Saturday, 24 March 2012

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

In this final part of his long essay, Montaigne talks with incredible logic and beauty of why it is stupid to fear our last day. 

Seneca reported that an old weather-beaten guard approached Ceaser asking for permission to kill himself. Ceaser looked at his withered and decrepit body and said, ‘You think then, that you are alive?’ If a man should fall into such a condition suddenly, he would not be able to bear it, but nature leads us step by step into this miserable state, so that we are not even conscious of the moment when our youth dies in us, even though this may be a harder death than the final end of the languishing body – the death of old age; the fall is not as great from an uneasy being to none at all as it is from an energetic and flourishing being to one that is troublesome and painful. The body, bent and bowed, has less force to support a burden, and this is also true for the soul. That’s why we have to raise her (the soul) up firmly against the enemy. No anxiety, fear or disturbance should have any place in her. She should be master to all her lusts and passions, mistress of necessity, shame, poverty and any other injuries of fortune.

Our religion very religion has no surer foundation than the contempt of death. It is very logical really: why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? Also, since there are so many ways in which we could die, isn’t it worse to fear them all than just undergo one of them? And what does it matter, when it is inevitable? When Socrates was (wrongly) told, ‘The thirty tyrants have sentenced you to death’, he responded, ‘And nature them.’ It is ridiculous to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to end all our troubles! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And to lament that we will not be alive a hundrer years from now is as foolish as feeling sorry that we were not alive a hundred years ago. Death is the beginning of another life. Nothing can be a grievance that is but once. Is it reasonable to fear a thing for so long that will come so soon?

Long lives and short are made one by death. There is no long, nor short, to things that are no more. Aristotle tells us of little animals on the banks of the river Hypanis that never live more than a day; those that die at eight in the morning die in their youth and those that die at five in the evening die in their old age. Which of us would not laugh to see this time of death affect our grief or relief? The most and the least, of ours, in comparison with eternity, or yet with the duration of mountains, rivers, stars, trees, and even some animals, is no less ridiculous.

Nature compels us to leave this world as we entered it. The same pass we made from death to life, without passion or fear, should be repeated from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe. Death is a part of you, and while you try to evade it, you evade yourself. This very being of yours that you nor enjoy is equally divided between birth and death. The day of your birth is one day’s advance towards the grave. Seneca said, ‘The first hour that gave us life took away also an hour’, and Manilius said, ‘As we are born we die, and the end commences with the beginning’.

The whole time you live, you take from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is only to lay the foundation of death. You are in death while you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no longer alive. Or, if you want to put it another way, you are dead after life, but you are dying while you are living, and death handles the dying much more rudely than it handles the dead. If you have profited from life, go away satisfied. Lucretius said, ‘Why not depart from life as a satisfied guest from a feast?’

And if you have not profited from life, why are you worried about losing it? For what purpose do you desire to keep it? To this, Lucretius said, ‘Why seem to add longer life, merely to renew ill-spent time, and be again tormented?’

Life is neither good nor evil, it is only the scene for good or evil, and if you have lives a day, you have seen it all. One day is equal and alike all other days. There is no other light, no other shade, no other sun or moon or stars. The order and character of things is the same as that that your ancestors enjoyed, and that your posterity will be entertained with. And come the worst day that can come, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy are performed in a year. If you have observed the revolution of the four seasons, then you know the infancy, the youth, the strength, and the old age of the world. The year has played its part, and knows no other art but to begin again; it will always be the same thing.

Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Who can complain when all have the same destiny? Live as long as you can – you  shall by that nothing shorten the space you are to be dead; it is to no purpose, you shall be in the condition that you fear so much for just as long as if you had died at birth. Death will still remain eternal.

And yet you will be in such a condition that you will have no reason to be displeased, because when you are dead, there will be no other living self to lament over your grave. It should not concern you whether you are living or dead because in living, you are still in being, and in death, you are no more.

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. Make use of your time while you can. It depend upon your will, not the number of days that you have. Is it possible that you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey without an end.

Lucretius said, ‘No night has followed day, no day has followed night, in which there has not been heard sobs and sorrowing cries, the companions of deaths and funerals.’

Anyway, imagine how much more unbearable an immortal life would be to man than the one he has now. If you didn’t have death, you would be cursing Fate for depriving you of it. There is some bitterness mixed in death only so that, seeing how convenient it is, you do not greedily and indiscreetly seek and embrace it, and so that you may live in a balance between being neither too sick of life nor excited about death. You will die once, and death lies somewhere between pleasure and pain. Why fear your last day? It contributes no more to your end than any of your other days.

Everyday travels towards death, the last only arrives at it.

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