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Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

07 JANUARY, 2014

How to Live: Lessons from Montaigne, Godfather of Blogging

By:

Don’t worry about death, pay attention, read a lot, give up control, embrace imperfection.

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” Karl De Schweinitz wrote in his 1924 guide to the art of living. But this is an art best understood not as a set of prescriptive techniques but, per Susan Sontag’s definition of art, a form of consciousness — which means an understanding that is constantly evolving.

In How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library), British biographer and philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell traces “how Montaigne has flowed through time via a sort of canal system of minds” and argues that some of the most prevalent hallmarks of our era — our compulsive immersion in various forms of lifestreaming, our incessant social sharing, our constant oscillation between introspection and extraversion as we observe our private experiences more closely than ever so we can record and frame them more perfectly in public — can be traced down to this one proto-blogger, the godfather of the essay as a genre:

This idea — writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity — has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, and winegrower who lived in the Périgord area of southwestern France from 1533 to 1592.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

What separated Montaigne from other memoirists of his day was that he didn’t write about his daily deeds and his achievements — rather, he contemplated the meaning of life from all possible angles, and in the process popularized the essay as a form. He began writing fairly late in life, when he was thirty-nine, and continued for twenty years, halted only by his death in 1592. The 107 essays he penned range across the entire spectrum of human concerns — from the grandly existential, like death and the art of living, to the universally human, like fear and friendship and sadness and love, to the seemingly trivial, like the customs of dress. Above all, however, he was interested in the simple yet infinitely profound question of how to live — which, Bakewell is careful to point out, is quite different from the ethical prescription of how we should live. She writes:

Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life — meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one. This question drove him both to write and to read, for he was curious about all human lives, past and present. He wondered constantly about the emotions and motives behind what people did. And since he was the example closest to hand of a human going about its business, he wondered just as much about himself.

Despite the enormity of social and cultural change that has transpired in the centuries since Montaigne’s writings, however, what makes them endure and enthrall is their timeless relatability — that special skill he had of speaking to the most universal preoccupations of the human condition, yet speaking to each of us individually, leaving us with an unshakable sense of being seen and understood down to the depths of our most private selves. Indeed, writer Bernard Levin captured this beautifully in a 1991 Times article, observing: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?’” Blackwell considers how Montaigne was able to do that so elegantly:

Montaigne was the first writer to create literature that deliberately worked in this way, and to do it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention. He was the most human of writers, and the most sociable. Had he lived in the era of mass networked communication, he would have been astounded at the scale on which such sociability has become possible: not dozens or hundreds in a gallery, but millions of people seeing themselves bounced back from different angles.

[…]

From the first sixteenth-century neighbor or friend to browse through a draft from Montaigne’s desk to the very last human being (or other conscious entity) to extract it from the memory banks of a future virtual library, every new reading means a new Essays. Readers approach him from their private perspectives, contributing their own experience of life. At the same time, these experiences are molded by broad trends, which come and go in leisurely formation. Anyone looking over four hundred and thirty years of Montaigne-reading can see these trends building up and dissolving like clouds in a sky, or crowds on a railway platform between commuter trains.

[…]

The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that cry of “How did he know all that about me?” Mostly it remains a two-person encounter between writer and reader. But sidelong chat goes on among the readers too; consciously or not, each generation approaches Montaigne with expectations derived from its contemporaries and predecessors. As the story goes on, the scene becomes more crowded. It turns from a private dinner party to a great lively banquet, with Montaigne as an unwitting master of ceremonies.

