Monday, 19 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 19: That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die (Part 1 of 3)


Montaigne talks firstly about how study can be a kind of death. Then he shares his feelings about sex. He ends with with a contemplation on man's fear of death


 'it is a pleasure more favourable, soft, and natural, than the other forms of pleasure that we prefer to call pleasure'


Cicero says that studying philosophy serves no purpose other than to prepare one’s self for death. The reason for this is that study and contemplation, in some sense, withdraw us from our souls, and employ the soul separately from the body. This is a kind of ‘apprenticeship’ and a resemblance of death in this process. Another reason is that the point of all wisdom and reasoning is to teach us not to fear death.

Now, either our reason mocks us, or it has no aim other than contentment. ‘All the opinions of the world’ agree that pleasure is our aim, even if we all have different ways of attaining it. Any other route would be rejected straightaway, for who would go down a path that led to misery and affliction? All disputes on this point are trivial, and merely verbal. They arise out of a stubbornness and opposition that should not be present in great thinkers.

No matter what they say, even in virtue, our ultimate aim in life is bliss (Montaigne here uses the word ‘volupté’, referring to an intense pleasure that is both sensual and spiritual). I’d like to punch the ears of those who find this word sickening. If the word signifies a supreme pleasure or excessive contentment, then this is due to the assistance of virtue and nothing else. This bliss, if it is joyous, strong and virile, becomes all the more seriously blissful. And so we should allow this bliss to be called pleasure; it is a pleasure more favourable, soft, and natural, than the other forms of pleasure that we prefer to call pleasure. Those other pleasures are lower forms of bliss. If they even deserve to be called pleasure, this should be a matter of agreement and not privilege. 

A few words on this bliss
- I find it to be less free from inconvenience and pitfall than virtue.  
- The enjoyment is more momentary, fluid, and frail than some other pleasures. Nonetheless, it has its periods of vigils and fasting, also periods of hard work, sweat and blood.
- It comes with so many different kinds of sharp and wounding passions, and the satiety that attends it can be so dull and heavy that it sometimes equates to a punishment.
- If one imagines that these hurdles actually spur us to pursue it, that they are no more than a seasoning to its sweetness,  they are mistaken.
- When circumstances render it inaccessible (such as a coming to virtue, or some kind of difficulty), the pleasure of this joyous bliss is sharpened and heightened once it comes. 
- He who measures its cost against its fruit renders himself unworthy of it, for he does not understand its graces nor uses.
- What do they mean, those who preach that the quest for it is difficult, complicated, and painful and the resultant orgasmic joyousness (in French, jouissance) pleasant? Is it ever unpleasant? What would human beings not do to arrive at this pleasure? The most perfect have been happy to just aspire to this pleasure, to approach it without ever possessing it. Those that warn of the quest are therefore wrong, because even the pursuit of this bliss is pleasurable, because the attempt contains the essence of what it pursues.

Now, one of the greatest benefits that virtue confers upon us is a contempt of death. This contempt allows us a soft and easy tranquility in life, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct. All the rules centre around and agree with this contempt. And although they also teach us to despise pain, poverty, and other accidents to which human life is subject, we do not do so with the same level of concern. These accidents are, after all, not necessarily going to strike us. Many pass through life without knowing what poverty is, and the musician Xenophilius lived to a hundred and six without falling ill. But death is inevitable. And it can strike at any time, cutting short and putting an end to all other inconveniences.

Hor., in the Odyssey, said; ‘We are all bound one voyage; the lot of all, sooner or later, is to come out of the urn. All must to eternal exile sail away.’

So if death were to frighten us, it would be a perpetual torment, for which there would be no consolation. Sometimes people on their way to execution are granted special favours just before their death. But, at this time, ‘Sicilian dainties will not tickle their palates, nor the melody of birds and harps bring back sleep.’ (Hor. Od.) They cannot relish these types of entertainment when they know they are at the fatal end of their journey. The end of our race is death, it is the necessary object of our aim. It this frightened us, how would it be possible to advance one step without a fit of panic?

The remedy that the vulgar use is not to think about it, but from what brutish stupidity can they derive such a blatant blindness? They probably ride their donkeys backwards. They scare people with the very mention of death, and many cross themselves when they hear the word, as if it were the name of the devil. And they refuse to write up their wills, because that would be a reference to dying. They will not pick up a pen until the physician has told them in no uncertain terms that they are in their last moments, and even then, they will do so in a state of terror. God knows how, in this state, they are fit enough in understanding to do so.

The Romans, feeling that the word death sounded too ominous to their ears, found a way to soften and spin it, and instead of saying someone is dead, they will say, ‘he has lives’ or ‘he has ceased to live’ (Plutarch, Life of Cicero). The mention of life in the phrase, eventhough it has passed, offers a kind of consolation. It is from them that we have borrowed the phrase, ‘The last Mr. such-and-such’.

I was born between eleven and twelve in the afternoon on the last day of February 1533. The year, that used to commence at Easter, had been changed by order of Charles IX to commence from  then on on January 1st. I turned thirty-nine fifteen days ago. I hope to live at least as many more years. In the meantime, to trouble myself with something that will happen after so long seems foolish. But so what? Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than as if he had just entered it. No man is so old and decrepit that he does not imagine he has twenty good years left in him. Fool that thou art! Who has assured upon thee the term of life? You depend on your physicians but instead, consult effects and experiences. According to the average life-span, you have lives by extraordinary favour. Think of people you know, how many more have died before they arrived at your age than have survived? And as for those who have made themselves famous in their lifetimes, I bet you will find more that have before before than after thirty-five years of age. Jesus Christ himself died at thirty-three and the greatest man that was no more than a man, Alexander, died at around the same age. Death can surprise us in many ways. Who would have guessed that the duke of Brittany, for instance, would be crushed to death in a crowd of people? King Henry II was killed in a sword tournament and his ancestor Philip died whilst fighting with a hog. Aeschylus, who was very circumspect in avoiding danger, was hit on the head by a tortoise that fell out of the talons of an eagle flying overhead. Another choked on a grape-stone. An emperor was killed with the scratch of a comb while he was combing his hair, and Aemilius Lepidus stumpled on the steps of his own front door. Another died between the thighs of a woman, and another – my brother Captain St. Martin – was playing tennis when he received a little blow with the ball just above his right ear. He took no notice of it at the time, but six or seven hours later, he had died.

With such frequent and common examples passing before us everyday, how is it possible to disengage ourselves from thoughts of death and not live in constant fear of it? You may say that it doesn’t matter how it comes about, provided we do not terrify ourselves with expectation. I, for one, would crawl under the skin of a calf if by that means I could avoid death. I am not ashamed of this. All I aim for is to pass my time at my ease, doing what will most contribute to that ease. I must quote this glorious little exemplary:

‘I had rather seem mad and a sluggard, so that my defects are agreeable to myself, or that I am not painfully conscious of them, than be wise and chaptious’ (Hor. Ep.).

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