Saturday, August 27, 2005

Cruelty and Cowardice

Montaigne's essay "On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty" is thought-provoking. He begins, "I have often heard it said that cowardice is the mother of cruelty." And he asks, "What is it that makes all our quarrels end in death nowadays? Whereas our fathers knew degrees of vengeance we now begin at the end and straightway talk of nothing but killing. What causes that, if not cowardice?" If it is vengeance or punishment you want, killing isn't a satisfying means to that end. After all, the point of revenge and punishment is to see the other person suffer and be taught a lesson. Once the person is dead, he isn't going to care all that much: "'He'll be sorry for it,' we say. Do we really think he is sorry for it once we have shot him through the head?" asks Montaigne. Not at all. We actually "do him one of the kindest offices of this life, which is to let him die quickly and painlessly." Lest you think Montaigne is against killing anyone, he lets us know that it's okay to kill someone in order to prevent "some future offence." But it's not okay to kill someone for an offence that has already been committed. Such an act is "a deed more of fear than of bravery; it is an act of caution rather than of courage; of defence rather than of attack....we show we are afraid that if we let the man live he will do it again. By getting rid of him you act not against him but against yourself." At first while reading the essay I thought Montaigne could be used to argue against capital punishment, but that is not the case. He is not writing of killing via the justice system, but outside of it. That became quite clear when he took a side jaunt to talk about how duels had gotten out of control and lost their original intent. The kind of killing Montaigne is talking about is the kind perpetrated by one person against another--someone stole your girlfriend (or boyfriend) so you kill him to take revenge. Of course we also have gang violence and drive-by shootings. All of these are acts of cowardice. It is tyrants too who display cowardice. Montaigne asks, "What is it that makes tyrants so lust for blood? It is their worries about their own safety and the fact that when they fear a scratch their cowardly minds can furnish them with no other means of security save exterminating all those who simply have the means of hurting them, women included." And so tyrants, in order to make their anger and power felt, often resort to torturing before killing. But torture is not okay for Montaigne, "Everything that goes beyond mere death seems to me to be cruelty." And cruelty, along with not being right, is cowardice. It does not reveal the tyrant's power but only his fear and weakness. It is an interesting side note that Montaigne's opinion on torture ran afoul of Vatican censors of the time. Torture was widely practiced then and considered a vaild means of interrogation. It was also accept by Roman Law. But in spite of the Vatican's dislike, Montaigne held his ground. Montaigne writes, "The first acts of cruelty are done for their own sake; from them there is born fear of a just revenge; that produces a succession of fresh cruelties, each intended to smother each other." And it doesn't end, it keeps going and perpetuating until there is no one left or until someone is fearless enough to stop it. This essay has got me thinking about wars and genocide, state sponsored torture and kids who bring guns to school in order to shoot other kids. Does the concept of cowardice have much currency any longer? Or has it been twisted around so that not to kill someone who is bullying you is cowardice? Or not to kill your neighbors because they are of a different religion or from a different tribe is cowardice? Or is refusing to follow an order or refusing to just go along with everyone and attach those electrodes to the naked, hooded prisoner now an act of a coward? And if any of that is true, what does it say about us as a society? As humans? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Virtue"