Reading Montaigne 1.06: Parley time is dangerous

A companion piece to the previous essay on war and parley, this is another short piece that uses warfare as both an illustration and a metaphor for a deeper question… in this case the role of honor in warfare and if (or when) dishonorable means are justified by their successful ends.

Montaigne uses stories of the intended and unintended use and abuse of parleys by leaders, such as Regillus, who promises a mild surrender to the city he has been laying siege to but who is unable to control his soldiers once they enter, and Cleomones, who makes a truce not to attack the enemy for seven days, but sneaks in on the third night and kills them all with the excuse that the truce spoke only of day, not of night.

It’s easy to cling to the abstract idea of honor, but armed, deadly combat creates a world with a logic (or illogic) of its own. As Montaigne puts it:

“…war has by nature many privileges that are reasonable even at the expense of reason.”

But while some men are content with the philosophy espoused by Ariosto:

“To conquer always was a glorious thing,
Whether achieved by fortune or by skill.

Montaigne himself stands firmly in the opposite camp along with figures like Alexander the Great who refused to take advantage of the night to attack Darius, saying that he was “not the man to steal my victories.”

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