On the Power of the Imagination

I am one of those who are very much affected by the imagination. Everyone feels its impact, but some are knocked over by it. On me it makes an intense impression, and my practice is rather to avoid it than to resist it.

by Michel de Montaigne

‘A strong imagination brings on the event,’ say the scholars. I am one of those who are very much affected by the imagination. Everyone feels its impact, but some are knocked over by it. On me it makes an intense impression, and my practice is rather to avoid it than to resist it. I wish I could consort only with the healthy and the cheerful, for the sight of another’s anguish gives me real pain, and my body has often taken over the sensations of some person I am with. A perpetual cougher irritates my lungs and my throat; and I am more reluctant to visit a sick man to whom I am bound by duty and interest than one who has a smaller claim on my attention and consideration. As I observe a disease, so I catch it and give it lodging in myself. It is no surprise to me that the imagination should bring fevers and death to those who allow it free play and encourage it. Simon Thomas was a great physician in his day, and I remember meeting him once at the house of a rich old man who suffered with his lungs. When the patient asked him how he could be cured, Master Thomas answered that one way would be for him to infect me with a liking for his company. Then if he were to fix his gaze on the freshness of my complexion, and his thoughts on the youthful gaiety and vigour with which I overflowed, and if he were to feast his senses on my flourishing state of health, his own condition might well improve. What he forgot to say was that mine might at the same time deteriorate.

Gallus Vibius so taxed his mind to understand the nature and periodicity of insanity that he completely lost his senses and was never able to recover them; he might have boasted that he had gone mad by learning. There are some who from fear anticipate the executioner’s hand; and there was one who, when they unbound his eyes so that his pardon might be read to him, was found to be stark dead on the scaffold, slain by no other stroke than that of his imagina­tion. We sweat, we tremble, we turn pale, we flush, beneath our imagination’s impact; deep in our feather-beds, we feel our bodies shaken by its onslaughts, sometimes almost to the point of death; and fervent youth grows so heated in its sleep that it satisfies its amorous desires even in dreams,

Ut quasi transactis saepe omnibus rebus profundant fluminis ingentes fluctus, vestemque cruentent.1

Although there is nothing strange in seeing horns grow in the night on foreheads that had none at bedtime, there is something memorable about the case of Cippus, King of Italy. During the day he had been a passionate spectator at the bull-fight, and all night long he had worn horns in his dreams. His forehead had actually sprouted them by the power of the imagination. Anger gave Croesus’ son2 the voice that Nature had denied him, and Antiochus fell into a fever because Stratonice’s beauty had become too deeply imprinted on his mind. Pliny says that he saw Lucius Cossitius change from a woman into a man on his wedding-day; and Pontanus and others record similar metamorphoses that have occurred in Italy in more recent times. By his own vehement desire and his mother’s,

Vota puer solvit, qui femina voverat Iphis.3

Passing through Vitry-le-François, I was shown a man whom the Bishop of Soissons had confirmed under the name of Germain, but whom all the village’s inhabitants had both known and seen to be a girl, and who had been called Marie up to the age of twenty-two. He was then old, had a heavy growth of beard, and was unmarried. He said that as he was straining to take a jump his male organs appeared; and the girls of that neighbourhood still sing a song in which they warn one another not to take long strides or they may turn into boys, like Marie Germain. It is not very surprising that this sort of accident happens frequently, for the imagination is so continually drawn to this subject that, supposing it has any power over such things, it would be better for it to incorporate the virile member in a girl once and for all, rather than subject her so often to the same thoughts and the same violence of desire.

Some people attribute the scars of King Dagobert and St Francis4 to the power of the imagination. It is said sometimes to lift bodies from their places. Celsus tells of a priest whose soul was ravished by such an ecstasy that his body would remain for a long time without breath or feeling. St Augustine makes mention of another who no sooner heard some melancholy or doleful cry than he would fall into a sudden swoon, and be so violently transported out of himself that it was no use shaking him or shouting at him, pinching him or scorch­ing him, until he came to of his own accord. Then he would say that he had heard voices, but as if from far away, and would become aware of his bruises and burns. That this was no obstinate pretence, no concealment of his real sensations, was shown by the fact that all the time he had neither pulse nor breath.

