Michel de Montaigne on Death and Other Related Tangents
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 in mind than death…We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.
Michel de Montaigne
Professor Jacob Amstutz was a true mentor to many students including myself. Jacob was always telling us to “go back to the source” of a theory or philosophy and instead of relying on other people’s interpretation, read the original documents. One semester my friend John and I asked Jacob to help us understand the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. We would go over to his house in the evening and over some wine, or sometimes whisky, we’d discuss the contrasting theories of these two towering fathers of psychoanalysis. True to form we went back to the source and began our studies by reading Freud’s first book, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Then we looked at Jung’s theories, and his reasons for parting with Freud. It was a very stimulating exciting, experience as Jacob himself had corresponded with Carl Jung. During our discussions he would actually read from Jung’s letters – talk about going back to the source! The whole experience felt like a special privilege.
Later I took a one-on-one, formal academic course in the Philosophy Department, with Jacob, which required a full semester of studying the “Essays” of Michel de Montaigne. These writings were comprised of three books, over 107 chapters, published in 1580. Ostensibly, Montaigne claimed his Essays were written to reveal “some traits of my character and my humours.” He was a modest man. The books were full of wisdom. It was a monumental task to read all the Essays in just three months. I would meet with Jacob once a week to discuss Montaigne’s writings and each month I presented a paper on my findings. Being the only student was a real pleasure and very rewarding. And, Montaigne’s Essays have proved to be one of the most influential pieces on philosophy I’ve ever read. His thoughts on death have stayed with me to this day.
Montaigne maintained that a wise person is always thinking about death. As a young man I often thought about the contingent nature of our lives (a perspective heavily influenced by my also studying, and being influenced by, Existentialism at the same time). For example, I realised that at any moment I could be struck by an out of control car. As a result, I would sometimes cross a busy street and be thankful for reaching the other side– happy to be alive…and often feeling more alive than when I had stepped onto the road. It became a habit to consciously appreciate living after “escaping” potential tragedies, real or imagined. I developed a positive attitude, anticipating the future with a sense of wonder and relish. I practised what Horace wrote, “Think each day when past is thy last; the next day, as unexpected, will be more welcome.”
My days were spent imbibing the Existential writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, I was also reading Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” and “Journey to Ixtlan.” Castaneda talked a lot about death, and his work helped me interpret Montaigne’s advice about death. Although the opening quote from Montaigne comes across as being a bit too obsessed with death, Castaneda sheds some light:
“Death is the only advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if it is so.
Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.’ “
I interpret his comments as meaning, it could always be worse! As a result, you need to keep moving forward. Live. Castaneda continues speaking in a way that could only have been found in an Existentialist treatise. He writes, “In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”
Death plays a huge role in Existentialist philosophy. Death is considered the one thing that we can actually control, and our mortality as something which we can never escape. The fear of death is looming over us all, but it isn’t too different from fear of life. Life, for an Existentialist, requires choices and responsibility for those choices. This comes with huge implications. We cannot blame anyone for our choices, they are ours. Recognizing this fact produces anxiety in many people’s lives, we are responsible for who we are. Notably, it also leads to an authentic life, one that we created. One choice we do have, is the choice of whether to take our own life. Suicide. In this way life and death are inextricably linked to one another. Depending on your point of view, this could be either refreshing or depressing.
Simone de Beauvoir, along with Jean-Paul Sartre were two of the most famous, and influential, Existentialists of the 20th century. I have found a lot of things to like about their writings. Sartre’s famous phrase “Existence precedes Essence” proclaims that we begin with our being, our consciousness, and go on to create our essence, or nature. For me, it’s a bold position regarding life. There’s no excuse for what we become which means that we are always, a work in progress. We’re free to live anyway we want to … or end our lives at any point. The Existentialists don’t think we have full control over every aspect of our life however because everything is subject to chance - it’s contingent. And, our “freedom” only works on the margins of our genetics, upbringing, environment, job, country, and many other factors. But this fact still leaves us ample room for decisions. “You have no one to blame but yourself” wrote Joseph Campbell. In her book “All Said and Done” Beauvoir talks about waking from a nap with “childish amazement - why am I myself.” It is this sense of wonder that emerges out of an existentialist world-view - a feeling of amazement that we are accompanied by a puzzling enquiring mind that creates its own reality or authenticity.
So, what does all this have to do with death? Back to Montagne.
Somewhat enigmatically Montaigne wrote “to practice death is to practice freedom.” This statement carries with it some seeds of Existentialism and, of course, refers to thinking about death, as in this case you can’t really practice it, theoretically at least you only get one chance! Montaigne was certainly not a morbid soul. Elsewhere he writes “my art and profession are to live.” By recognizing his mortality, and holding it close, he acquires the impetus to live life to the fullest. Some may believe in an afterlife, but there’s no harm in living well. For Montaigne this meant to first learn about himself, then to find companionship and good conversation, at the same time as he is searching for knowledge and goodness, training his mind to be tranquil and, ultimately, finding purpose.
“The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.”
The conclusion I draw from the Essays of Montaigne is that a constant enquiry into what makes us “tick” and what is “good” leads to a wise and happy life. And how can we tell when a person has found wisdom? “The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness” wrote Montaigne. This makes me think of the Dalai Lama who always seems to be full of joy. I’ll never forget seeing him being interviewed on television. The interviewer asked him “When was the happiest time in your life?”. He answered, “right now.” I imagine Socrates would have answered the question the same way. As Montaigne wrote, in a favourite quote of mine, “There is nothing more notable in Socrates than he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it [time] well spent.”
I’m writing about death with very little first-hand experience of it. I’ve lost my parents, but that was expected. One of my good friends, Carolyn, was recently upset by a friend’s death and thought about it for days, making for very gloomy moods - it didn’t change a thing. I too see old age and death making inroads into my group of friends and acquaintances … it reminds me of my own mortality. It doesn’t depress me though. As I cannot put faith in a heaven my efforts are spent creating heaven on earth - Here again I defer to Montaigne and his explicit/implicit criticism of mankind’s belief in a higher being and such:
“Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by the dozen.”
I come from a privileged life and an extraordinarily peaceful time in history. I’m part of the spoiled generation known as the “Boomers.” The world I’ve experienced has not seen a major war for decades … none of my generation has gone off to battle. We have not tasted death. Does that disqualify me from writing about it? I think not. But it does make me treasure the life I’ve been given.
I wrote this essay in the country of Grenada. I was staying in a rustic inn at the windswept far north end of the island. The waves were crashing upon the shore. The nearest town is called Sauteurs. By the large Catholic Church in the middle of town is a cemetery situated high above the ocean. At the edge of the cemetery is a monument to what is called “Leapers Hill.” The plaque on the monument tells the story of the indigenous peoples of the islands, Amerindians known as the “Caribs.”
“In 1651 the Caribs, realizing that they had made a mistake by allowing the French to remain on the island became hostile. They killed many Frenchmen who in turn retaliated and with their superior weapons decided to wipe out the Caribs. The last stand the Caribs made was on a precipice in the north of the Island, but they were completely defeated. Those who survived, rather than surrendering, jumped over the precipice which the French called “Le More de Sauteurs” or “Leapers Hill.”
This type of fear I have no words to describe - I cannot imagine choosing to die – life seems too precious to me. Knowing death could be around the next corner only amplifies my attachment to this existence.