Whether the governor of a besieged place should go out to parley (The Montaigne Project)


I put my trust easily in another man’s word. But I should do so reluctantly whenever I would give the impression of acting from despair and want of courage rather than freely and through trust in his honesty.
-Michel de Montaigne, “Whether the governor of a besieged place should go out to parley”

The essential question facing a besieged king is the same as the Prisoner’s Dilemma: whether to cooperate or resist. As in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, cooperation is only plausible if the enemy is going to follow suit. If your enemy merely intends to exploit the peace, in order to make headway in the war, it is pointless to negotiate with him.

All exchanges of power are as bloodless as the circumstances permit; there is very little upheaval, most of the time, and the lives of ordinary people are less affected than one might expect. This was true during the German Reformation — Luther himself intervened when the peasants became convinced, briefly, that the Reformation was about liberating them — and it is visible in the truest works of socially-conscious fiction: A Tale of Two Cities, The WireGame of Thrones. What Montaigne interprets as noblesse oblige between aristocrats is really the eternal collusion of ruling powers. Each party needs the other alive.

In the case of a genuine revolution, there are always executions. Their function is symbolic: they incarnate, in flesh, the radicalism of new regimes. (When there is nobody to overthrow, as was the case in colonial New England and Weimar Germany, the fledgling state burns witches or celebrates Kristallnacht.) Counter-revolutions have their executions, too. Under such auspices, parleys and peace treaties are deceptions to be feared.

But there is yet another type of regime change: the false revolution. This is a revolution proclaimed by one set of ruling interests, on behalf of the people, against another. These false revolutions never last. They are detrimental to ordinary citizens because they undermine government itself, that massive apparatus created, so very slowly, out of toil and stone. Montaigne describes Henry VIII’s siege of the Castle of Commercy thus:

Barthelemy de Bonnes, who commanded the siege….asked Henri to come out and parley for his own good; this Henry did, preceded by three other men….he felt remarkably obliged to his enemy, to whose discretion he surrendered himself and his forces. After this, the fire was set to the mine, the wooden props gave way, and the castle was demolished from top to bottom.

The castle was never re-built. The period of English rule in France, however, lasted less than seven years.


Well, thank you very much, President Obama. This was a meeting that was going to last for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and we were just going to get to know each other. We had never met each other. I have great respect. The meeting lasted for almost an hour and a half. And it could have — as far as I’m concerned, it could have gone on for a lot longer.

We really — we discussed a lot of different situations, some wonderful and some difficulties. I very much look forward to dealing with the President in the future, including counsel. He explained some of the difficulties, some of the high-flying assets and some of the really great things that have been achieved.

So, Mr. President, it was a great honor being with you, and I look forward to being with you many, many more times in the future.