To Learn to Die

Death never takes a wise man by surprise.

-- Jean de La Fontaine

When Michel de Montaigne was my age, he had already been dead for more than a dozen years. He lived to be 59, a respectable age in the 16th century, when the plague and other epidemic diseases still held sway. By then he had reflected deeply on the subject of human mortality, both his and ours. From an early age, he had been intimately acquainted with death, and it had terrified him, particularly its capriciousness. His father died of kidney stones, his best friend was felled by the plague and his younger brother was killed by an errant tennis ball. Five of six daughters died in infancy.

Paradoxically, it was Montaigne’s own near-death experience that set him on a different path. Thrown from his horse in a collision with another rider, he lay senseless for hours and then began vomiting blood. He was in terrible pain and hovered near death for days. He later recalled, “I was suffering myself to glide away so sweetly and after so soft and easy a manner, that I scarce find any other action less troublesome than that was.” Dying, he discovered, was no more difficult than drifting off to sleep.

Montaigne’s musings on death are addressed in an essay entitled “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die,” found in his Pensées, which is credited with having introduced the essay as a literary form. He was 39 when he wrote it – an age, he noted, when more than half those born in his year had already taken their leave. Yet he observed there was no one so old or decrepit that he did not assume he had 20 good years left. Montaigne did not mince words: he regarded such people as fools.

I have long felt a certain affinity for Montaigne, perhaps because I also experienced a near-death experience as a young adult. Mine involved cars rather than horses, but my reaction was similar. I was certain I was going to die. And yet I felt an almost dream-like sense of detachment as the car in which I was riding as a passenger skidded sideways into oncoming traffic at high speed. I remember thinking matter-of-factly, Oh, so this is what it’s like to die. There was little emotion beyond mild surprise that there wasn’t more to dying than this. Somehow the vehicle managed to lurch across the highway without hitting anything, hurtled up an embankment and came to rest upside down in a smoking heap by the side of the road. Miraculously, we emerged from the wreckage with barely a scratch.

What haunts me to this day was not the immediate prospect of dying but how easily life might have come to a sudden end: in this case, just by taking a curve too fast on a rain-slicked highway. I think of what might have been. Four young people killed in a head-on collision, one of them pregnant. After more than 50 years, I would now be a distant memory to my brother and sisters and perhaps to a few old friends and classmates. A life not lived. My girlfriend at the time, who was riding with me in the back seat, what has become of her? I had not yet met the woman who would become my wife. Our two sons and granddaughter would never have been born. The driver of the car, a Yale classmate on the way home to Indiana for school break. He went on to become a Hollywood writer and producer, died in bed of bone cancer, a year younger than Montaigne at the time of his death. I learned he had divorced the pregnant wife who was riding with him in the front seat and had later married an actress.

Why should we care what Montaigne has to say about death? After all, he was only 39 when he wrote his essay and still had 20 good years left before his own demise. Yet he had come close enough to understood just how fragile life can be, regardless of one’s age. Death, he now knew, was not something that could safely be ignored, just because the prospect seems remote or because the thought of it might frighten us.

In his essay, Montaigne cited numerous examples of those who came to an untimely – and sometimes ludicrous -- end. Start with the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, who was killed when an eagle reputedly mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. Then there was the unnamed Roman emperor who died from a scratch sustained while combing his hair. Not to mention a number of individuals who died “betwixt the very thighs of women,” among them a pope, also unnamed. Montaigne made sure to mention his brother’s fatal encounter with a tennis is ball as well. With such examples in mind, he wrote, “how is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us every moment by the throat?”

Notwithstanding such sentiments, Montagne insisted that "death could have a friendly face." Confronted head-on, death ceases to have a fearsome aspect. He writes, “There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.” He observed, "If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it." He added, “’Go out of this world…as you entered into it; the same pass you made from death to life, without passion or fear, the same, after the same manner, repeat from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe, ’tis a part of the life of the world.’”

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