It is probable that the belief in miracles, visions, enchantments, and such extraordinary occurrences springs in the main from the power of the imagination acting principally on the minds of the common people, who are the more easily impressed. Their beliefs have been so strongly captured that they think they see what they do not. I am also of the opinion that those comical impediments which so embarrass our society that they talk of nothing else are most likely caused by apprehensions and fears. I have personal knowledge of the case of a man for whom I can answer as for myself, and who could not fall under the least suspicion of impotence or of being under a spell. He had heard a comrade of his tell of an extraordinary loss of manhood that had fallen on him at a most inconvenient moment; and, when he was himself in a like situation, the full horror of this story had suddenly struck his imagination so vividly that he suffered a similar loss himself. Afterwards the wretched memory of his misadventure so devoured and tyrannised over him that he became subject to relapses. He found some remedy for this mental trick in another trick; by himself confessing this weakness of his and declaring it in advance, he relieved the strain on his mind and the mishap being expected, his responsibility for it diminished and weighed upon him less. When he had an opportunity of his own choosing—his thought being disen­gaged and free and his body in its normal state—he would have his virility tested, seized, and taken unawares, by previous arrangement with the other party. He was then completely and immediately cured of his infirmity. For once a man has been capable with a certain woman, he will never be incapable with her again unless out of real impotence.

This mishap is only to be feared in an enterprise where the mind is immoderately torn between desire and respect, and particularly when the opportunity is unforeseen and urgent. There is no way of over­coming the trouble. I know someone who found it a help to come to it with his body already partially sated elsewhere. Thus the heat of his passion was allayed. Now, in old age, he finds himself less impotent because less potent. And I know another man who was greatly helped by a friend’s assurance that he was furnished with a counter-battery of enchantments, certain to protect him. But it would be better if I were to explain how this came about.

A count of very good family and an intimate friend of mine married a beautiful lady who had been courted by someone who was present at the marriage feast. This greatly perturbed his friends, and especially one old lady, a relation of his, who was presiding over the festivities and in whose house they were given. She was very much afraid of these sorceries and told me of her fears. I asked her to rely on me. Luckily, I had in my luggage a small flat piece of gold, with celestial figures engraved on it, as a charm against sunstroke and a remedy for headaches. It had to be worn just on the suture of the skull and, to keep it in place, a ribbon was sewn on to it, to be tied under the chin: a fantastic notion, but relevant to the subject we are discussing. Jacques Pelletier5 had given me this odd present, and I decided to put it to good use. I warned the count that he might encounter the same bad luck as other men had, certain persons being present who would like to play him a trick, but that he could boldly go to bed since I would act as his friend. I promised him that at need I would not withhold a miracle, which it was in my power to perform, provided that he would swear on his honour to keep it absolutely secret. He was merely to let me know by a certain sign when they brought in the midnight refreshment, if things had gone badly with him. This idea had been so dinned into his ears and into his brain that he found himself impeded by his disturbed imagination, and made me the sign. I told him then to get up under pretence of chasing us from the room and, as if in sport, to pull off the bed-robe I was wearing—we were much of a height. This he was to put on himself, and wear it until he carried out my instructions. These were that, when we had gone, he should retire to make water, repeat certain prayers three times and go through certain motions. On each of these three occasions he must tie round his waist the ribbon that I put in his hands and very carefully place the medal which was attached to it over his kidneys with the figure in a certain position. After that, having made the ribbon quite tight so that it could not get untied or fall out of place, he should return to the business in hand, and not forget to throw my robe on to the bed, so that it covered them both.

These monkey-tricks play the main part in the matter, for we cannot get it out of our minds that such strange practices must be based on some occult knowledge. Their absurdity lends them weight and gains them respect. In short, my talisman certainly proved itself more Venerian than Solar, more active than preventive. It was a sudden and odd impulse that led me to do a thing so alien to my nature. I am an enemy to all subtle deeds of deception, and I hate to take part in trickery, not only in sport but even to obtain an advan­tage; if the action is not wicked, the way to it is.

