Montaigne – on living and dying
Michel de Montaigne begins a relatively long essay entitled, ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’ by adhering closely to Cicero’s ‘Tuscan Disputations’ and observes without further delay that: ‘… philosophising is nothing other than getting ready to die.’ (Montaigne 1991: 89) Immediately he develops his subject by conjecturing that: ‘… all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is teach us not to be afraid of dying.’
He then proceeds to discuss the inevitability of death and, somewhat in the tradition of Cicero, to propose that we should face up to this inevitability and prepare ourselves for a life in which death is omnipresent. Montaigne though is never depressing nor gloomy. He studied carefully the great classical writers (both Greek and Roman) and applied their counsel to understanding more fully both those around him and himself; he based his self-understanding on the unswerving details of his own lived experience.
He recognises that the ‘end’ to which a life aims is that of happiness or pleasure – and that it would be faintly absurd to imagine that this was not the case; for example, our ‘reason’ would scarcely tell us to aim towards pain and misery – and if it did, then we would surely wish to reject this ‘mood’ or expression of reason itself! Montaigne then reflects on the nature of virtue – which is not something oppressive and life-constraining: it, too, takes as its ultimate aim, ‘pleasure’. He has a vigorous and life-enhancing concept of virtue and adds that one of its ‘main gifts is contempt for death’.
However, he finds that, by and large people, are afraid of death, fail to accommodate it in their lives and are more inclined to deny it than to bring into full consciousness the fact that ‘the end of our course is death’. Montaigne, in the light of his acquired knowledge and the inescapable data of his personal experience, acknowledges that since we do not know ‘where death awaits us, let us wait for death everywhere’. And he thinks that if we do this, if we prepare ourselves in this way, we liberate our mind and body: he asserts that:
‘To practice death is to practice freedom.’
In essence, he means that we should not constrain ourselves and avoid the fullness of living because we fear death but should embrace life to the full – precisely because we have, as it were, made ‘friends’ with death – and, co-extensive with this, we should not allow our psychology to deny death and therefore to feel overwhelmed when someone close to us dies.
In this way, Montaigne finds a close relationship between the practical philosophy of the ancients, who advocated a life orientated towards happiness, the practice of virtue (as the expression of vigour for and in life), and freedom, a state which would truly emerge once a person had fully integrated the fact that death was intrinsic to their very being:
‘Your death,’ he notes ‘is a part of the order of the universe, it is part of the life of the world’ and he adds that ‘From the day you were born your path leads to death as well as to life.’
He concludes his essay with a series of reflections on various aspects of a life in which death is an existential given and advises his readers not to resist the approach of death but to prepare to leave this life since ‘all days lead to death’ but ‘the last one gets you there.’
Montaigne was a great liberal humanist who preferred to base his practical philosophy of life on the foundations established by Plato and Aristotle as well as the great Roman thinkers – such as Seneca and the happy eclecticism of Cicero. He applied their precepts to his own experience and is sometimes credited as a forerunner of the enlightenment. I certainly have enjoyed, through reading his wonderful essays, some very good and sympathetic and insightful company.