Essay by Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592).
Many years before Irvin Yalom in 2008 wrote ‘Staring into the Sun’ but after The Buddha’s reflections on the transience of life, Michel De Montaigne confronted head on the inevitability of mortality in an attempt to facilitate living well.
It must be emphasised that for twenty first century ears, any discussion of death has to be first and foremost a discussion of one’s own death and not the death of others. The twentieth century all too readily illustrates what can happen when we take death lightly for other people. Montaigne’s essay here is about ourselves, how the individual can prepare for their own death and deal with the fear of it. How our loved ones deal with our death is quite another matter. This is not, repeat not, a justification to treat other people as if their lives are of no consequence.
Philosophy – Virtue – Pleasure.
This section of the essay is the the trickier passage to understand, because it is abstract in nature linking a concepts of virtue and pleasure and philosophy.
The essay starts with a quote from Cicero, who states that philosophising is nothing other than getting ready to die. One reason for that observation is that study and contemplation draws our souls outside of ourselves, away from our bodies. This separation of mind and body is both a resemblance of death and a kind of apprenticeship for it. The other reason for philosophy being nothing but getting ready for death is because all of the wisdom and argument in the world comes down to one conclusion, which is to teach us:
“not to be afraid of dying”.
The first reason is a precursor for the coming argument. Being outside of the body so as to be unaware of corporeal existence in the moment is of course what death might be. Being asleep is another experience which is similar, as is being anaesthetised. However, we cannot philosophise if either asleep or drugged.
How are these experiences (study/contemplation, sleeping, drugged) like death? Well, at some estimates the Universe is 13 billion years old and as far as we can know today when we are alive, we have not existed in corporeal form for all of that time. For 13 billion years we were drawn away from our bodies. Did we notice? Did we care? Did we collectively gnash our teeth in vexation? I have no recollection of it. I have no reason to think there was a ‘me’ who was capable of sentience, emotion or physical feeling and without those three characteristics I would assert there is no ‘me’. I have every reason to think there was not a ‘me’ for that time. I accept the absence of any memory of experience does not prove the absence of that experience, but it is an extraordinary claim to make that I was able to have sentience, feeling and emotion for 13 billion years. This requires extraordinary evidence. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence needs to be to support the claim.
While I can readily accept that sleep and drugging are akin to the experience of death, I am not sure study and contemplation are. Perhaps I have not studied hard enough to bring separation of mind and body. Perhaps what he means here is that by losing oneself in study, the cares of the body become remote, if not to the point of vanishing. Study and contemplation will then lead to other realisations about the nature of existence and this brings with it ‘virtue’ (pleasure). But hang on….
The second reason may be even less convincing, in that engagement with wisdom and argument does not automatically lead to the conclusion, ‘not to fear death’. Perhaps the statement is normative, i.e. that wisdom and argument should lead us there, but it is not descriptive of ‘what is’ as engagement with wisdom and argument does not always do so.
His argument however does not rest there, he builds it step by step. In writing this essay, an exercise in philosophy, Montaigne is demonstrating his use of reason and philosophy to get to the assertion he makes about death. Is it my lack of philosophising that has left me adrift of the conclusion? Anyone not engaged in study/contemplation will not separate mind from body and will not be led to his conclusion?
The Work of Reason is to enable us to live well.
Montaigne develops his argument after noting the importance of study/contemplation. Reason, he argues, must be put to work to make us live well, and he asserts that ‘all the opinion in the world’ reaches the same point: Pleasure is our target. A virtuous life has an ultimate aim – pleasure. Pleasure as ‘profound delight’ and ‘extreme happiness’ is a better partner to virtue than anything else. He goes one further and actually claims that virtue be actually called more appropriately ‘pleasure’. This is philosophical pleasure and not as we today would think of it as merely the sating of physical or emotional needs.
