spite” or the “natural impetuosity of his anger,” this time after conquering Thebes, speculating finally that if Alexander’s emotional response could have been mastered, it would have been in the face of the immense bravery demonstrated by the Thebans, down to the last men seeking an honorable death from their enemy.
The point Montaigne is making isn’t as simple as trying to determine which of these figures are good or bad, but that they illustrate the immense and contradictory complexity of man1, and thereby himself, setting the tone for the essays to come. As Montaigne puts it:
Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to find any constant and uniform judgment on him.
Using the term “men” here is accurate; Montaigne was a product of his times, and in this essay he speaks of the “indulgence and softness” of “weaker natures, such as those of women, children, and the common herd. ↩