Saturday, November 27, 2004

Morbid Montaigne

Montaigne could have really used a friend to help him lighten up. If he were alive today he would definitely be on a high dose of Prozac. If you found last week's essay a downer then "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die" will come nowhere near perking you up. The essay begins fine enough, with Montaigne summarizing a bit of Cicero to set the mood:

Cicero says that philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not too be afraid of dying.
Montaigne then wanders into a brief discussion of virtue that concludes that "one of virtue's main gifts is contempt for death." This is because if you are virtuous you have no reason to fear death and so can lead a tranquil and pleasurable life. Are you sitting there thinking, "I'm not afraid of death, I hardly ever think about it," and do you have a smug feeling because now you think you are so very virtuous? Think again. Unless the thought of dying right this instant doesn't bother you then you have not come to terms with death. You have, instead, done what "ordinary people" do, that is, just not think about it. This proves you are a person of "brutish insensitivity" with a "gross blindness." Not feeling so high and mighty now are you? We should be thinking about death frequently and face it head on. The more we think of death, Montainge asserts, the less strange it feels and our fears will be tamed. Even in the midst of joy, in the middle of a party, we should stop and think a moment about death. Because we do not know where death will meet us, we have to practice death in order to be free from its "subjection and constraint." "As far as we possibly can we must always have our boots on, ready to go," insists Montaigne. He is a man who thinks about death often (or thought, since he is long dead). He says he adopted the practice of always having death on his mind and on his lips. If he found that a man had died he would inquire about what the man had said before he died, how he looked, what expression was on his face and then he would go home and write it all down in a notebook. Does anyone else find this to be a little weird? Montaigne insists that thinking always about death and being prepared for it will help you live a better life, but I don't buy it. I don't see how always dwelling on death will make life better. Everyone is going to die, we are all guaranteed that. So it seems to me dying is the easy part, it's living that's the hard part. And by living I mean more than existing, I mean living a life that matters somehow, a life in which someone or something is made better because of you. Montaigne believes that it is "absurd to anguish over our passing into freedom from all anguish." I agree with that but I disagree that dwelling on death so that we can be prepared for it and do it right is the way to go either. Montaigne admits that cowards and heroes both die. What does it matter to me then if Death shoots me in the back, so to speak, as I am trying to run away so I can have just a little more time-- one more kiss, one more sunrise and sunset, on more hug--or if I stand and be brave and submit? I'm going to be dead so there is no pride or honor to be won or lost. I think philosophy should not be about teaching us how to die. It should be about life. The editor's note says that Montaigne's "philosophical presuppositions" in this essay are changed by the time he gets to his final essays. I'll get there eventually, but I have a ways to go yet so we shall see. Next week's Montaigne essay: "That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from Our Own Capacities"