So, before we get carried away in hedonistic corporeal pleasures, Montaigne refers to a ‘lower voluptuous pleasure’ (sex) in contrast. It is worth reading the quote in full:
“Apart from having a savor which is fleeting, fluid and perishable, it has its vigils, fasts and travails, its blood and its sweat; it also has its peculiar sufferings, which are sharp in so many different ways and accompanied by a satiety of such weight that it amounts to repentance”.
I invite anyone to consider their own sexual experiences to disagree with the fluidity, fleeting and perishable nature of it.
Virtue is pleasure of a philosophical sort, of delight and happiness of the mind. What has this to do with learning how to die? Montaigne here asserts that obstacles to pleasure spur us on towards it. If pleasure was achieved without any difficulty we would not appreciate it as such. Obstacles to pleasure are as ‘seasoning to its sweetness’, they ‘ennoble, sharpen and enhance’ ‘holy’ perfect pleasure that virtue procures for us. The pursuit of pleasure, the drawing near by over coming obstacles to it, is itself pleasurable. The journey, the anticipation, the challenge are all part of obtaining pleasure, they are pleasure in themselves. Virtue is pleasure, pleasure is virtue and pleasure is to be found in drawing near to it. We must apply reason, to think, to obtain this virtue.
So to pursue pleasure, to obtain virtue we must put reason to work, to philosophise, which is to see that we should not be afraid of dying. Obtaining this virtue through the exercise of reason brings its reward – a contempt for death.
“One of virtue’s main gifts is contempt for death”.
This contempt allows us to live with ease, in peace and to give us a pure and friendly taste for life. Thus thinking about life and death is not negative, it is not morose or morbid, for if we receive the gift of ‘contempt for death’ that virtue (‘pleasure derived from philosophising’) gives us, we can live well.
After this, somewhat esoteric and abstract thinking, Montaigne gets back to the meat of the argument. I think he is entreating us all to philosophise, that the result of doing so is pleasure (virtue), and that in achieving virtue we get the gift of a contempt for death. Thus philosophy leads to learning about death.
What can we reason about life and death?
So, let’s consider, let’s reason, let’s philosophise, a few things about life itself. Things we can know, things we can reason.
The misfortunes of pain, poverty are not inevitable, and so we can despise them. Moreover, we can end pain and poverty whenever we like, as if worse comes to the worse death can end them…
“But as for death itself that is inevitable”
“There is no place where death cannot find us”
The sure and certain end of our life is death, something we can easily see if we look. If it frightens us, how can we live without anguish? Many people try to ignore it; not to think about it. We commonly hear complaints about ‘being morbid’ but for Montaigne this is ‘brutish insensitivity’. The use of euphemism is not helpful either as this is an avoidance, and he gives examples from the Romans who he claims did not want to say ‘he is dead’ but ‘he has ceased to be’, a precursor of course of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch. This is in effect looking away from the truth.
These are the facts:
Young and old go the same way, they go out as they came in. If a decrepit old man still thinks he has another 20 years because he knows Methuselah was older still, therefore more years are available, then he is foolish. Who decides how long you shall live? A doctor’s estimate? Look at the facts instead, look at experience. Today we have a life expectancy for men of around 82 years…but that is an average, it is not a predication. The word itself ‘expectancy’ is misleading, for many a man does not get anywhere near it, and we cannot tell beforehand who will.
Consider how many people we know have already gone, those who have died younger than we are right now. This gets even more true when we obtain global mortality figures. There are population trends and we know that there are key determinants of ‘early’ mortality which include social class. However, Montaigne points here to notions of early/late death…but no matter when it happens in your life, you will die and that is the most important fact to think about. To reason about death to achieve peace about it, is not to consider the how and the when, but the very fact of it. The ‘how and the when’ are important of course, but only when we are alive. The much bigger picture he wants to paint is the fact of death. He comes back to this again and again.
“Death can surprise us in so many ways”.
The Duke of Brittany was crushed in a crowd. (trauma)
Kings dying while playing sports. (trauma)
‘Bumped’ by a pig. (trauma)
Being hit by a tortoise shell which fell from the grasp of an eagle. (traumatic head injury)
Choking on grape pips.