Bakewell proceeds to extract Montaigne’s most timeless lessons on the art of living, prefacing them with Gustave Flaubert’s beautiful advice to a friend who was concerned about how to approach Montaigne:

Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

In the first lesson, titled “Don’t Worry About Death,” Bakewall recounts a near-death experience 36-year-old Montaigne had while riding through the woods behind his chateau with some of his estate staff. One of his servants, a muscular giant on a powerful horse, lost control of his animal and “came down like a colossus on the little man and little horse,” thrusting Montaigne onto the ground with enormous force and rendering him unconscious. His companions were eventually able to resuscitate him, but he was throwing up lumps of clotted blood — never an assuring sign — and kept slipping in and out of consciousness, then surrendered to a kind of delirium. Montaigne survived, but the accident profoundly impacted his understanding of life and death. Reflecting on it later, he recorded the peacefulness of that surrender in what he called an exercitation about the experience:

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

Bakewell draws from this Montaigne’s lesson on relating to death:

Through his exercitation, he had learned not to fear his own nonexistence. Death could have a friendly face, just as the philosophers promised. Montaigne had looked into this face—but he had not stared into it lucidly, as a rational thinker should. Instead of marching forward with eyes open, bearing himself like a soldier, he had floated into death with barely a conscious thought, seduced by it. In dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on “the edges of the soul.” Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.

This notion of not worrying about death became Montaigne’s most central answer to the question of how to live, recurring again and again in his later work, precipitating a crystalline conviction that living with presence and impermanence is the only true way to live. Bakewell writes:

He tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. “Bad spots” were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to “slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.” Through this discovery of gliding and drifting, he lost much of his fear, and at the same time acquired a new sense that life, as it passed through his body — his particular life, Michel de Montaigne’s — was a very interesting subject for investigation. He would go on to attend to sensations and experiences, not for what they were supposed to be, or for what philosophical lessons they might impart, but for the way they actually felt. He would go with the flow.

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

While the riding accident could happen to any young man in the Renaissance, Bakewell points out that what made Montaigne unique was his impulse not only to write about it, but to extract from it a wealth of insight and to let it inform his understanding of a multitude of existential questions. But the accident also taught him something else, something just as valuable yet just as rare among humans — Bakewell titles this lesson “Pay Attention,” which doesn’t come easily to our intentionally discriminating minds. In fact, this yearning to distill the tumultuous bustling of the mind into attentive thought is what drove Montaigne to write in the first place. Blakewell explains:

In a simile borrowed from Virgil, he described his thoughts as resembling the patterns that dance across the ceiling when sunlight reflects off the surface of a water bowl. Just as the tiger-stripes of light lurch about, so an unoccupied mind gyrates unpredictably and brings forth mad, directionless whimsies. It generates fantasies or reveries — two words with less positive associations than they have today, suggesting raving delusions rather than daydreams.

His “reverie” in turn gave Montaigne another mad idea: the thought of writing. He called this a reverie too, but it was one that held out the promise of a solution. Finding his mind so filled with “chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose,” he decided to write them down, not directly to overcome them, but to inspect their strangeness at his leisure. So he picked up his pen; the first of the Essays was born. … Later, his material grew until it included almost every nuance of emotion or thought he had ever experienced, not least his strange journey in and out of unconsciousness. That, Bakewell argues, is precisely what Montaigne sough — and, ultimately, found — in writing:

'Upon Some Verses of Virgil'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

Writing had got Montaigne through his “mad reveries” crisis; it now taught him to look at the world more closely, and increasingly gave him the habit of describing inward sensations and social encounters with precision. … As Montaigne the man went about his daily life on the estate, Montaigne the writer walked behind him, spying and taking notes.

Indeed, centuries later, Susan Sontag would observe that “a writer … is someone who pays attention to the world.”

Montaigne, like most educated minds of his day, was greatly inspired by the philosophy of the ancients, particularly Seneca, who insisted that salvation is to be found in paying full attention to the natural world, and Plutarch, who advised that the key to achieving peace of mind is in focusing on what is present in front of you in each given moment. But this was far from an easy endeavor — Montaigne himself lamented in one of his essays:

It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.

More than two centuries before psychology pioneer William James coined the term “stream of consciousness,” Montaigne grew fascinated by it and beheld it regularly. Bakewell writes:

What was unusual in him was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed. The two kinds of movement interact like variables in a complex mathematical equation, with the result that one can find no secure point from which to measure anything. To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them.

