Reading Montaigne 1.20: That to philosophize is to learn to die

… whatever role a man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time. Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness. I like to beat their ears with that word, which so goes against their grain. And if it means a certain supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, this is due more to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance. This voluptuousness, for being more lusty, sinewy, robust, and manly is only the more seriously voluptuous. And we should have given virtue the name of pleasure, a name more favorable, sweet, and natural; not that of vigor, as we have named it.

Since I was a teen, some part of me–at times an overwhelming part–has sought death. At the same time, I deeply fear it, or at least the final moments leading up to it. When I think of death I think of the desperate eyes of a cornered animal that has nowhere to go and the desperation of reaching the true end of one’s resources. I think of those last moments when I suspect we see with more clarity than we thought possible all the experiences left as only surmise, all the work undone, and all the regrettable acts. I think most of all of the worst desperation, the knowledge that I will never be able to tell my children again how much I love them and am proud of them or tell my love how much I still love. When I think these things I find it hard to breathe… and yet a part of me welcomes it and wants to find my way there the way one can be afraid of heights, forced to crawl on hand-and-knee or stand dizzy holding a hand-rail and yet still feel an almost unbearable urge to leap over the high edge that seems to beckon silently.

So it is with mixed emotion that I read this, one of Montaigne’s most profound essays. If our lives can be betrayed, our reputations undone, the value of the currency we have worked so hard to establish reduced to nil, by the way in which we die, but at the same time I see death as only the moment of deepest desperation, then I not only have to figure out how I can possibly die well, but also find myself with a heightened emphasis on living well, which flies in the face of my most pronounced disability: being blind to the value and enjoyment of process and thus, to some degree, to living, which is almost nothing but process.

It would be easy to read this essay a bit too literally and decide it is a piece of dark, depressive melancholia, such as when Montaigne advises us to think regularly about death:

Let us rid us of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tike, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this: Well, what if it were death itself? And thereupon let us tense ourselves and make an effort.

But Montaigne is actually putting forward a philosophy somewhat more Epicurean than Stoic in that his point is not to obsess over our deaths, but quite the opposite: we should become so familiar with the idea as not to be worried or panicked, but instead use it as a spur to motivate ourselves and remember how valuable our life actually is. The pleasure of life, of physical and above all intellectual fulfillment, is impossible if we are constantly worried about death (to which I would add it is also impossible if one is constantly obsessed with death, whether afraid of it or not).

For me, Montaigne’s logic is sound. “Why should we fear to lose a thing which once lost cannot be regretted?” Montaigne asks, adding, “What does it matter when it comes since it is inevitable?” But, of course, the central problem for me is that almost nothing about my thoughts of death is logical.

I particularly like two of the anecdotes Montaigne shares because I completely get them though I don’t feel the logical truth of them. In the first, Julius Caesar comes across an old soldier of his own guard. The man is “crippled and broken,” and asks permission to kill himself. To which Caesar replies: “So you think you’re alive?” In the second story, a man tells Socrates that “thirty tyrants have condemned you to death,” inspiring Socrates to reply, “And nature, then.”

Living well at best includes dying well, but it is not something we should be worrying ourselves over. We must learn to die in order that we might live well, else we spend our days dying. Then it doesn’t matter how long or short our lives, because “the advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it.”

Again, there’s something Zen-like about the state of mind Montaigne described (which makes sense given that one could draw a nice triangle connecting Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Zen Buddhism. Living each day as if it might be your last isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood cinema, but also just good advice (even if it takes a lifetime to realize it). Chop the wood; carry the water.

Why do you fear your last day? It contributes no more to your death than each of the others. The last step does not cause the fatigue, but reveals it. All days travel toward death, the last one reaches it.

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