Amasis, King of Egypt, married a very beautiful Greek girl called Laodice, but though he had shown himself a regular gallant every­where else, he found himself unable to enjoy her. Believing that there was some sorcery in this, he threatened to kill her. But she, consider­ing his trouble to be of the imagination, sent him to his devotions. He made his vows and promises to Venus, and on the first night after the performance of his oblations and sacrifices found his potency divinely restored.

It is wrong of women to receive us with pouting, querulous, and shrinking looks that quell us even as they kindle us. The daughter-in-­law of Pythagoras said that a woman who goes to bed with a man ought to lay aside her modesty with her skirt, and put it on again with her petticoat. The mind of the assailant, disturbed by so many different alarms, is easily dismayed; and once the imagination has subjected a man to this disgrace—and it never does so except at the first encounter, because the desires are then more turbulent and strong, and because at the outset one has a much greater fear of failing—the fact that he has begun badly throws him into a fever, and vexation at his mischance carries over to succeeding occasions.

Married men, with time at their command, need not hurry, nor need they attempt the enterprise if they are not ready. It is better to accept the disgrace and refrain from inaugurating the marriage-bed when feverish and full of agitations, and to await another more private and less disturbed opportunity, than to be thrown into a perpetual misery by the surprise and disappointment of an initial failure. Before possession is taken, one who suffers from the imagi­nation should by sallies at different times make gentle essays and overtures without any strain or persistence, in order definitely to convince himself of his powers. Those, who know their members to be obedient by nature need only take care to out-manoeuvre the imagination.

We have reason to remark the untractable liberties taken by this member, which intrudes so tiresomely when we do not require it and fails us so annoyingly when we need it most, imperiously pitting its authority against that of the will, and most proudly and obstinately refusing our solicitations both mental and manual. Yet if on being rebuked for rebellion and condemned on that score he were to engage me to plead his cause, I might perhaps cast some suspicion on our other members, his fellows, of having framed this fictitious case against him out of pure envy of the importance and pleasure attached to his functions. I might arraign them for plotting to make the world his enemy by maliciously blaming him alone for their common fault. For I ask you to consider whether there is a single part of our bodies that does not often refuse to work at our will, and does not often operate in defiance of it. Each one of them has its own passions that rouse it and put it to sleep without our leave.

How often do the involuntary movements of our features reveal what we are secretly thinking and betray us to those about us! The same cause that governs this member, without our knowing it governs the heart, the lungs, and the pulse, the sight of a charming object imperceptibly spreading within us the flame of a feverish emotion. Are these the only muscles and veins that swell and subside without the consent, not only of our will, but even of our thoughts? We do not command our hair to stand on end, or our skin to quiver with desire or fear. The hand often goes where we do not send it. The tongue is paralysed and the voice choked, each at its own time. Even when, having nothing to cook, we could gladly prevent it, the appetite for food and drink does not fail to stir those parts that are subject to it, in just the same way as this other appetite; and it forsakes us just as unseasonably when it chooses to. The organs that serve to discharge the bowels have their own dilations and contractions out­side the control of the wishes and contrary to them, as have those that serve to relieve our kidneys. And though, to vindicate the supreme power of our will, St Augustine claims to have seen a man who could command his bottom to break wind as often as he wished, and Vives, his commentator, caps him with another case from his own day of a man who could synchronise his blasts to the metre of verses that were read to him, this does not imply the complete obedience of this organ. For usually it is most unruly and mutinous. Indeed, I know one such that is so turbulent and so intractable that for the last forty years it has compelled its master to break wind with every breath. So unremitt­ingly constant is it in its tyranny that it is even now bringing him to his death.

But let us take our will, on whose behalf we are preferring this charge. How much more justifiably can we brand it with rebellion and sedition, on account of its constant irregularities and disobe­dience! Does it always desire what we wish it to desire? Does it not often desire, to our obvious disadvantage, what we forbid it to? Does it let itself be guided, either, by the conclusions of our reason?