Indeed, Montaigne advocated for the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind and wrote himself:

If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

And therein lies the essence of this particular lesson as well as Montaigne’s greatest legacy, which Bakewell syntheses beautifully:

If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it — and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience—but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm.

[…]

Observing the play of inner states is the writer’s job. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown.

'Of Experience'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

But as much as Montaigne taught us about writing, he arguably taught us even more about reading — after all, the two are inextricably intertwined, for a good writer is invariably a good reader. Another insight on the art of living that Bakewell extracts from Montaigne’s writing is to “read a lot.” For Montaigne, books weren’t mere entertainment or education; they were entire experiences, exchanges, bridges to other minds and other epochs. (Cue in my answer to a little girl’s question about why books exist.) Bakewell writes:

What Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him [was] the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries. … He took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.

Montaigne’s greatest lesson, however, is what Bakewell calls the “little tricks” he learned to employ in mastering the art of living. He borrowed some from the ancient Greek philosophers — for instance, the quest for spiritual equilibrium through freedom from anxiety, known as ataraxia. Bakewell brings us back to the art of paying attention:

Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry. To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs.

[…]

Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life. … For Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life.

Paradoxically, however, Montaigne frequently used the opposite of mindful attention — deliberate distraction — to quiet his worries. In his essay “Of Diversion,” he wrote:

A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it. I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. If I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky.

He applied this trick — one of several “side-stepping techniques” he developed over the course of his life — in helping others in distress as well. Bakewell offers an anecdote:

Once, trying to console a woman who was (unlike some widows, he implies) genuinely suffering grief for her dead husband, he first considered the more usual philosophical methods: reminding her that nothing can be gained from lamentation, or persuading her that she might never have met her husband anyway. But he settled on a different trick: “very gently deflecting our talk and diverting it bit by bit to subjects nearby, then a little more remote.” The widow seemed to pay little attention at first, but in the end the other subjects caught her interest. Thus, without her realizing what was happening, he wrote, “I imperceptibly stole away from her this painful thought and kept her in good spirits and entirely soothed for as long as I was there.” He admitted that this did not go to the root of her grief, but it got her through an immediate crisis, and presumably allowed time to begin its own natural work.

[…]

Distraction works well precisely because it accords with how humans are made: “Our thoughts are always elsewhere.” It is only natural for us to lose focus, to slip away from both pains and pleasures, “barely brushing the crust” of them. All we need do is let ourselves be as we are.

'That Fortune Is Oftentimes Observed to Act by the Rules of Reason'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

Another lesson from Montaigne has to do with relinquishing control — something particularly prescient in the context of publishing, remix culture, and peer-to-peer sharing. Working long before the establishment of copyright law, Montaigne had no illusions about creative ownership. Bakewell writes:

Montaigne knew very well that, the minute you publish a book, you lose control of it. Other people can do what they like: they can edit it into strange forms, or impose interpretations upon it that you would never have dreamed of. Even an unpublished manuscript can get out of hand.

In fact, in his time, shortly after the golden age of florilegia, copying was a legitimate and very common literary technique. Montaigne related to this inevitable loss of control with acceptance rather than vexation (or its contemporary equivalent, the legal cease-and-desist) — and this was one of his greatest “tricks” of living. Bakewell relays this beautifully, with a brilliantly placed Nina Simone reference:

There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition. Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life. He even enjoyed it. People form strange ideas of you; they adapt you to their own purposes. By going with the flow and relinquishing control of the process, you gain all the benefits of the old Hellenistic trick of amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens. In Montaigne’s case, amor fati was one of the answers to the general question of how to live, and as it happened it also opened the way to his literary immortality. What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ambiguous, inadequate, and vulnerable to distortion. “Oh Lord,” one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, “by all means let me be misunderstood.”

And in some strange and beautiful symmetry, this is all exactly as it should be and as it has always been. Much like Montaigne himself remixed the ideas of the Greek philosophers about how to live, so we too, today, remix his. It is precisely in this vulnerability to distortion that we find true literary immortality — by plunging into the cascade of ideas across the centuries and emerging, drenched to the bone, with our own. Even young Virginia Woolf knew this when she marveled at the chain of minds threading the world together.

