'Let us disarm death of all novelty and strangeness. Let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts'
Man laughs and plays and gallops and dances without thinking at all of death. Nonetheless, when it comes to them by surprise, or to their wives, children, or friends, what torment and outcries, what madness and despair! Have you ever seen anyone so changed, confused, and subdued? Therefore, man must prepare in advance for it. If it were an enemy that could be avoided then I would advise to borrow arms, even from cowardice if need be, but it is not, and it will catch you whether you are hiding away or fleeing like a coward, or whether you face it bravely. No kind of weapon can secure us against it.
Nonetheless there is a strategy.
Let us learn bravely to stand our ground and fight him. To deprive him of the greatest advantage that he has over us, we have to take a route that is not common. Let us disarm him of all novelty and strangeness. Let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.
We should imagine him constantly, in all kinds of shapes. At the stumbling of a horse, the falling of a tile, the prick of a pin, we should stop and ask ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ This way, we can encourage and fortify ourselves. Even when we are happy and feasting, we should remember how frail our condition is, and never get carried away with our delights. We should stop and reflect how our happiness tends to death, and think of all the dangers that death threatens us with. The Egyptians followed this advice seriously: in the middle of their feasting and joy, they had a dried human skeleton brought to the room, for the guests to be reminded.
Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has learned to un-serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who understands that the end of life has no evil. To learn how to die releases us from all subjection and constraint.
In everything in life, art and industry cannot perform anything useful without the help of nature. In my own nature, I am not melancholic, but I am meditative, and there is nothing I have entertained myself with more continually than imaginations of death, even when I have been happiest and healthiest, when, as Catullus said, ‘my florid age rejoiced in pleasant spring.’
Recently I was in the company of ladies and at games, and people must have thought I was possessed with jealousy or some kind of uncertain hope. In truth I was thinking of some one who, a few days before, had died with a burning fever. He had been returning from a party like this one, with his head full of idle fantasies of love and jollity, as mine was then, and for all I knew, the same destiny awaited me.
Every minute I think I am escaping, and what may be done tomorrow must be done today.
A friend of mine was going through my notes the other day, and he found a memo where I had written of something I would have done had I not died. I told him, as was true, that the thought came to me when I was not far from my house, and I was happy and healthy. Yet, I wrote it down there, because I was not certain that I would live to come home. I am eternally brooding over my own thoughts, and confine them to my own particular concerns. At all hours, I am well-prepared for death, so that whenever he comes, he can bring nothing along with him that I did not expect long before. We should always, as near as we can be, be booted and spurred, and ready to go.
And we should have no business with us but our own, because we shall find enough work to do without any need of addition. One man complains that death will prevent him a glorious victory, another that he must die before his daughter has married, or his children finished school, a third seems only troubled to be losing his wife’s company, a fourth the conversation of his son. For my part, I am at this instant in such a condition that I am ready to dislodge, whenever it shall please God, without regret for anything whatsoever. I disengage myself from all worldly relations and take leave from all but myself. Never did anyone prepare to say goodbye to the world more absolutely and unreservedly, and shake hands with all manners of interest in it, than I expect to do. The deadest deaths are the best.
As the Egyptians, after their feasts where they presented their guests with the image of death, said, ‘Drink and be merry, for such shalt thou be when thou art dead’, so it is my custom to have death not only in my imagination but continually in my mouth. There is nothing I am more curious about and delighted to hear of than the manner of men’s deaths: their words, looks, behaviour etc. There are also no places in history I am more interested in than those associated with the subject. If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register with a comment on the various deaths of men. He who should teach men how to die would at the same time teach them how to live. Dicarchus made one, to which he gave that title, but it was designed for another and less profitable goal.
Some may object that the actual pain and terror of dying so infinitely exceeds what we can imagine, that to guard against it this way is useless. Let them say what they will; to premeditate it is doubtlessly a great advantage. Nature herself encourages and assists us: if our death is sudden and violent, we have no time to fear; if otherwise, then as my disease worsens, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find it is more strenuous to digest this idea of death when I am healthy than when I am languishing in fever. In fever, I have less to do with the commodities of life, and I lose the use and pleasure of them, and I begin to look upon death with less terror. This makes me hope that the more I remove myself from the first and the nearer I approach the latter, the more easy it will be to exchange the one for the other.