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Montaigne argues that is right and proper for a people to speak ill of a “faulty prince” after his death (1580)

The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) argues that it may be prudent not to criticise a “faulty prince” while he is alive but once he has died we owe it to ourselves and to posterity to expose their crimes and wickedness:

Amongst those laws that relate to the dead, I look upon that to be very sound by which the actions of princes are to be examined after their decease. They are equals with, if not masters of the laws, and, therefore, what justice could not inflict upon their persons, ’tis but reason should be executed upon their reputations and the estates of their successors—things that we often value above life itself. ’Tis a custom of singular advantage to those countries where it is in use, and by all good princes to be desired, who have reason to take it ill, that the memories of the wicked should be used with the same reverence and respect with their own. We owe subjection and obedience to all our kings, whether good or bad, alike, for that has respect unto their office; but as to esteem and affection, these are only due to their virtue. Let us grant to political government to endure them with patience, however unworthy; to conceal their vices; and to assist them with our recommendation in their indifferent actions, whilst their authority stands in need of our support. But, the relation of prince and subject being once at an end, there is no reason we should deny the expression of our real opinions to our own liberty and common justice, and especially to interdict to good subjects the glory of having reverently and faithfully served a prince, whose imperfections were to them so well known; this were to deprive posterity of a useful example.

Amongst those laws that relate to the dead, I look upon that to be very sound by which the actions of princes are to be examined after their decease. They are equals with, if not masters of the laws, and, therefore, what justice could not inflict upon their persons, ’tis but reason should be executed upon their reputations and the estates of their successors—things that we often value above life itself. ’Tis a custom of singular advantage to those countries where it is in use, and by all good princes to be desired, who have reason to take it ill, that the memories of the wicked should be used with the same reverence and respect with their own. We owe subjection and obedience to all our kings, whether good or bad, alike, for that has respect unto their office; but as to esteem and affection, these are only due to their virtue. Let us grant to political government to endure them with patience, however unworthy; to conceal their vices; and to assist them with our recommendation in their indifferent actions, whilst their authority stands in need of our support. But, the relation of prince and subject being once at an end, there is no reason we should deny the expression of our real opinions to our own liberty and common justice, and especially to interdict to good subjects the glory of having reverently and faithfully served a prince, whose imperfections were to them so well known; this were to deprive posterity of a useful example. And such as, out of respect to some private obligation, unjustly espouse and vindicate the memory of a faulty prince, do private right at the expense of public justice. Livy does very truly say, “That the language of men bred up in courts is always full of vain ostentation and false testimony, every one indifferently magnifying his own master, and stretching his commendation to the utmost extent of virtue and sovereign grandeur.” Some may condemn the freedom of those two soldiers who so roundly answered Nero to his beard; the one being asked by him why he bore him ill-will? “I loved thee,” answered he, “whilst thou wert worthy of it, but since thou are become a parricide, an incendiary, a player, and a coachman, I hate thee as thou dost deserve.” And the other, why he should attempt to kill him? “Because,” said he, “I could think of no other remedy against thy perpetual mischiefs.” But the public and universal testimonies that were given of him after his death (and so will be to all posterity, both of him and all other wicked princes like him), of his tyrannies and abominable deportment, who, of a sound judgment, can reprove them?

I am scandalized, that in so sacred a government as that of the Lacedaemonians there should be mixed so hypocritical a ceremony at the interment of their kings; where all their confederates and neighbors, and all sorts and degrees of men and women, as well as their slaves, cut and slashed their foreheads in token of sorrow, repeating in their cries and lamentations that that king (let him have been as wicked as the devil) was the best that ever they had; by this means attributing to his quality the praise that only belongs to merit, and that of right is due to supreme desert, though lodged in the lowest and most inferior subject.

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This is a typical example of how Montaigne inserts a radical thought into a seemingly harmless essay. Here it is an essay about how to remember the legacy of a man’s life once he has passed away. When it comes to remembering a dead prince or king Montaigne is sickened by the hypocrisy of formal state funerals when a leader is hailed as “the best that ever they had” in spite of the fact that he might have been “as wicked as the devil.” There might be sound and prudent reasons why one doesn’t criticise a “faulty prince” during his lifetime as he wields the power of the sword over his subjects. But once he has passed away then Montaigne believes that there is “no reason we should deny the expression of our real opinions to our own liberty and common justice”. There is a utilitarian reason for doing this as future generations need to know the truth about how their past rulers behaved in order to be on guard against similar behaviour in the present. There is also the matter of a kind of retrospective justice since “what justice could not inflict upon their persons (while they were alive), ’tis but reason should be executed upon their reputations and the estates of their successors (after their death).” He ends this passage with a story of two soldiers who told truth to power, in this case the Roman emperor Nero, and concludes that “who, of a sound judgment, can reprove them” for doing so?

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