Ultimately, what made Montaigne’s mind unique was his ability to find in any ordinary life, any ordinary experience, all that is worth knowing about life. He wrote:

I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.

Bakewell beholds this singular gift:

Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.

'Of Age'

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

Montaigne’s greatest gift to us, however, is his unflinching acceptance of imperfection — for, without it, we are bound to remain forever oppressed by our perfectionism. Much of this he drew from the fact — and the act — of aging, but not in the way we might expect. Bakewell writes:

It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. They were inclined to “a silly and decrepit pride, a tedious prattle, prickly and unsociable humors, superstition, and a ridiculous concern for riches.” But this was the twist, for it was in the adjustment to such flaws that the value of aging lay. Old age provides an opportunity to recognize one’s fallibility in a way youth usually finds difficult. Seeing one’s decline written on body and mind, one accepts that one is limited and human. By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kind of wisdom after all.

Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it.

Montaigne put it best himself:

Our being is cemented with sickly qualities … Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

He also, despite the magnificently winding road of his existential meditations, gave us the straightforward answer on how to live:

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

How to Live, which contains a total of twenty lessons drawn from Montaigne, is a must-read in its entirety. Complement it with Roman Krznaric’s excellent and more recent How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

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12 AUGUST, 2013

Salvador Dalí Illustrates Montaigne: Sublime Surrealism from a Rare 1947 Limited Edition, Signed by Dalí

By:

Two of history’s most formidable talents, at the intersection of literature at art.

In 1946, more than twenty years before his little-known and lovely illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, iconic surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was commissioned by the creatively ambitious Doubleday publishing house (who also released a number of books with stunning cover art by Edward Gorey and enlisted young Andy Warhol as a freelance artist) to illustrate The Essays of Michel De Montaigne (public library) in a special limited edition of 1,000 copies. Dalí, forty-two at the time and already an avid admirer of Montaigne’s mind, leapt at the opportunity. What resulted, published in 1947, was nothing short of a masterpiece — an intersection of literature and art, of two formidable talents, unlike almost anything else except perhaps Ulysses illustrated by Matisse and Sendak’s illustrations of Tolstoy.

I was fortunate enough to track down one of the last surviving signed copies, #101 no less, but unsigned ones — which are also respectably rare — can still be found online for gobsmackingly little — as little, in fact, as $6.99 at the time of this writing.

For our shared delight, here are Dalí’s color folios and black-and-white etchings — sensual, otherworldly, appropriately surrealist, just the right amount of bizarre — from my copy of the book, captioned after the original Montaigne essay they illustrate. (The essays themselves — timeless wisdom on life, morality, and the human condition — are in the public domain, thus available as a free download, and are very much worth a read.)

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí

'The Force of Imagination'

'Of Physiognomy'

'Upon Some Verses of Virgil'

'Upon Some Verses of Virgil'

'Upon Some Verses of Virgil'

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

'That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die'

'That We Taste Nothing Pure'

'That We Taste Nothing Pure'

'Resemblance of Children to Fathers'

'Resemblance of Children to Fathers'

'Of Repentance'

'Of Coaches'

'Of Vanity'

'Of Vanity'

'Of Experience'

'Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received'

'Of the Education of Children'

'That Fortune Is Oftentimes Observed to Act by the Rules of Reason'

'That Fortune Is Oftentimes Observed to Act by the Rules of Reason'

'Of Cannibals'

'Of Democritus and Heraclitus'

'Of Age'

'Of Age'

'Of Drunkenness'

'Of Presumption'

'Of Presumption'

'Of Presumption'

'Of Presumption'

'Of Glory'

'Of Thumbs'

Try your luck at grabbing a surviving copy, and be sure to revisit Dalí’s drawings for Alice in Wonderland.

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12 DECEMBER, 2012

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living

By:

“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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