Reading Montaigne 1.05: Whether the governor of a besieged place should go out to parley

“…where the lion’s skin will not suffice we must sew on a bit of the fox’s…

Not much to say about this very short essay, in which Montaigne discusses the wisdom (or folly) of a combat leader going to parley himself. Montaigne considers the question in light of the fact that modern warfare pays little attention to the ancient rules of courtesy and honor that guided military engagements in some parts of the world, leading to warring factions that would warn one another of their intent to attack and even schedule the time and place to meet. At times this formality bordered on the ludicrous. Montaigne observes:

“The ancient Florentines were so far from wanting to gain advantage over their enemies by surprise that they used to warn them a month before putting their army in the field by the continual ringing of the bell they called Martinelle.”

While Montaigne recognizes that the unwritten rules of war have changed and argues for a pragmatic approach by military commanders, he clearly admires those who exercise a sense of honor even in those trying times. And if he thought that the old conception of honorable engagement was already a thing of the past, I wonder what he would think of modern urban warfare, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist attacks?

As usual, Montaigne ends with a fine, succinct summation of his own approach:

“I put my trust easily in another man’s word. But I should do so reluctantly whenever I would give the impression of acting from despair and want of courage rather than freely and through trust in his honesty.”

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