In short, I ask you on behalf of my noble client kindly to reflect that, although his case in this matter is inseparably and indistinguishably joined with that of an accomplice, nevertheless he alone is attacked, and with such arguments and accusations as, seeing the condition of the parties, cannot possibly appertain to or concern the said accom­plice. Wherefore the malice and manifest injustice of his accusers is apparent.

Be that as it may, protesting that the wranglings and sentences of lawyers and judges are in vain, nature will go her own way. Yet she would have been quite justified in endowing that member with some special privileges, since it is the author of the sole immortal work of mortal man. For this reason Socrates held that procreation is a divine act, and love a desire for immortality as well as an immortal spirit.

One man, perhaps, by this working of the imagination, may leave the king’s evil behind him, while his companion carries it back to Spain. That is why in such cases the mind must generally be prepared in advance. Why do doctors begin by practising on the credulity of their patients with so many false promises of a cure, if not to call the powers of the imagination to the aid of their fraudulent concoctions? They know, as one of the masters of their craft has given it to them in writing, that there are men on whom the mere sight of medicine is operative.

All this nonsense has come into my head through my recalling a tale told me by an apothecary who served in the household of my late father. He was a simple man and a Swiss—a people not much given to vanity and lying. He had known, some years before, a merchant of Toulouse who was sickly and subject to stone, and who often resorted to enemas, which he had made up for him by the physicians in different ways according to the phases of his disease. When they were brought to him none of the usual formalities was omitted; and he often tried them to see if they were too hot. Imagine him then, lying on his stomach, with all the motions gone through except that no application had been made! This ceremonial over, the apothecary would retire, and the patient would be treated just as if he had taken the enema; the effect was the same as if he actually had. And if the doctor found the action insufficient, he would administer two or three more in precisely the same way. My witness swears that when, to save the expense—for he paid for the enemas as if he had really taken them—the patient’s wife tried to make do with warm water, the result betrayed fraud; this method was found useless and they had to return to the first.

A certain woman, imagining that she had swallowed a pin with her bread, shrieked and writhed as if she had an unbearable pain in her gullet, where she thought she could feel it sticking. But, there being no swelling and no outward sign, a clever fellow concluded that this was just fancy, and that the idea had been suggested by a piece of crust that had scraped her throat as it went down. So he made her vomit, and stealthily threw a bent pin into what she threw up. Believing that she had thrown up the pin, the woman was immediately relieved of her pain. I know of a gentleman too who, three or four days after having entertained a large party in his house, bragged, by way of a joke—for there was nothing in it—that he had made them eat cat in a pasty. One young lady in the company was thereupon so horrified that she was seized with a severe dysentery and fever, and nothing could be done to save her. Even animals can be seen, like us, to be subject to the power of the imagination, as witness those dogs who pine away with grief for the loss of their masters. We also see them barking and trembling, and horses whinnying and struggling, in their dreams.

But all this may be attributed to the close connection between the mind and the body, whose fortunes affect one another. It is another matter when the imagination works, as it sometimes does, not on one’s own body but on someone else’s. Just as one body passes a disease to its neighbour, as we see in the case of plague, smallpox, and pink-eye, which one person catches from another—

Dum spectant oculi laesos, laeduntur et ipsi, multaque corporibus transitione nocent,6

so, when the imagination is violently disturbed, it launches shafts that may hit a distant object. The ancients believed that certain women in Scythia, if aroused and angry with a man, could kill him with a single glance. Tortoises and ostriches hatch their eggs merely by looking at them—a proof that their eyes have some ejaculative power. And as for sorcerers, they are said to have an evil eye, which is capable of working mischief:

Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat aqnos.7

I do not put much trust in magic. But we know by experience that women imprint the marks of their fancies on the children they are carrying in their womb, as witness the mother who gave birth to a blackamoor.8 And there was that girl from a village near Pisa, who was all rough and hairy. When she was presented to the Emperor Charles, King of Bohemia, her mother said the child had been conceived like that because of a picture of St John the Baptist that hung above her bed.

