by Michel de Montaigne
“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us 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; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere."
"To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” ― Michel de Montaigne
In this collection of essays, Montaigne established the essay form in the modern way that we still recognize today. From this collection I would like to focus on one of the most famous essays; namely, "To philosophize is to learn how to die". Montaigne begins by referencing Cicero (who himself was paraphrasing Socrates as he was presented by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo). He quickly concludes that the purpose of philosophy "is to teach not to be afraid of dying." (p 17) This, however, he immediately modifies this to say that "the labor of reason must be to make us live well, and at our ease," with a target of happiness (quoting scripture rather than Aristotle).
The essay could have ended here, but Montaigne goes on at length about the nature of virtue and how it abhors death. He also references common opinions about death but comes around to his own recommendations that death is part of the human condition. The answer, it seems, is to always have our death in mind so that we become used to it, and as such prepared for it. He provides quotes from his predecessors including the following, from Plutarch, that sounds just a bit fatalistic:
"Believe that each day is the last to shine on you. If it comes, time not hoped for will be welcome indeed."(p 24)
He even invokes religion and its contempt for life: "why should we fear to lose something which, once lost, cannot be regretted? Death is inevitable, does it matter when it comes?" (p 30) This would seem to be an end to the discussion.
However, he turns to the works of Lucretius in the closing pages of the essay and lets Nature speak about how one should view death: "Leave this world,' she says, 'just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once mad without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world'"(p 31)
Thus he suggests living is like a project and one should not regret the unfinished project in anticipation of death. This view is not dissimilar from that later thinker and essayist, David Hume, that puts forth a sense of benevolence for life and death as a natural part of human existence.
Montaigne concludes his essay with an exhortation to seek happiness in the most natural way possible. This will dispel any interest in immortality; even as Nature claims that a life that lasted forever would be unbearable. We should be aware rather of the advantages of death and recognize that what bits of anguish this life may contain only serve to make death more palatable and our acceptance of it more reasonable. Lucretius painted a poetic vision of how natural death is for humans in his great poem, On the Nature of Things. In this essay Montaigne reasons with himself and with us as fellow humans toward that same end in his own philosophical way as an essayist.
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