It’s a challenge when you’ve pledged to write 107 essays in 107 days when you return from an evening dinner party with only 30 minutes to write … more so when the chapter on drunkenness came the day before and instead you have to deal with a long, dark chapter about suicide. Frankly, even if I had 10 hours to write I wouldn’t want to delve deeply into this Montaigne subject.
The important part of what he has to say can be summed up in the final paragraph:
Of all incitements unbearable pain and a worse death seem to me the most pardonable.
And that seems perfectly reasonable to me, so I see no reason to dig any deeper. But I am intrigued by the second to last paragraph in the essay where Montaigne writes:
Pliny gives an account of a certain Hyberborean people whose climate is so temperate that the inhabitants do not usually die before they actually want to; when they become weary, having had their fill of life and reached an advanced age, they hold joyful celebration and then leap into the sea from a high cliff set aside for this purpose.
In Chapter One of “The Antichrist,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
Let us look each other in the face. We are Hyperboreans — we know well enough how remote our place is. “Neither by land nor by water will you find the road to the Hyperboreans”: even Pindar, in his day, knew that much about us. Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death — our life, our happiness…We have discovered that happiness; we know the way; we got our knowledge of it from thousands of years in the labyrinth. Who else has found it? — The man of today?
Often interpretations of Nietzsche go back to the source, the Greek myths, for explanation of what he meant by describing his followers as Hyperboreans. In doing so, these analysts have tended to focus on the utopian aspects of Hyperborean existence, suggesting that those who follow Nietzsche’s teachings of the overman are somehow leading the way towards some ideal human existence.
Despite the fact that Nietzsche was a philologist and knew the Greek source material well, I’m inclined to believe that he’s following the Pliny/Montaigne interpretation of the Hyperboreans, not the ancient Greek. There is a subtle, but important distinction. If you just read the mythology, you’d err towards the side of Nietzsche’s “will to power” philosophy … a strong race, outside of the influence of modern religion, following the overman to a new climate and a stronger humanity.
But if you follow Pliny and Montaigne’s interpretation, the Hyperboreans are people who love life and celebrate it joyfully. They exit the world at their own choosing and in dramatic fashion because they love life so much. In other words, they are perfect embodiments of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence.” Their answer to all of the challenges of life is to ask for it all to return, exactly as it played out, in another life and in infinite lives to come.
I can’t prove this theory, my only thin reed to hang on is evidence that Nietzsche was an avid reader of Montaigne. But this essay does give me some hope that perhaps Nietzsche had abandoned “will to power” by the time he wrote “The Antichrist” and had settled on “eternal recurrence” as the basis of his metaphysics and hope for anyone influenced by his words.
That’s my optimistic take on Nietzsche … and on this very dark, somewhat dismal essay.