Sunday, June 5, 2011


Everyone has heard the story of the man of Picardy to whom, on the scaffold, they presented a wench, offering (as our justice sometimes allows) to save his life if he would marry her. He, having looked at her a while and noticed that she was lame, said: "Tie up, tie up! She limps." And likewise they say that in Denmark a man condemned to have his head cut off, being offered similar terms when he was on the scaffold, turned it down because the girl they offered him had sagging cheeks and too sharp a nose. 1

* * *

Indeed, just as study is a torment to a lazy man, abstinence from wine to a drunkard, frugality to the luxurious man, and exercise to a delicate idler, so it is with the rest. Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it. 2

— Michel de Montaigne, Essais

So what does Montaigne intend to tell us, that the man from Picardy and the Dane had so little fear of death that mere uncomeliness in a potential wife and savior was enough to throw away their lives? Or that both men were more afraid of marriage than death?

Inquiring minds want to know.

1 "That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them." The Complete Works, trans. Donald Frame. New York: 2003, p. 40.
2 Ibid., p. 56.

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