In this essay Montaigne ponders our tendency to think about the future instead of the present
Some say, stop thinking about the future and live in the moment. They say we cannot predict the future, that we have no grasp upon what is to come, ‘even less than that which we have upon what is past’
This is a mistaken view, but it is a view that Nature herself encourages, in order to continue her work. Nature is ‘more jealous of our action than afraid of our knowledge’
The poet Rousseau says: ‘We are never present, but always beyond ourselves’. He explains that fear, desire, and hope make us always think about the future, and prevent us from enjoying the present moment.
The philosopher Plato says: ‘Do thine own work, and know thyself.’
I like this quote. I think the two are related. He who does his own work well will automatically come to know himself. And he who knows himself well ‘will never mistake another man’s work for his own’. This person, then, will love and improve himself, through his work. He will reject all other work, which is not his. Thus (and this is important)
‘Wisdom, acquiescing in the present, is never dissatisfied with itself’
The philosopher Epicurus told his followers: don’t think ahead, don’t worry about the future.
Let me be specific now, and talk about death
Solon said that noone can be happy till they are dead. Aristotle replied with the question that: If one has lived and died according to his heart’s desire, but died leaving behind a bad reputation, can he be said to be happy? We are preoccupied with our own whims in our life, but when we are no more, we cannot communicate with those left behind. I agree with Solon then, man is never happy till he is no more. Because we cannot ever wholly detach ourselves from the idea of life, even in dying. We imagine, always, that there is something in us that survives.
I’ll recount some stories now to illustrate something quite strange – the fact that we ‘extend the concern of ourselves beyond this life’:
- Edward the First had won many battles. He insisted to his son that his body, upon death, be boiled till the flesh parted from the bones. And the flesh should then be buried but the bones carried with him in the army ‘as if destiny had inevitably attached victory, even to his remains’
- The king of Bohemia, similarly, asked for his skin to be made into a drum to carry in war against his enemies. He thought this would ensure continuation of the successes that he had enjoyed in war.
- Certain Indians in battle with Spaniards carried the bones of their captains, in consideration of their former victories.
- Other men of the New World carry relics of brave men who have died in battle ‘to incite their courage and advance their fortune … they attribute to them a certain present and active power’.
- Captain Bayars found himself wounded to death. He commanded to be set down at the foot of a tree so that he may die with his face towards his enemies.
A personal example:
- A relative of mine, as he lay dying, spent his last hours giving meticulous instructions on how his funeral should be carried out. He made everyone promise they would be there, and presented several examples and reasons why he was due this respect. Then, he died content. ‘I have seldom heard of so persistent a vanity’. At the last moment, to contrive a ceremony in honour of yourself
- A contrary example is of someone called Lepidus, who forbade his heirs from even the most simple ceremony. It makes sense, after all, to be temperate and frugal, ‘to avoid expense and pleasure of which the use and knowledge are imperceptible to us’, for we are gone.
- The philosopher Lycon told his friends to dispose of his body as they saw fit, and to have a ceremony that was neither extravagant nor sparse.
My own funeral? I leave it up to those upon whom it will fall. The care of death are ‘consolations to the living’ rather than any support to the dead.
Socrates, when asked how he should be buried said ‘How you will.’ He elaborated that if he were to concern himself ‘beyond the present about this affair’ he would be tempted to ask for glorious ceremony and honours beforehand, like those who have statues erected etc. in order to behold ‘their own dead countenance in marble’.
Maybe it’s a fear of what happens when you die. Let me offer two observations on this matter.
Firstly, a quote be Seneca:
‘Dost ask where thou shalt lie after death?
Where things not born lie, that never being had.’
And I leave you with this gem:
‘As nature demonstrates to us that several dead things retain yet an occult relation to life; wine changes its flavour and complexion in cellars … and the flesh of venison alters its condition in the powdering tub, and its taste according to the laws of the living flesh of its kind.’