An immediate reaction to Montaigne
The first piece (“By Diverse Means We Achieve the Same Ends”) in Montaigne’s collection of Essays ends puzzlingly, with a long discussion of Alexander the Great’s hardness in the face of the valor of the defeated Thebans.
Yet the distress of their valor found no pity, and the length of a day was not enough to satiate Alexander’s revenge. This slaughter went on to the last drop of blood that could be shed, and stopped only at the unarmed people, old men, women, and children, so that thirty thousand of them might be taken as slaves. (6)
Up to this point Montaigne has been showing, via a mixture of examples and arguments, two means of achieving pardon. These are introduced in the first paragraph: first is “submission to move [those we have offended] to commiseration and pity” and second is “audacity and steadfastness” (3). The possibility of this latter technique’s success Montaigne shows through three examples. Just before the discussion of Alexander, Montaigne draws what I think is the core insight underlying this essay:
Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him. (5)
Obviously I have not read the rest of the Essays, but from what I know about Montaigne I suspect that this theme will underpin a great many of its chapters. The inconstancy of the human as the foundation of a form of skepticism. So why, after reaching this point, go on to give one last example, from which no explicit moral is drawn? That is my puzzle.
A first step toward resolving it may be achieved if we look to an earlier movement in the essay. Following his initial examples, Montaigne suggests that “indulgence and softness” are characteristic of “weaker natures”, whereas
to surrender simply to reverence for the sacred image of valor is the act of a strong and inflexible soul which holds in affection and honor a masculine and obstinate vigor. (4)
Montaigne immediately undermines this, suggesting that even in “less lofty souls” can “astonishment and admiration” have such an effect. So the distinction between these two means does not serve as a criterion by which to test the loftiness of souls. (I note in passing that Montaigne allies himself more with “compassion” than with “esteem”.)
The puzzling closing example is introduced with, “And directly contrary to my first examples…” (5), indicating that we have yet another movement in the direction of retracting what he has established. Alexander is a lofty soul, yet he is not moved by esteem—it only enrages him to further slaughter. So we can see one purpose for this passage: it underpins the skeptical conclusion of the essay.
But this does not explain why it should come at the end, rather than as a third example to bolster Montaigne’s undermining of the connection between mercy-from-esteem and loftiness of soul, where it seems to more naturally fit. That I think cannot be understood without looking to the essay that follows the first, “Of Sadness”.
In that essay, Montaigne takes grief as a starting point for reflections on the proper relation to strong emotions. What is interesting about the closing image of “By Diverse Means We Achieve the Same Ends” is that it seems designed precisely to elicit such emotions in the reader. After detailing Alexander’s “slaughter” of the Thebans, it starts to suggest mercy at least for those unarmed, but this is then undermined with a cruel twist: it is not mercy that saves them, but the desire to take thirty thousand of them as slaves.
The encounter with such an image, so bluntly and abruptly conveyed, is thus preparation for the next essay. It puts the reader in a position to be receptive to it. Moved to sadness by the plight of the Thebans, Montaigne will then move the reader to self-consciousness about this emotion.