Montaigne wonders, do promises made when alive still apply when we are dead?
There is a saying: ‘death discharges us of all our obligations’.
I start with two stories, of people who believed that this was indeed true:
- Henry VII asked Don Phillip (father of Charles V) to hand over his enemy, the Duke of Suffolk, who had fled into Phillip’s land. Don Phillip agreed, on the condition that no harm should come to the Duke’s life. Henry agreed, but he instructed his son that immediately upon his own death, the Duke should be killed. In my opinion, Henry’s death did not acquit him from his promise.
- Count Egmont assured Count Horn everything would be fine if he surrendered to the Duke of Alva. Later, realizing that it would not, and thus that he would be going back on his word, he asked to be put to the death.
I believe that Count Egmont was discharged from his promise and didn’t need to die. After all, the situation was not in his control. It is important to remember that effect and performance are not in our power; ‘we are masters of nothing but the will’. Count Egmont could not have made good his promise, and was therefore absolved of his duty.
On the other hand, Henry (from the first example) ‘willfully and premeditatedly’ breaks his promise, and deferring his enemy’s execution until after his own death is just a ploy, or an excuse, for which he is not to be excused. It is like the worker in Herodotus who kept the secret of the King of Egypt’s treasure all his life, only to tell it to his children on his death-bed.
I know many people who, feeling guilty of wronging someone else, try to make amends by bequeathing them things in their will. They might as well not do anything, because in delaying so much an important matter and in remedying a wrong without really sacrificing anything at all, their gesture is meaningless. ‘They owe, over and above, something of their own; and by how much their payment is more strict and incommodious to themselves, by so much is their restitution more just meritorious. Penitency requires penalty’. In other words, righting a wrong requires some kind of sacrifice.
Worst of all are those who bear secret grudges that they only reveal when they are dying. Instead of letting their malice die with them they extend the life of their hatred even beyond their own. ‘Unjust judges, who defer judgment to a time wherein they can have no knowledge of the cause!’ Personally, I will make sure that there is nothing revealed in my death that I have not ‘first and openly declared’ during my life.