Stubbing one’s toe on a doorstep. (sepsis?)
Combing one’s hair and scratching the scalp. (sepsis?)
Bumping into a door. (causing an embolism?)
While between a woman’s thighs. (heart attack?)
Seizure while hearing a litigant in court. (Stroke?)
While applying ointment to a patient’s eyes. (Stroke?)
Being hit by a tennis ball. (traumatic head injury).
With modern trauma medicine we are more likely to survive these incidents of course, but we can add our own modern list, chief among them will be a road traffic event and of course sepsis from even the most trivial of cuts and abrasions.
Montaigne then asks us to consider these frequent events:
“how can we ever rid ourselves of thoughts of death or stop imagining that death has us by the scruff of our necks at every moment?”
He was writing in the mid 16th century and we have public health measures and biomedical practices which have made these events less likely. But we have not eliminated them and we have replaced them with our own. The relative infrequency of traumatic death or death by infection, has lulled us into a false sense of security and placed us at one remove from the frequency of death…but death will not be cheated. Death still has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment. Nature itself – fires, floods, hurricanes, lightning, earthquakes, mudslides and avalanches continue to take their toll, often unexpectantly.
Modernity is not Immortality.
At this point, Montaigne argues the same point as the Buddha: Life is transient, yes but avoiding that knowledge, ignoring it, wishing it away, it is a cause of suffering. The Buddha argued that the cause of suffering is attachment, by that he meant (I am simplifying) attachment to things that are transient…such as life itself. We simply cannot hold on to such things and it is madness, it is suffering to think we can.
“they come and they go and they trot and they dance; and never a word about death. All well and good. And yet when death does come – to them their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair!” (p95)
His message is then very clear:
“We must start providing for it earlier”.
It has been argued that we are a death denying culture, while some argue we are beginning to talk about it more openly. The example of ‘death cafes’ are provided as evidence of this move. Are we starting to provide for it earlier?
Ernest Becker in ‘The Denial of Death’ (1973) suggested that all of our actions, thoughts and behaviours are driven by the mainspring of the fear of death. Becker argued that it is the ‘disguise of panic that makes us live in ugliness’.
Death Anxiety – everyone has to unconsciously deal with the fact of their own death and some of us experience ‘death anxiety’. Irvin Yalom (2008) observes that dealing with death is ‘difficult’ as he wrote:
“you cannot stare into the face of the sun or death”
And yet he insists we must. Along with Montaigne, and Epicurus before him, Yalom argues:
- The soul is mortal and dies with the body, therefore there is no need to fear an afterlife because there is none.
- Death is nothingness.
- Symmetry: we have already experienced oblivion and following the briefest of lives we will experience it again.
I would add that the very concept of ‘soul’ in any case is an abstract one, with no basis in any physical reality we know of, and thus it is an assertion that it exists. For all we know there is only the ‘body’ and we have no compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. If that is the case, talking about ‘experiencing oblivion’ is an oxymoron. There is only oblivion, the void, the cosmos in which nothing discernible whatsoever about our physical existence can be traced before our conception, and eventually only bone remains after death, but in time even those bones will entropy.
Death and life are mutually exclusive as far as our experience of it goes:
“where death is I am not, where I am death is not”
Dealing with the wondrous inevitability of it all.
Death, then, can never ever be outrun,
“death can catch you just as easily as a coward on the run or as an honourable man…no tempered steel can protect your shoulders” (p95-96).
It is impossible to take the coward’s way out and attempt to avoid it.
Death will cure everything, all of your pain, all of your sorrow, all of your regrets, all of your decrepitude, all of those ‘plans that either came to nought or half a page of scribbled lines’ will be forgotten, erased and vanish into nothingness. All of your sins, if you believe in sin, will vanish as will eventually the consequence of your sin. This is not a call to adopt a nihilistic view of the world, for when we are alive real consequences flow to other people from our actions, but there is a realisation that the Cosmos will not give a fig in the end. ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation’ may be the ‘English way’, and perhaps it has some dignity to it, but surely better to just let go? What are we hanging on for? Double incontinence? A mind so addled it cannot remember if it has just taken a piss, or who one’s daughter is, what is that worth? That is the individual’s decision to take, not for other people to judge.
