Reading Montaigne 1.19: That our happiness must not be judged until after our death

In addition to death being preferable to fear, Montaigne maintains (!) that death is also required in order to judge whether we were happy–whether our lives were truly well-lived–because that is the “last act,” the “master day” when “all the other actions of our life must be tried and tested.”

Montaigne is happy to let death be the judge of his actions (a rather easy position to take, it seems to me) and determine whether his “reasonings” come from his mouth or his heart. Because he has witnessed how many have betrayed their whole life by gaining a bad reputation at the last moment by not “dying well.” I wonder if Montaigne would agree with the logical corollary to this idea: if one can ruin their reputation by the manner in which they approach that last act, can they also rehabilitate a life poorly lived through dying well?

And in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it is hard to argue with Montaigne’s recognition that death can really boost one’s career:

I have seen death bring a wonderfully brilliant career, and that in its flower, to such a splendid end that in my opinion the dead man’s ambitions and courageous designs had nothing so lofty about them as their interruption. He arrived where he aspired to without going there, more grandly and gloriously than he had desired or hoped.

I love the line “he arrived where he aspired to without going there.” Like it or not, death most often enhances the reputation, whether the dead desperately needed rehabilitation or whether that enhancement serves only obscure their real accomplishments. In death, Nixon has become, if not revered, at least sympathetic. In death, Kurt Cobain will live on in his fans’ minds at the height of his power, never having to deal with becoming older, more jaded, and more comfortable. In death, David Foster Wallace’s creativity and ability is paradoxically obscured by the inflation of his reputation among people who have never read—or only read very little of—his work, causing some to think his reputation was earned by his suicide rather than by his writing.

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