Brain Pickings

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living

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“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), celebrated as the father of modern skepticism, pioneered the essay as a literary genre and penned some of the most enduring, influential essays in history. Collected in Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (UK; public library; public domain), they explore — much like those of Francis Bacon across the English Channel around the same period — subjects like fear, friendship, government, the imagination, and other intersections of the seemingly mundane and the profoundly existential.

In one of his 107 such exploratory essays, titled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne turns to mortality — the subject of one of this year’s best psychology and philosophy books — and points to the understanding of death as a prerequisite for the understanding of life, for the very art of living. Montaigne examines our conflicted relationship with dying:

Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct.

[…]

The end of our race is death; ’tis the necessary object of our aim, which, if it fright us, how is it possible to advance a step without a fit of ague? The remedy the vulgar use is not to think on’t; but from what brutish stupidity can they derive so gross a blindness? They must bridle the ass by the tail:

‘Qui capite ipse suo instituit vestigia retro,’

['Who in his folly seeks to advance backwards' -- Lucretius, iv. 474]

’tis no wonder if he be often trapped in the pitfall. They affright people with the very mention of death, and many cross themselves, as it were the name of the devil. And because the making a man’s will is in reference to dying, not a man will be persuaded to take a pen in hand to that purpose, till the physician has passed sentence upon and totally given him over, and then betwixt and terror, God knows in how fit a condition of understanding he is to do it.

The Romans, by reason that this poor syllable death sounded so harshly to their ears and seemed so ominous, found out a way to soften and spin it out by a periphrasis, and instead of pronouncing such a one is dead, said, ‘Such a one has lived,’ or ‘Such a one has ceased to live’ … provided there was any mention of life in the case, though past, it carried yet some sound of consolation. … I make account to live, at least, as many more. In the meantime, to trouble a man’s self with the thought of a thing so far off were folly. But what? Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had but just before entered into it; neither is any man so old and decrepit, who, having heard of Methuselah, does not think he has yet twenty good years to come. Fool that thou art! who has assured unto thee the term of life? Thou dependest upon physicians’ tales: rather consult effects and experience. According to the common course of things, ’tis long since that thou hast lived by extraordinary favour; thou hast already outlived the ordinary term of life. And that it is so, reckon up thy acquaintance, how many more have died before they arrived at thy age than have attained unto it; and of those who have ennobled their lives by their renown, take but an account, and I dare lay a wager thou wilt find more who have died before than after five-and-thirty years of age. … How many several ways has death to surprise us?

Rather than indulging the fear of death, Montaigne calls for dissipating it by facing it head-on, with awareness and attention — an approach common in Eastern spirituality:

[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves. Let us evermore, amidst our jollity and feasting, set the remembrance of our frail condition before our eyes, never suffering ourselves to be so far transported with our delights, but that we have some intervals of reflecting upon, and considering how many several ways this jollity of ours tends to death, and with how many dangers it threatens it. The Egyptians were wont to do after this manner, who in the height of their feasting and mirth, caused a dried skeleton of a man to be brought into the room to serve for a memento to their guests:

‘Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum
Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur, hora.’

‘Think each day when past is thy last; the next day, as unexpected,
will be the more welcome.’ — Hor., Ep., i. 4, 13.]

Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know, how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint. Paulus Emilius answered him whom the miserable King of Macedon, his prisoner, sent to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, ‘Let him make that request to himself.’ — [Plutarch, Life of Paulus Aemilius, c. 17; Cicero, Tusc., v. 40.]

In truth, in all things, if nature do not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform anything to purpose. I am in my own nature not melancholic, but meditative; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained myself withal than imaginations of death, even in the most wanton time of my age.

One of Montaigne’s most timeless and timeliest points strikes at the heart of our present productivity-culture, reminding us that the whole of life is contained in our inner life, not in the checklist of our accomplishments:

We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go, and, above all things, take care, at that time, to have no business with any one but one’s self: —

‘Quid brevi fortes jaculamur avo Multa?’

['Why for so short a life tease ourselves with so many projects?' -- Hor., Od., ii. 16, 17.]

He presages the “real artists ship” mantra Steve Job made famous five centuries later:

A man must design nothing that will require so much time to the finishing, or, at least, with no such passionate desire to see it brought to perfection. We are born to action:

‘Quum moriar, medium solvar et inter opus.’

['When I shall die, let it be doing that I had designed.' -- Ovid, Amor., ii. 10, 36.]

I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my gardens not being finished.

The essence of his argument is the idea that learning to die is essential for learning to live:

If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register, with a comment, of the various deaths of men: he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.

[…]

Peradventure, some one may object, that the pain and terror of dying so infinitely exceed all manner of imagination, that the best fencer will be quite out of his play when it comes to the push. Let them say what they will: to premeditate is doubtless a very great advantage; and besides, is it nothing to go so far, at least, without disturbance or alteration? Moreover, Nature herself assists and encourages us: if the death be sudden and violent, we have not leisure to fear; if otherwise, I perceive that as I engage further in my disease, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find I have much more ado to digest this resolution of dying, when I am well in health, than when languishing of a fever; and by how much I have less to do with the commodities of life, by reason that I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, by so much I look upon death with less terror. Which makes me hope, that the further I remove from the first, and the nearer I approach to the latter, I shall the more easily exchange the one for the other.

With a philosophical lens fringing on quantum physics, Montaigne reminds us of the fundamental bias of the arrow of time as we experience it:

Not only the argument of reason invites us to it — for why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? — but, also, seeing we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them? … What a ridiculous thing it is to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to deliver us from all trouble! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And therefore to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago. … Long life, and short, are by death made all one; for there is no long, nor short, to things that are no more.

He returns — poignantly, poetically — to the meaning of life:

All the whole time you live, you purloin from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is but to lay the foundation of death. You are in death, whilst you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no more alive; or, if you had rather have it so, you are dead after life, but dying all the while you live; and death handles the dying much more rudely than the dead, and more sensibly and essentially. If you have made your profit of life, you have had enough of it; go your way satisfied.

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan, Montaigne channels the sentiment at the heart of Pale Blue Dot:

Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil as you make it.’ And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity.

He paints death as the ultimate equalizer:

Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Equality is the soul of equity. Who can complain of being comprehended in the same destiny, wherein all are involved?

The heart of Montaigne’s case falls somewhere between John Cage’s Zen philosophy and the canine state of being-in-the-moment:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.

He concludes with an admonition about the solipsistic superficiality of death’s ritualization:

I believe, in truth, that it is those terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living; the cries of mothers, wives, and children; the visits of astounded and afflicted friends; the attendance of pale and blubbering servants; a dark room, set round with burning tapers; our beds environed with physicians and divines; in sum, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us; we seem dead and buried already. … Happy is the death that deprives us of leisure for preparing such ceremonials.

Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.

Public domain illustrations via Flickr Commons

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