Saturday, March 26, 2005

Death with Dignity

It is interesting how, on occasion, the Montaigne essay of the week speaks to something that is going on in the news. This week's Montaigne essay, "A Custom of the Isle of Cea," is about suicide. In this essay Montaigne argues both sides of the argument. He begins with a pro-suicide argument. Death is the "prescription for all our ills," it is not to be feared. Everyone is going to die so what difference does it make if a person chooses their own death or waits for it passively? Without the freedom to die, life is nothing but slavery. After all

The saying goes that a wise man lives not as long as he can but as long as he should, and that the greatest favour that Nature has bestowed on us, and the one which removes all grounds for lamenting over our human condition, is the one which gives us the key to the garden-gate; Nature has ordained only one entrance to life but a hundred thousand exits.
The circumstances of our life and our death, Montaigne argues, should depend on our choice. But even among those who accept suicide as a legitimate choice there is no consensus on the occasions that justify taking one's life. To kill oneself for any reason is not acceptable, there must be some moderation so that one's life is not ended over a minor incident:
All ills are not worth our avoiding them by death. Moreover, there are so many sudden reversals in the affairs of men that it is not easy to judge at what point it is right to abandon hope: "Even when lying vanquished on the cruel sand, while the menacing crowd in the arena turn their thumbs round, the gladiator still hopes on."
Yet if Fortune has given us such a blow that it is clear we cannot hope for life, we can choose death. It is a just choice to choose to kill oneself when suffering from a severe illness, especially one "which chronically affect[s] the faculties of the soul." Death is also permitted at one's discretion in order to avoid a worse one. Here Montaigne gives example after example of suicide in order to keep one's honor or to avoid slavery or torture and death at the hands of the enemy. However, there are some who would have it that we may not die unless God wishes it; our lives belong to God and are not ours for the taking. It is our duty to live as God has willed. If we shirk our duty, God will punish us in this world and the next. We therefore must accept our fortune, for doing so is virtuous. Suicide is the coward's way out. Montaigne was Catholic and Catholic doctrine at the time classed suicide as a crime. Hope was one of the three theological virtues. One reason suicide was a crime was because those who committed it were seen as giving in to despair. But Montaigne argues that suicide does not always come from despair, "sometimes we can desire death out of hope for a greater good: 'I want,' said St. Paul, 'to be loosened asunder so as to be with Jesus Christ.'" A deliberate "loosening asunder" is not born out of despair but hope, a hope and a yearning "for the life to come." Montaigne believes that "God gives us ample leave to go when he renders us to the state where living is worse than dying. It is weakness to give in to evils, but madness to tend them." In such circumstances taking one's life must certainly be pardonable. Of course I was thinking about Terry Shiavo the entire time I was reading this essay. I was thinking about my own death too. We are a society of goofed up priorities. We allow euthanasia for our animals so that they may die with dignity and without prolonged suffering, but we cannot allow this for ourselves. It bothers me when those who profess belief in God can argue that God would rather see us suffer than choose to set our souls free. When I was a child I was confused for the longest time about why, when someone died, everyone was so sad. I had been taught that when you die you get to go be with God and since heaven was such a great place (even better than Disneyland!) I thought we should all be happy, not sad. I think, whether or not you believe in God, forcing someone with a terminal illness (or someone like Terry Shiavo) to live until the body gives up on its own is selfish. It is not the person who wishes to die who is afraid of death, it is the living who are not suffering and cannot conceive of wanting to die who are afraid. All of us are going to die someday. Isn't it better to be able to choose the manner of our dying, like they did in the Isle of Cea?
It chanced when Pompeius was there that a woman of great authority, who had just explained to the citizens why she had decided to die, begged him to honour her death with his presence; which he did...She had lived to be ninety, blessed in mind and body; now she was lying on her bed...and was propped up on her elbow. 'Sextus Pompeius," she said, 'may the gods be kind to you (especially the gods I leave behind rather than those I am about to discover) for you did not despise being my counsellor in life and my witness in death...I am with this happy death giving leave of absence to the remnant of my soul.' ...She then addressed her relations, urging them to agree in peace and unity...then with steady hand she took the cup containing the poison...She then kept the company informed of the progress of the poison as it worked through her body,...until she was finally able to say it had reached her inward parts and her heart; whereupon she called on her daughters to do one last duty; to close her eyes.
May we all be so fortunate to have such a peaceful and dignified death. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Rewards for Honour"