This sly essay from Montaigne takes a highly roundabout route to reach a not-quite-elucidated position: that you shouldn’t bother moderating your sexual appetites. Within the great whirligig, Montaigne moves from a discussion of sexual appetites to a short discussion of Caesar, back to sexual asceticism, back to a more in-depth discussion of Caesar, then ends with Montaigne asserting that it’s easier to do without sex altogether than to be married. He never directly connects the Caesar anecdote with his view of sexual moderation, but I think in juxtaposition he makes his views clear.
I’m going to reconstruct his argument to prove this is what Montaigne intended. Start first with the matter of sexual appetites. Montaigne notes that many believe that they are the strongest and most unmanageable of all human drives, but Montaigne offers a counterargument that he seems to support – that releasing sexual tension probably keeps people from pursuing more dangerous vices:
This bodily element somewhat lessens them and weakens them, for bodily appetites are subject to satiety and are susceptible to material remedies.
To demonstrate, Montaigne introduces Julius Caesar, a man of titanic sexual appetites who nonetheless never let them get in the way of his personal ambitions:
Caesar’s pursuit of pleasure never made him steal one single minute, never deflected him one inch, from any opportunity which was offered him to aggrandize himself. His passionate ambition ruled so sovereignly over all other passions and possessed his soul with such total authority, that, wherever it wanted to go, it carried him there.
Other than these two vices, Montaigne notes, Caesar was an otherwise exemplary human being, one of the greatest men who ever lived:
He was uniquely lacking in self-indulgence and so undemanding about food that Oppius tells how, one day, when he was served with some oil-of-physic in mistake for salad oil, he used it copiously so as not to embarrass his host …. Examples of his kindness and clemency towards those who had harmed him are numberless – I mean not counting those he provided during the period when the Civil Wars were still in progress: he himself makes us realize clearly in his writings that he exploited those cases to woo his opponents and make them less fearful of his victory and of his future dominance. Yet even if we must say that those particular examples do not suffice to prove to us his native clemency, they do at least show us in that great man a marvelous self-assurance and grandeur.
But all of these great personal traits were overshadowed by his horrendous ambition:
Never was there man who showed more moderation in victory nor more resolution in adversity. Yet all these beautiful dispositions were stifled and corrupted by that frenzied passion of ambition by which he permitted himself to be so totally carried away that it is easy to show that it was the rudder which steered all his actions…. That one vice alone, in my judgement, undid the most beautiful and the most richly endowed nature there ever was, making his name abominable to all good men for having willed to seek his own glory from the destruction and overthrow of his country, the most powerful and flourishing commonwealth that the world will ever see.
And now comes the punchline of Montaigne’s discussion – a seeming digression to the question of marriage that, in my view, is a roundabout way of saying that Caesar should have put his sexual cravings first rather than sublimate them to his ambition to rule:
It is perhaps easier to do without women altogether than duly and scrupulously to restrict yourself to the company of your wife: a man has more means of living an unworried life in poverty than in duly controlled abundance; behavior duly governed by reason is more thorny than abstinence. Moderation is a virtue which makes more demands on you than suffering does.
In Caesar, Montaigne offers an example of a man who did moderate his sexual behavior, not by following marriage vows, but by finding an even greater passionate craving. In a strange way, Caesar follows the Buddhist Four Noble Truths by finding a way to eliminate some of his desire and therefore alleviate suffering. But he merely substitutes one form of desire for another and takes suffering to a new level.
This in turn forces Caesar to pursue ever greater conquests to satisfy his ambition. And I think Montaigne is saying that, Caesar being Caesar, he would have been a far greater person if he had turned it around and used his sexual conquests to moderate his desire for totalitarian rule.
My personal view is that Montaigne simply has this wrong – all forms of conquests pushed him towards greater aggression, there was no satisfying his ambition. But I find it interesting that Montaigne seems to foreshadow Freud in this essay and secures his place as one of the great psychological theorists.