In this beautiful, touching essay, Montaigne warns against judging any life, even our own, until our final day. He also writes of the death of his close friend Etienne
|'Sometimes Fortune waits to surprise the last hours of our lives, to show her power by, in a moment, overthrowing what has taken so many years to build'|
Ovid, in Metamorphoses, says, ‘We should all look forward to our last days: no one can be called happy till he is dead and buried.’
Even children know the story of King Croseus, who was captured and condemned to death by Cyrus. As he was going to execution, he cried out, ‘O Solon, Solon!’ Cyrus asked what this meant, and Croseus replied that he had finally realized the truth in the teachings of Solon, which was:
‘That men, however fortune may smile upon them, could never be said to be happy till they had been seen to pass over the last day of their lives’.
This is due to the unpredictability and uncertainty of life - the fact that very light and trivial occasions can suddenly change into their own opposite. Many Dukes have died prisoners (for instance, in our fathers’ days, the tenth Duke of Milan), conquerors have become beggars (Pompey, for instance, who had to plead with the king of Egypt), and kings turned into clerks (Alexander’s successors in Macedon, for example). Queen Mary of Scots, the fairest of all queens, came to die at the hands of an executioner. There are a thousand more examples of the same kind, for it seems that as storms and tempests strike the tallest buildings, there are also spirits above that are envious of the greatnesses here below.
Sometimes Fortune waits to surprise the last hours of our lives, to show her power by, in a moment, overthrowing what has taken so many years to build. Macrobius said, ‘I have lived longer by this one day than I should have done.’
The wise advice of Solon should be heeded. But Solon is a philosopher, the sort of man to whom the favours and disgraces of Fortune mean nothing, and do not make one any happier or unhappier. I am inclined to think he had a further aim in making this statement, and that his meaning was that the happiness of life itself, which depends on tranquility and contentment of the spirit and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, should not be attributed to any man till he has had to play out the end of his life. He may have been living the rest of his life in pretence, only putting on fine philosophical discourses. When we are not made anxious or upset by anything, we can maintain a false bravado, but in our last scene of death, there is no more pretending. We speak clearly then, and ‘discover what there is of good and clean in the bottom of the pot’.
Our last day is the day on which our life can be measured. As Seneca says, the last day is the judge of all the rest.
The fruit of my studies can be measured, then, only upon my death. Only then will we see whether my discourses come only from my mouth or from my heart.
Plutarch, in Apoth., relates that Epaminondas, when asked which of three people (one being he himself) he held in greatest esteem, responded, ‘you must see us die first, before the question can be resolved’. Indeed, he would feel very wronged if anyone judged him without the honour and grandeur of his end.
God works in ways that best please him, and I have, in my time, seen three of the most hateful people I know – they lived disgustingly and were not liked – die very regular and composed deaths. I have also seen death cut short a life that could have gone so far, that was in the height and flower of its increase when it was ended. The end, however, was so glorious that perhaps his ambitious and generous plans had nothing in them so high and great as this interruption. Without completing his journey, he reached the place where his ambition aimed. He could not have hoped to do so with greater glory. When I judge this man’s life, I always think of how he carried himself at the time of his death, and my principal concern for my own life is that I may die well – that is, patiently and with peace.
(Montaigne, in this final paragraph, is discussing the death of his closest friend Etienne de la Boetie, at whose death in 1563 he was present)