If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.
Even though this is one of Montaigne’s earliest essays, like others, he returned to it later in life and the quote above is one of the last lines he wrote. This evening I read Thomas Bernhard’s “Concrete,” which built to a line very much like Montaigne’s coda:
I slept for only two hours, waking at half past five with the thought: I’m now forty-eight years old and I’ve had enough. In the end we don’t have to justify ourselves or anything else. We didn’t make ourselves.
Montaigne’s thought is not the same, of course. His last word is that his life and his acts should stand on their own — that if we cannot make amends face to face or bring to conclusion some controversy, it’s pointless to try to settle accounts from the grave. This tracks with one of Montaigne’s most important insights, that direct human interaction is critical to understanding — that we cannot rely on literary skill or a perfectly constructed ethos to make ourselves understood. Rather, we need to do the hard work of talking with and reaching each other.
But I do think that Bernhard adds an interesting corollary to Montaigne. As important as work and achievements are to our self definition, believing that we need to justify ourselves through work is just as much a dead end as hoping for vindication in death.
Montaigne offers a way out — instead of torturing ourselves with burdens of achievement, focus on timely small sacrifices that increase self worth:
I have seen many men in my time smitten in conscience for having withheld other men’s goods who arrange in their testaments to put things right after they are dead. But it is valueless to fix a date for so urgent a matter or to wish to right wrongs without feeling or cost. They must pay with something which is truly theirs: the more burdensome and onerous their payment the more just and meritorious their atonement. Repentance begs for burdens.