Friday, 16 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 16: A Proceeding of Some Ambassadors

In this essay, Montaigne, through a meditation on different aspects of human nature, discusses what the duties of an ambassador should be

'Many(ambassadors) are expected to manage affairs of their own initiative. They do not just execute instructions, they use their discretion and wisdom to conduct their work in the best way'.

There is a saying of Propertius: ‘Let the sailor content himself with talking of the winds; the cowherd of his oxen; the soldier of his wounds; the shepherd of his flocks’

I’ve found that often the opposite is true; men prefer to talk about other men’s domains, thinking it will somehow enhance their reputation. Archimadus once mocked Pertander by saying that he had gone from being known as a glorious physician to gaining the reputation of a very bad poet. Also, observe how Ceaser loves to talk at length about building bridges and contriving war-engines, and how reserved he is when it comes to his war duties and military conduct. He knows his exploits prove him to be a great captain, but he also wants to be thought of as an excellent engineer. Similarly, the elder Dionysius was a great captain, but he took very great pains to get a reputation for poetry. Yet, he was never cut out to be a poet.

A lawyer that I know was recently brought to a study furnished with all kinds of books – legal and otherwise. The man ignored all the books and instead was fascinated with a barricade placed on the winding stair before the study door, a thing that a hundred captains and common soldiers would not have looked at twice.

Hor. said: ‘The lazy ox desires a saddle and bridle; the horse wants to plough’ 

With this kind of behaviour, of course, a man shall never improve himself, nor reach perfection at any skill. He must, therefore, make sure that every architect, painter, statesman, and mechanic, talk of their own capacities.

I follow this myself. For example, when reading stories, I consider what kind of men the authors are. If they are people that play only with words, I observe and learn style and language; if they are physicians, I pay attention to how they report of the temperature of the air, the health and complexions of princes, and the nature or disease. If they are lawyers, we should pay attention to their notions of right and wrong, the establishment of laws and governments and so on. If they are divines, the affairs of the Church, marriage etc. should be noted; if courtiers, manners and ceremonies; if soldiers, their actions and accounts of the encounters in which they were engaged; if ambassadors, we should observe their intrigues and intelligences, and their ways of getting across what they need to. And it is for this reason that I dwelt upon and pondered over a certain passage at length which I may have normally passed over.

It was in a book written by Monsieur de Langey, very well-versed in such things. He gave an account of a fine speech by Charles V in Rome, in the presence of our French Ambassadors, the Velly’s. The king mixed several insults into his speech, for instance, he said that if his own captains and soldiers were so disloyal and irresolute, and so badly trained in battle as those of the French king, he would have surrendered straight away (it seemed the Emperor really believed this, because he said the same thing at two of three other occasions). He also  challenged the French king to a fight. The Ambassador Velly sent a message to the King informing him of the affair, but concealing the worst of it, particularly the stories I have just mentioned. I can’t help but wonder at how an ambassador can dispense with anything that he should be telling his master, especially something so important, coming from the mouth of such a person, and spoken in the presence of so many people. I would imagine it to be the servant’s duty to faithfully tell the king everything that had been said, leaving it up to him what to do with that information. The right to conceal or disguise the truth thinking the receiver may take it in a way that he should not should belong to the giver of law, not the receiver; to him who is in command, and not to him who should see himself as inferior, not just in authority but also in wisdom and judgment. I, for my part, would not have been blinded in this way by my own small concerns.

We so willingly take control upon the smallest pretence, and are so ready to dominate when the opportunity arises; everyone naturally aspires to liberty and to power. No quality derived from the wisdom or bravery of am employee should be as cherished by a superior than strict and sincere obedience. To obey from one’s own judgment instead of from duty corrupts the office of command.

- P. Crassus sent a Greek engineer to bring two ship-masts for him, to be used in the engine of a battery that he wished to construct. The engineer decided to use his own scientific knowledge and brought back something more appropriate to the design Crassus envisioned. Crassus listened to his reasons with patience, but no matter how convincing they sounded, he had the engineer punished, valuing discipline more, at that moment, than the work at hand.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that such a strict and precise obedience is due to positive and limited commands. The job of ambassadors is not so confined. Many, in fact, are expected to manage affairs of their own initiative. They do not just execute instructions, they use their discretion and wisdom to conduct their work in the best way. I have known some who have actually been chided for obeying the words of the king too literally, and not considering the necessity of the situation they were in. The kings of Persia are criticized sometimes for giving their agents and lieutenants so little reign that if difficulties arise, they have to refer back for further commands. This delay can really hamper their success. Was Crassus, in the above example, by choosing a man whose profession it was to understand the things he employed him to find, and by telling this man of the uses he wanted to put the ship-masts to, not consulting his advice? And in a way, did he not actually invite him to interpose his better judgment? 

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