Meditations on Torture: Michel de Montaigne

As a new feature, each Sunday I am going to present a brief meditation on torture from some historic or contemporary thinker or expert; philosophers, generals, doctors, jurists, etc. The goal is to present the wide-ranging and long-running opposition to torture on both moral and pragmatic grounds in the Western tradition. I don’t intend this as an appeal to authority, but merely to demonstrate that the Bush administration and its current defenders are wildly out of touch with basic traditions of Western thought. I hope that this will become obvious over the course of the coming weeks.

Our first intellectual is one of our earliest – Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne was a French writer and philosopher during the 16th century. He is credited with popularizing the essay as a literary form for trying out or contemplating a particular train of thought. The word “essay” derives from the French “essayer”, meaning “to try or attempt.” Montaigne was a noted skeptic, and his skepticism generally drove him in the direction of tolerance, notably for religious dissidents, witches, and the ‘cannibals’ of the New World. It is in this same vein that he approaches the the question of torture. The full essay, “On Conscience” can be found here, and is chapter five of book two of his Essais.

The putting men to the rack is a dangerous invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth. Both he who has the fortitude to endure it conceals the truth, and he who has not: for why should pain sooner make me confess what really is, than force me to say what is not? And, on the contrary, if he who is not guilty of that whereof he is accused, has the courage to undergo those torments, why should not he who is guilty have the same, so fair a reward as life being in his prospect? I believe the ground of this invention proceeds from the consideration of the force of conscience: for, to the guilty, it seems to assist the rack to make him confess his fault and to shake his resolution; and, on the other side, that it fortifies the innocent against the torture. But when all is done, ’tis, in plain truth, a trial full of uncertainty and danger what would not a man say, what would not a man do, to avoid so intolerable torments?

“Etiam innocentes cogit mentiri dolor.”

[“Pain will make even the innocent lie.” – Publius Syrus, De Dolore.]

In the essay, Montaigne considers torture both from without and within – the torture of conscience we inflict upon ourselves and the tortures inflicted upon by others. Of the former, only part of the discussion is relevant to us. Montaigne is considering a form of judicial torture, used to extract confessions. While his emphasis is mostly practical – that the innocent will lie to escape torture, making it unreliable – he nevertheless identifies it as “inhumane”, but its morality is not discussed further.

Montaigne was concerned about uncertainty. We are uncertain that someone is guilty. We are uncertain their confession is true. Torture confounds these uncertainties. It may be possible to draw some kind of belief from a person’s willingness to speak, but only if the speech is uncoerced. But by compelling speech, torture casts doubts on even the most likely of confessions. We should be even more cautious when the goal is not a confession, but operative intelligence.

Advertisements
Published in: on April 27, 2009 at 12:24 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://msalamander.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/meditations-on-torture-michel-de-montaigne/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: