Reading Montaigne 1.16: Of the punishment of cowardice

Montaigne follows up on the danger of hubris with another short piece, this time addressing cowardice, something that could be seen as the opposite of foolhardy defense. Cowardice is concept that comes from one of two distinctly different, but related, origins: weakness or malice. In the case of malice we are acting directly against the “reason that nature has imprinted in us,” while if we act out of weakness we can turn to that very natural weakness as our defense.

The question is: how do we, as a society, deal with cowardice? The traditional approach is to punish the cowardly with “shame and ignominy.” But this has its problems, most considerably that the shame can make the cowardly desperate, even enemies, and we cannot underestimate the potential harm of people who feel either way (or both).

In some ways it seems that criminal activity–particularly from the stoic point-of-view–can be seen as a kind of cowardice. Criminality can certainly be understood as stemming from either weakness or malice. And then the same question arises: how do we deal with criminality? In European culture the tendency toward punishment is marked, so much so that even most efforts labeled as rehabilitative are nothing of the sort. While there is something to be said for protecting the rest of society from the ills that can be inflicted by the criminal, there is also much to be said for the fact that imprisonment tends to breed more–and more devoted–criminals.

In some other cultures different approaches are more accepted, methods that truly seek admission, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. It could hardly be more expensive to pursue this approach more often, though in an increasingly risk-averse culture that has become addicted to security theater it is sadly unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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