Montaigne on death

…nature compells us to [death].  “Depart,” says she, “out of this world even as you came int it.  The same way you came from death to life, return without passion or amazement from life to death.  Your death is but a piece of the world’s order, and but a parcel of the world’s life.

“Shall I not change this goodly contexture of things for you?  It is the condition of your creation:  death is a part of yourselves:  you fly from yourselves.  The being you enjoy is equally shared between life and death.  The first day of your birth doth as well address you to die as to live.

“Life in itself is neither good nor evil:  it is the place of good or evil, according as you prepare it for them.  And if you have lived one day, you have seen all:  one day is equal to all other days.  There is no other light, there is no other night.  This sun, this moon, these stars, and this disposition, is the very same which your forefathers enjoyed and which shall also entertain your posterity.

“And if the worst happen, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy is performed in one year.  If you have observed the course of my four seasons; they contain the infancy, the youth, the virility, and the old age of the world.  He hath played his part:  he knows no other wiliness belonging to it, but to begin again.  It will ever be the same, and no other.

Make room for others, as others have done for you.  Equality is the chief groundwork of equity; who can complain to be comprehended where all are contained?  So may you live long enough, you shall never diminish anything from the time you have to die:  it is bootless; so long shall you continue in that state, which you fear, as if you had died being in your swadling clothes and when you were suckling.

“…no man dies before his hour.  The time you leave behind was no more yours than that which was before your birth, and concerneth you no more.

“…And if company may solace you, doth not the whole world walk the same path?  Do not all things move as you do, or keep your course.  Is there anything grows not old together with yourself?  A thousand men, a thousand beasts, and a thousand other creatures die in the very instant that you die.”

There you go.  Has death lost its sting for you now?  To be fair, Montaigne says we need to be thinking about death all the time before we really get comfortable with it, and being sick and infirm doesn’t hurt either.  Both Montaigne and Pascal despise the “just don’t think about it” plan.  Instead, we are supposed to face death and figure out a reason why it’s not that bad.  But I’ve never liked reasoning to a predetermined conclusion.  What if death really is that bad?

I’m surprised that Montaigne leaves out something that I suspect gives a lot of people comfort in the face of death:  the prospect of living on, in a sense, in one’s children, extended family, or other community.  I could have easily imagined Nature in that essay rising up and saying, “Here this, man.  When a man dies, his body goes to the earth and his soul to God, but his blood lives in his children, from generation to generation,”  or something like that.  (Try to imagine some prose worthy of Montaigne.)  True, it’s not your own subjectivity, but it means a lot to a lot of people.

This is why I’m always fascinated by science fiction apocalytic stories like On the Beach or Children of Men, where characters have to face the certainty of an end of humanity itself (and, so far as they know, all sentient life in the universe).  How does one not despair in the face of something like that?  I think one would have to take solace in something even more enduring than humanity.  If I were a Platonist, I would turn my thoughts to the eternal Forms that will endure in spite of the absence of material beings to contemplate them.  Not being a Platonist, I would turn my thoughts to God, who contains in Himself all goodness and beauty, and who will surely endure forever in atemporal beatitude.

One Response

  1. “My friend Enkidu, whom I loved so dear,
    who with me went through every danger:
    the doom of mortals overtook him.
    Six days I wept for him and seven nights.
    I did not surrender his body for burial,
    until a maggot dropped from his nostril.

    Then I was afraid that I too would die,
    I grew fearful of death, and so wander the wild.
    What became of my friend was too much to bear…”

    (Gilgamesh, Tablet X; trans. George)

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