It is the same with animals, as witness Jacob’s sheep, and those partridges and hares that are turned white by the snow on the mountains. Someone in my house recently saw a cat watching a bird at the top of a tree. After they had gazed fixedly at one another for some time, the bird dropped, apparently dead, between the cat’s paws, either stupefied by its own imagination or drawn by some power of attraction in the cat. Lovers of hawking have heard the story of the falconer who fixed his glance firmly on a kite in the air, and wagered that he would bring it down simply by the power of his eyes. They say that he did so.

For the anecdotes that I borrow I rely on the consciences of those from whom I have them. The inferences are my own, and depend on the evidence of common reasoning, not of experience. Anyone may add his own examples, and if he has none, the number and variety of occurrences being so great, he may still be sure that plenty exist. If my own comments are not sound, let someone else comment for me. In this study of our manners and behaviour that I am undertaking, fabulous incidents are as good as true ones, so long as they are feasible. Whether they happened or not, in Paris or in Rome, to John or to Peter, there is always some turn of the human mind about which they give me useful information. I note and draw profit from these anecdotes, whether they are shadowy or substantial. Of the various readings that the histories often provide, I make use of the most unusual and memorable. There are some authors whose purpose is to relate actual events. Mine, if I could fulfil it, would be to tell what might happen. The schools are rightly permitted to invent examples when they have none. I do not do this, however, and in that respect I surpass the most faithful historians in scrupulous reverence for truth. In the examples which I am drawing here from what I have heard, done, or said, I have refused to be so bold as to change even the most trivial and unimportant details. Consciously I do not falsify one iota; I cannot answer for my knowledge.

In this connection I sometimes wonder whether it can be right for a prudent theologian, philosopher, or other such person of precise and delicate conscience to write history. How can they pledge their word on a popular belief? How can they answer for the thoughts of unknown persons, and advance their own conjectures as valid coin? They would refuse to give sworn testimony before a magistrate concerning actions involving several parties that had actually taken place before their eyes; and there is nobody whom they know so intimately that they would undertake to answer fully for his inten­tions. I consider it less dangerous, however, to write of the past than of present affairs, in as much as the writer has then only to produce some borrowed facts. Some people urge me to write a chronicle of my own times. They consider that I view things with eyes less disturbed by passion than other men, and at closer range, because fortune has given me access to the heads of various factions. But they do not realise that I would not undertake the task for all the fame of Sallust; that I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity, and persever­ance; and that nothing is so foreign to my style as an extended narrative. So often I break off for lack of breath. I have no proper skill in composition or development, and am more ignorant than a child of the words and phrases used for the most ordinary things. Therefore I have undertaken to say only what I can say, suiting my matter to my powers. Were I to select some subject that I had to pursue, I might not be able to keep up with it. Besides, the liberties I take being so complete, I might publish opinions that reason, and even my own judgement, would find unwarrantable and blameworthy. Plutarch would readily tell us that if the examples he cites in his works are wholly and in every way true the credit is due to other writers; if they are of use to posterity, on the other hand, and are presented with a brilliance that lights us on the way to virtue, the credit for that is his own. An ancient tale is not like a medicinal drug; whether it is so or so, there is no danger in it.

[Translated by J. M. Cohen]


1. ‘As if they were performing the entire act, the mighty wave gushes forth and stains their garments.’ Lucretius, IV, 1305.

2. According to Herodotus, he had been dumb from birth, but had found his voice when he saw his father in peril of death.

3, ‘Iphis as a man fulfilled the vows he had made as a woman.’ Ovid, Metamor­phoses, IX, 793.

4. Dagobert’s scars were caused by fear of the gangrene; St Francis’s were the stigmata.

5. Jacques Pelletier (1517-82), physician, mathematician, and humanist.

6. When their eyes behold others in pain, they feel pain themselves, and so many ills pass from body to body.’ Ovid, De Remedio Amoris, 615.

7. ‘Some evil eye has bewitched my young lambs.’ Virgil, Eclogues, III, 103.

8. An anecdote related by St Jerome.

SOURCE: Essays by Montaigne, translated by J. M. Cohen (Penguin Classics, 1958)


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!