This is one of Montaigne’s deepest and darkest essays and I’m humbled in the face of it … especially after being dragged by two three-year-old boys for six hours through the Chicago Auto Show; It’s on days like these, when I’m exhausted and uncertain how I’m going to properly celebrate Valentine’s Day with my wife this evening while getting the boys to bed as usual, when the size and depth of my Montaigne project looks daunting.
I will not attempt to match Montaigne’s great depth of thought about death, no can I write an eloquent piece about what it means to prepare to die. For the latter, I recommend Ann Hulbert’s deeply moving account of her mother’s recent death in the American Scholar. I hope to, humbly, make two points in this too-short piece.
First, I want to defend the good name of philosophy, because I agree with Montaigne that it has an important task in our lives. Montaigne opens his essay with by paraphrasing Cicero:
Philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.
This is pure Socrates; he believed that contemplation draws us outside of our bodies. Following the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I don’t buy it; we’re always embodied in the world, we never escape our physical selves even when engaged in the most otherworldly of thoughts. But Cicero’s central arguments retains its power: philosophy is all about perspective and it’s very difficult to go through life without placing our end in some kind of dimension that we can understand.
I feel the need to defend philosophy, because it always seems to be in the crosshairs of the intellectual anti-intellectual. This essay from Robert Wright in the American Prospect today is a perfect example. Wright makes the argument that, at least when it comes to politics, philosophy is irrelevant, that we should seek out the most pragmatic solution for those governed and not get caught up in definitions of freedom or evil or whatever else drives social discourse. It’s a perfectly fine point … as it was when Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Dewey and Rorty made it in the last century. So Wright, in his essay, gets to appropriate the major philosophical train of thought from the late 20th century while at the same time mocking the very concept of philosophy. A neat little trick.
But even if Wright’s appropriated argument is true for the political realm, it’s of no help in trying to determine how to live. And Montaigne, rather than calling that quest pointless, always has valuable points of make. In this essay, he argues that pleasure is always the foremost aim in life, we just all look at pleasure differently:
Even in virtue our ultimate aim – no matter what they say – is pleasure. I enjoy bashing people’s ears with that word which runs so strongly counter to their minds. When pleasure is taken to mean the most profound delight and an exceeding happiness it is a better companion to virtue than anything else; and rightly so. Such pleasure is no less seriously pleasurable for being more lively, taut, robust and virile.
He goes on to argue that it’s the quest for pleasure – or virtue, which is Montaigne’s concept of pleasure – is the only legitimate aim in life. Even without attaining the ultimate pleasure, it’s the pursuit of it that is most rewarding:
The undertaking savours of the quality of the object it has in view; it effectively constitutes a large proportion of it and is consubstantial with it. There is a happiness and blessedness radiating from virtue; they fill all that appertains to her and every approach to her, from the first way in to the very last barrier.
And then Montaigne slips in the issue of death. Instead of seeing our pursuits of pleasure as distractions from death, Montaigne argues that we should always keep death in mind, that way we strip it of power:
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 ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away.
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. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects … 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 ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away.
To wrap up this point, Montaigne argues that we should be vigorously involved in all that brings us pleasure in life … and let death catch up with us as it may:
I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can; I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.
The second point I wish to raise is about morbidity and the long-march toward death. My father died a little over six years ago. In truth, he began to die sometime around 1987, when he suffered his first heart attack at the age of 49. From that point on in life, he was never the fully healthy person I’d known. He suffered another heart attack in 1994 and had a quadruple bypass. In 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer. Every time I saw him from 1987 on, it had the feeling of being, perhaps, the last time.
Montaigne argues that this long, slow crawl towards death is the best way to approach it:
Almost imperceptibly, 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 a sweet existence in full bloom to one full of travail and pain.
By knowing this, and seeing death is something natural and not strange, we will eventually let it lose it’s grip on us and become something almost welcome by the end:
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 years ago. Death is the origin of another life. We wept like this and it cost us just as dear when we entered into this life, similarly stripping off our former veil as we did so. Nothing can be grievous which occurs but once; is it reasonable to fear for so long a time something which lasts so short a time?
I felt this was true about my father in his final days. He did seem at peace and said he did not fear the end. He was able to see all of his loved ones, on his own terms, and had planned to die, in hospice, close to where my sister lived, in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains.
And then we reached the final day, when he had clearly lost hope and could no longer speak, and words could no longer console me. All I could read were in his glassy, terrified eyes. That sense of peace had vanished and all that remained, by my view, was deep, dark terror. Those images have haunted me ever since. I now wish I could have done or said something to console him or offered some bit of wisdom that would make the ending right.
Perhaps I can do better and perhaps some philosophy can help me reach that final peace. But I can never win it back for my dad. It feels, oddly, like a personal failure.