If you feel mounting anxiety at these thoughts, and you want to deprive death of its greatest advantage over us, Montaigne urges us to:
“adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. At every instance let is evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls or a pin pricks however slightly, let us chew over the thought: Supposing that was death itself? With that let us brace ourselves, and make an effort. In the midst of joy and feasting let our refrain be one which recalls our human condition, let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of our is subject to death or how many of the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away” (p96).
At this point he suggests that Egyptians at their feasts would at some point bring a mummified corpse into the banqueting hall as a reminder of just that. Perhaps we are not as ready to remind ourselves at such times, for who will bring a skull to the dining table at a birthday or Christmas dinner? Our unwritten rules for everyday life include a ban on talking about death, at least until that very melancholic hour before bed between two slightly inebriated old friends. Human skulls can be bought as anatomical teaching aids, there is no need to go digging them up. You might have your own idea about what a reminder could be at a time of cheer and feasting.
“ We do not know where death awaits us; so let us wait for it 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…In truth, in all things, if nature does 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 with than imagination of death, even in the most wanton time of my age”. (p96).
If you think this will be hard work, disturbing or impossible, he offers this advice:
“At first it does seem impossible not to feel the sting of such ideas, but f you keep handling them and running them through your fingers you eventually tame them” (p97).
‘Grave, where is thy victory, death where is thy sting?’ goes the Christian text. Its emollient is provided by a promise of life hereafter. But that is it, a promise. Religion’s greatest feat perhaps is the promise of being elsewhere, that this life does not matter because we have another eternal to go to only if we believe. I don’t think this is comfort at all. It all too readily leads one to discount the value of life in the here and now, for why bother today if you know you will go on into heaven eternally? It provides a great excuse to dispatch other people in order that they may meet their maker and thus be better off. The paucity of its message is seen daily in that most Christians put off death for as long as possible and still fear it, even though they profess to believe they will be with Jesus. This sort of sandal wearing god botherer is not as dangerous as the true believer, for he really believes he (and other people) have nothing to lose and therefore is as likely to assist other people to achieve oblivion as he would for himself, and he will do so whether they want to or not.
This is the antithesis of Montaigne’s argument. It is precisely because this life is the only sure thing we have that we do not let it go lightly…not being afraid, however, of inevitability is part of that life and not a reason to end it. And we surely cannot apply this to other people.
Let us prepare ourselves. Every day.
“death is equally as near when we are vigorous or feverish, at sea or at home, in battle or repose”
“as far as we possibly can we must always have our boots on, ready to go; above all else we should take care to have no outstanding business with anyone else”.
Yet this is not a call to sit around and just wait for the inevitable. Get on with life!
“I want death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished garden”
Montaigne is quite clear on religion as he states:
“Our religion has no surer human foundation than a contempt for life, for why should we fear the loss of something which once lost, cannot be regretted?”
A religious frame of mind necessarily brings a contempt for life as it always wishes for the resurrection, to be at one with God, to ‘receive virgins’ or to live in one of many mansions after death! What is religion, which if taken seriously but a death wish? Why hang about on earth when we could be sitting at the right hand of God? This is why I doubt the fervour of many an acolyte of Abrahamic faith, they really don’t believe that there is life after death…watch their faces when told of its imminency. And of those that do, of those that are ready to dispatch others to hell or to heaven, a plague on them. May they live long, and miserable, suffering lives. May their god fail to call them for five score and ten at the very least, and may nature visit upon their sorry carcasses pain and illness and double shitting, without bringing the benefits that nature otherwise gifts.
Nature lends a hand.
