Sunday, April 04, 2004

The Rarest Kind of Death

Since today is my birthday, I thought I'd celebrate by reading Montaigne's essay "On the Length of Life." Okay, maybe "celebrate" isn't the right word, maybe "honor" is better. So in honor of my birthday I read this short essay, and what a depressing essay it was. There were no bookish reveries, no penises or farts or any such fun surprises. No, Montaigne here declares "What madness it is to expect to die of that failing of our powers brought on by extreme old age and to make that the target for our life to reach when it is the least usual, the rarest kind of death." He goes on to say that we only call dying of old age a natural death as if it is unnatural to to "find a man breaking his neck in a fall, engulfed in a shipwreck, surprised by plague or pleurisy, and as though our normal condition did not expose us to all of those harms." I'll admit, he has a point on that one. And perhaps even today we don't hear much of people dying of old age. It is still more common for people to die of something--an accident, cancer, heart attack--than it is to die from being old. Unlike Montaigne, however, I don't see any madness in making death from age a goal. Why not? Maybe mine is an American attitude, that democratic can do frontier spirit. Or maybe I'm still young enough that I can yet believe it is possible. Still, Montaigne goes on to argue that sending 55-60 year-olds into inactivity is too soon, that their vocations and employments should be extended as far as possible. And as for the young, they should be put to work sooner. By age 20 a person's "natural qualities and capacities reveal whatever beauty or vigour they possess" and if you don't see the qualities by then, well, you aren't going to see them at all. So I guess the second career I had planned as a famous mathematician isn't going to happen, math still not magically making any sense. I mean, I get the concept, but what do you need all those numbers for? Perhaps the most depressing part of Montaigne's essay is his conviction that 30 is the peak of life and everything else is downhill from there. Even if you live a good life and manage after the age of 30 to continue to gain knowledge and experience, "vitality, quickness, firmness and other qualities which are more truly our own, and more important, more our by their essence, droop and fade." To that I say, "speak for yourself mister!" I will admit that at 36 some things aren't as easy as they used to be, but I'm not ready to be tossed into the dustbin yet! There, now that I have made the obligatory birthday musings on the progression of time, I can get on with the party!