My father-in-law had never spent a night in a hospital until his doctors told him at age 92 that he needed a heart valve operation. Given his robust health until then, they believed the operation could extend his life for another five years or more. Otherwise, he might hang on for a year or two, but his quality of life would be poor. The only hitch was that he might not survive the operation, given his age. My father-in-law did not believe in an afterlife, so he was playing for keeps. He decided to go ahead with the procedure. He figured if he didn’t make it, he had already lived a full life, and he didn’t just want to just hang around waiting to die. He was a tough old bird, and I hadn’t the slightest doubt he would pull through, which he did. He lived to be 105.
My father-in-law was a poet and a scholar of romance languages who read Dante and Montaigne in the original even in old age. As a college student, I had read Dante in translation, but it took me a while to catch up with Montaigne. That’s when I discovered where my father-in-law had gotten some of his ideas on matters of life and death.
Trained as a lawyer and diplomat, Montaigne retired on his 38th birthday to his family’s estate near Bordeaux following the death of his father. Thereafter he devoted himself to literary pursuits. He holed up in a tower that housed his library, its beams inscribed with biblical quotations and aphorisms from classical antiquity. Like Walt Whitman with Leaves of Grass, Montaigne is known for a single work that he continually revised and expanded during his lifetime. His Essays addressed every topic under the sun, but his real subject was invariably himself, warts and all. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he wrote. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” Montaigne was hardly alone in turning his literary attention on himself. However, as Virginia Woolf noted, “… this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection — this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.”
On matters of life and death, Montaigne’s preoccupation paradoxically shifted from the latter to the former as he advanced in age. He started out with the intention to pursue philosophy as a way to “teach us not to be afraid to die.” He lived at a time when the plague still regularly swept through European cities, including Bordeaux, so death was never far from anyone’s thoughts. Across the English Channel, John Donne, the poet and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, had made himself something of an expert on the subject. In his final sermon, he told his flock, “We have a winding-sheet in our mother's womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave.” Montaigne would have needed no reminding. His brother and his best friend had both died young. Five of his six children died in infancy, and he had a close brush with death himself when he was knocked from his horse. Yet for all that, Montaigne eventually concluded that death should be allowed to take care of itself, leaving those who are still alive to be concerned about life. “If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately,” he wrote.
These thoughts were contained in a late essay entitled “On Physiognomy,” which appeared only after his own death at age 59. In it Montaigne commented approvingly of Socrates’ refusal to beg for his life when put on trial as a corrupter of youth. He quoted Socrates as follows from the penalty phase of his trial: “I have neither frequented nor known death, nor have ever seen any person that has tried its qualities, from whom to inform myself. Such as fear it, presuppose they know it; as for my part, I neither know what it is, nor what they do in the other world.” He therefore concluded, “If I am to die and leave you alive, the gods alone only know whether it will go better with you or with me.”
Socrates cultivated a studied ignorance on matters about which others claimed to know a great deal more than they possibly could. Montaigne was similarly inclined. He designed a medal for himself showing a pair of scales in balance, representing a suspension of judgment, and his personal motto, “What do I know?” Although nominally a Catholic, Montaigne was hardly doctrinaire and managed to steer clear of the sectarian strife that ravaged France in the 16th century. His natural skepticism and growing prominence might be expected to land him in hot water with religious authorities, except that he was no more willing than Socrates to make pronouncements on subjects he was personally unacquainted with. He wrote, "Reason does nothing but go astray in everything, and especially when it meddles with divine things." Montaigne’s Essays eventually wound up on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, although not until nearly a century after the author’s death.
Notwithstanding Montaigne’s repeated efforts to come to terms with death, he had relatively little to say about an afterlife. Socrates may have said all that needed saying on the subject. No doubt Montaigne would have nodded appreciatively at an anecdote about the Zen master Hakuin, who was once asked what happens to the enlightened man at death. “How am I supposed to know?” Hakuin replied. “Because you’re a Zen master,” said the other. “Yes,” Hakuin answered, “but not a dead one.”