If we die a violent unexpected death, say in an aircrash or in a motorway pile up, or of sepsis, we may have very little time to be concerned, anxious or vexed. Yet an illness, as it increases its hold, can naturally lead us towards a contempt for life. Pain, vomiting, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, intermittent semi consciousness and lack of sleep all erode one’s hold on life. A determination to die is harder to consider when in rude good health. However, bring on an ailment and that consideration is much easier. As we lose the daily enjoyments of life…food, drink, sex, reading, hearing we may look upon death with a less terrified gaze. It is to be hoped that the further one gets from good health and nearer to death the more easily we will exchange one for the other. It is quite normal to experience change, decay and decrepitude so we should note how nature robs us of our sense of decline and thus helps us toward achieving oblivion?
As pain levels increase do we not begin to think of death as a friend, to relieve us of our daily misery, until we can say:
“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither” (Hamlet. Act 2 Scene 2)
But if any of us were to be plunged into old age suddenly, or to suffer a severely permanently debilitating and painful illness, the sudden change may not be bearable. But almost imperceptibly, for the many of us, nature leads us by the hand down a gentle slope; little by little, step by step, she..
“…engulfs us in that pitiful state and breaks us in, so that we feel no jolt when youth dies in us, although in essence and in truth that is a harsher death than the total extinction of a languishing life as old age dies. For it is not so grievous a leap from a wretched existence to non existence as it is from sweet existence to full bloom to one of travail and pain.” (p101).
From Inevitability to Eternity
“ How absurd to anguish over our passing into freedom from all anguish. Just as our birth was the birth of all things for us, so our death will be the death of them all. That is why it is equally mad to weep because we shall not be alive a hundred years from now and to weep because we were not alive a hundred yers ago…(and) if we compare our own span against eternity or even against the span of fountains, rivers, stars, trees or indeed of some animals, then saying shorter or longer becomes equally ridiculous”.
“your death is part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world”.
He reminds us surely of a truth easily accessible to us, especially with our new knowledge of the stars and the ecosystems we inhabit. The truth of this is demonstrated by science in concepts such as the nitrogen cycle or of entropy. Our tiny reptilian and ape brains cannot grasp the enormity of this truth, but thankfully we have evolved a cognition, that if we engage it, can do so. I can stand on the beach at St Ives and watch the tide and know that my great grandfather did the same, and that the builders of The Sloop Inn back in the 14th century did so as well. I can watch the moon rise and know poets and philosophers have wondered and written about the very same phenomenon for centuries. I once stood and gazed upon Mount Everest’s orange band of rock that contains the remains of sea creatures once at the bottom of the ocean and know that I did not exist for all of that time, as the mountain continues to gain height, I shall never see it.
Though I stand upon the beach and weep at the trivial passing of another year of my lurch towards senility or decrepitude, the full moon tides will wash my tears away in uncaring, unhearing inevitability. Grains of sand made damp by my tears will become dry by the summer sun and soaked by the next spring tide. Forever, until the earth burns as the sun explodes. Surely it is arrogance beyond belief to think otherwise, depute the teachings of Jesus?
Montaigne rams the point home about the inevitability of death by transcending it and then locating it within and as part of life, almost in a dialectic. The holism of it, the yin and yang of it, surely compares to more Eastern philosophising about the unitary nature of the universe, that we are not separate entities but part of the bigger whole – life (thesis), death (antithesis) and the universe (synthesis). It is against, and of course is pre-Enlightenment thinking, a later set of philosophies which is dualist in nature, the separation of mind/body of man/nature which tells of structures unwound from each other. I also think this is now post enlightenment thinking as we have come to realise this separation has done us no good.
“Shall I change for you this beautiful interwoven structure! Death is one of the attributes you were created with; death is part of you; you are running away from yourself; this being which you enjoy is equally divided between life and death. From the day your were born your path leads to death as well as life. All that you live you have stolen from life; you love at her expense, your life’s continual task is to build your death. You are in death while you are in life”.
Why not end it all now then?
