Saturday, June 11, 2005

Judging Death

Montaigne's essay "On Judging Someone Else's Death" was easy to read after the 200 pages of "An Apology For Raymond Sebond." Montaigne begins "On Judging Someone Else's Death" by talking about death in general, how "Few die convinced that their last hour has come." Instead we think that maybe there will be a sudden and miraculous cure, that maybe we aren't as bad off as we think we are, or rather, as others think we are. It is a "deceiving Hope" writes Montaigne as he takes this human foible head on. He declares our dying hope "happens because we set too much store by ourselves. It appears to us that the whole universe in some way suffers when we are obliterated and that it feels compassion for our predicament." We decide our death is a great and tragic event. But while it may be a tragedy to us and to a few people close to us, the world goes on and is no less for lack of our existence. After Montaigne nicely punches a gaping hole in the illusion of the importance of our death, he turns to judging the dying itself, "Now to judge the resolution and constancy of a man who does not believe with certainty that the peril is upon him, even though it is, is not reasonable; it is not enough that he did die with such resolute constancy unless he rightly adopted it to perform the action." Most deaths he has witnessed, Montaigne observes, no matter how determined the man to arrange his features, Fortune has always done it for him. You cannot say then that he had any "resolute constancy" since he did not believe he was going to die, he spent no time "reconnoitering death" and therefore did not meet it with his eyes open. The man that gets to know death and meets it face to face with his eyes open, knowing that it is coming and accepting it, that is the man who has a glorious death. Montaigne gives several examples of this kind of death from Pomponius Atticus who had resolved to starve himself to death because of an incurable illness. It turns out that after several days of starvation his illness was cured. But since he had gotten to know death and knew that it was going to come for him sometime anyway, he continued starving himself until he died (no forced feeding back then). Montaigne also sites the death of Cato of Utica who killed himself (rather than die from an infection in his arm) by tearing out his own entrails. A rather gruesome picture, especially after reading that "Guts" short story. Personally, I don't spend much time thinking about my death. I don't think most people do. So unless I get some fatal disease when I am very, very old, I will be one of those who finds my time of death to be quite a surprise. Unless, of course, I can find the gypsy to curse me so I can't die until I've read every book on my to read list. I'm bound to live forever then. Next week's Montaigne essay will actually be two very short ones: "How Our Mind Tangles Itself Up" and "That Difficulty Increases Desire"