Montaigne: To Philosophize is to Learn to Die

Is It Death or Change That We Really Fear?

Steven Gambardella
May 23, 2020 · 6 min read

I’m getting old.

We all have that bathroom mirror moment, don’t we? This morning I examined my face as I shaved. The tug of the razor showed up the loose elasticity of my skin. I leaned in close. My skin isn’t plump as it used to be, it doesn’t have that glow from within that young people have.

It sags a little, it’s etched with lines around my eyes. For the first time in my life my face felt like it was a mask. My body bears the marks of time, its lustre has worn thin.

Inevitably, I thought about death. We all do it, and it’s odd that people squirm at the “morbidity” of it. It’s important to think about.

Michel de Montaigne thought about death a lot. In many ways he thought about it for our benefit. The title of this article was borrowed from his essay of the same name. The philosopher is in turn quoting the Roman writer Cicero. Montaigne made the point that “all the wisdom and reasoning boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.”

Montaigne was writing from bitter experience. Three tragedies struck him in quick succession. His great friend and confidant the poet Etienne de La Boétie died of the plague in 1563. Not long after, the essayist’s father died painfully from acute kidney stones. His brother died suddenly and before his time from a fatal haemorrhage. The shock of these deaths pitched Montaigne into an abyss of depression.

Montaigne, a successful lawyer, retired from public life at the age of just 38. He committed himself to write, initially doing so only for his own sanity. The purpose of his reading and writing was initially to work his way through the depths of his depression.

Montaigne found himself terrified of his own death and yet unable to make the most of his life. He couldn’t stop thinking of all the instances in which people he knew of succumbed to death. He wrote:

The essay is about more than death, it’s about the necessity to find virtue — or “goodness” — to be able to get over our fear of death. As the philosopher looked back to the wisdom of ancient philosophers to find his way out of his anguish, he saw that building virtuous character was a holistic remedy to his spiritual ailments.

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Some cultures are less squeamish about death than others. The Day of the Dead is a national celebration of past lives in Mexico. Photo by Sam Brand on Unsplash

Montaigne understood the overcoming of a fear of our own death as being the keys to a happy life, as if it were a gateway to a new beginning. “A man who has learned to die,” he wrote, “has unlearned how to be a slave.”

Montaigne knew by then that wisdom gives us the strength of courage. We can use our wisdom to quell our fear of mortality, but also take back control of our lives from sadness.

For Montaigne, accepting death is the ultimate pleasure. It’s a gold-plated suit of armour against all other dread. He wrote that disdain for death is one of the principal benefits of virtue, that it “furnishes life with a soft tranquillity.”

The philosopher believed that cultivating a virtuous character — being ruled by reason and not by irrational impulses or passions — is how we can achieve such a disdain for death.

This is not only a personal matter but one that society could improve with too. Society has created rituals around death that make it all the more unbearable for many people.

We are usually expected to dress up in black to honour the recently deceased, to pay our respects solemnly. Montaigne was a Catholic and well aware of the theatrical ceremony around death. “I think it is those trappings around it,” Montaigne wrote, “that frighten us more than death itself.”

Ceremonies of grief scare us and the fear can remain, like a phobia. The way Montaigne describes the trappings is like elaborate theatre, a stage show of pale faces, candles in dark rooms and weeping: “nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us.” We wear masks of “grief” that scare each other. “Children fear even their friends when they see them masked, and so do we ours.”

Montaigne wanted to bring death from the shadows into the full light of day. He wrote admiringly of the ancient Egyptian tradition of holding feasts with a mummified guest at the table. There are many traditions that would seem morbid and in terribly bad taste to us now, but were a way of fully appreciating life. “To practice death is to practice freedom.”

It was also a Roman tradition to remind guests of their mortality at dinner parties and toasted to enjoying life in the shadow of death. The rich would parade skeletons, perhaps in imitation of the Egyptians, as in the case of Trimalchio’s party in the first-century novel, Satyricon.

But perhaps Montaigne does not go far enough. Overcoming fear of our own death isn’t sufficient to be happy.

Instead, I would argue that learning to fully accept change is the holy grail of virtue. If you consider it dispassionately, death is simply the ultimate expression of change itself. All things come to pass, including you and I.

Our lives play out in the finite time we have to live them. Death is the principal source of discomfort to us — it’s the one thing we cannot defy and simultaneously the thing that we ultimately measure our lives against.

We want money, fancy clothes, beautiful lovers and lots of friends because we’re going to die. Why? We’re trying to “make the most of life”, and you can only make the most of something that is finite.

If death were not waiting in the wings of our life what would motivate us to do anything beyond tending to our most basic needs?

Everything is finite: our relationships, our jobs, our clothes, our homes, the plump, clear skin of a young person’s face. Of course, we welcome positive change, but we invariably grieve for the passing of time itself.

Even if times past were filled with happiness, we grieve for them. Why? We should cherish those happy thoughts and continue on with everything we’ve gained from them. Think of your life not as a stage play or TV show, but as a novel. Those past times are not lost or “gone by”, they are just somewhere else in time from where you are now; on another page.

So losing the fear of death isn’t the solution alone. A suicide no longer fears death and nobody has killed themselves because they are happy. Happiness is found in the acceptance not just of the finitude of our lives but also everything else in it. It’s the acceptance of change.

If we consider death as we really should, that it is change, perhaps we can come to terms with it as Montaigne wished we could.

Atoms swirl around the universe, for a brief moment a tiny quantity of these atoms coalesce to take our form, and they will inevitably disperse once again.

You’re a party of atoms, a blob in a lava lamp. I thought that to myself looking in the bathroom mirror. The sagging skin and the fine lines are signs of the privilege of living, not the coming of death. I’m grateful for them.

The Sophist

A Collection of Posts by Steven Gambardella

Steven Gambardella

Written by

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

The Sophist

Lessons from philosophy, history and culture

Steven Gambardella

Written by

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

The Sophist

Lessons from philosophy, history and culture

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