Montaigne offers few observations on this. He starts with saying that:
“Life itself is neither a good nor an evil, life is where good or evil find a place, depending on how you make it for them”. (p105)
Examining the inevitability of death does not negate that life itself is worth living, to ‘find the good or the evil’. All of this essay is focusing on the experience of death to draw its sting, it does not state that therefore life is useless. The remarks on religion remind us that it is for others to have contempt for life based on their faith of an afterlife. He argues:
“ The usefulness of life lies not in its duration but in what you make of it. Some have lived long and lived little. See to it while you are still here. Whether you have lived enough depends not on your years but on your will” (p106).
While death is eternal, he argues an eternal life would be hell. A life without a death to temper and ‘season’ it, would be unbearable. Why this should be so, is for another essay. However, he does recognise that if we do come to think of death as a friend, and that it brings advantages, there is a need to temper that with a little anguish, to stop us from embracing it too avidly. Perhaps it is necessary to fear death at the outset to prevent us from just getting on with it, but having being born with this knowledge of death, we should then come to terms with a natural anxiety.
The first personal death I experienced was that of a young, beautiful, full of life nurse who died within 18 months of discovering a problem with her menstruation. At age 28, ovarian cancer was diagnosed and she was gone. I was a student nurse at the time and had already undertaken ‘last offices’ for many older patients whose wracked diseased bodies had made it necessary that death take them. Sheena was not one of those, and yet death did not care, proving Montaigne’s observation that “death can surprise us in so many ways”.
Throughout my short clinical career I saw and assisted the last days of many patients in an elder care ward and in critical care when death either struck suddenly or threatened to do so at any minute. Undertaking cardiac resuscitation brings into sharp focus the difference a few minutes can make between existence and non existence.
Another dear friend, Richard, at the age of 52 died of colon cancer. It took less than two years from start to finish. At his pale, withered, drawn end, death was indeed a friend.
John, age 41, just about to complete his PhD, took his own life. No one really saw it coming. I sat up one night with him in a hotel room, shortly before he did so, drinking whisky and laughing at life.
Martin a dear uncle, blind and increasingly disabled decided to do similar. To end it all by his own hand. He gave us 24 hours notice, but this was apparent only in hindsight.
We all watched the burning towers of the World Trade Centre in 2001. We daily watch the horrors of the Middle East or of refugees drowning in the sea. These deaths are far away and not personal, and so their stung is drawn for us.
At age 17, I collided with a car while riding a motorcycle. The collision fractured a femur and threw me into the path of oncoming vehicles, except thankfully there were none. That could have been the end. At age 59 I experience chest pain at the top of a French mountain. It turned out to be angina and not a heart attack. I survived. I may live for anther 20 years. I may die tomorrow. I may die in the next 5 minutes. It takes no difference for if I believe Montaigne it correct, eternity and oblivion beckons, somewhere ‘I’ have been before. These are ‘places’ within which Sheena, Dick, John and millions of others already ‘inhabit’. I will be joining the likes of Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Napoleon Bonaparte, Martin Luther King, Stephen Hawking, my grandfathers Henry Peters and Thomas Goodman…I will be in august company. Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and I will be bedfellows in the halls of the hallowed, along with the lads who died the on D Day beaches. We will be joined. by millions as yet unborn, and by those now in their callow youth and pomp. I brook no notion that we will sit around camp fires and chew the cud over the affairs of society past and future. None of us will commune, because there will be no ‘us’ . The thought of eternity, in any case, being bored to death by Bonaparte’s stories of campaigns won and lost, by Monroe’s struggles with self esteem, or by Richard Dawkin’s realisation that his life’s work was actually bollocks due to still being able to talk about his life’s work, the thought of all of that makes me want to kill myself.
Michel de Montaigne. (1991) The Complete Essays. Penguin. London. Quotes are from the reprinted 2003 edition.
Montaigne lost his beloved father n 1568, he grieved for his friend Etienne de la Boëtie in 1563, all of his children bar one daughter died young, a not uncommon experience in the 16th century.