Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 19

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



This Essay is entirely described by its title. Its interest is at once increased and diminished by the fact that many of the opinions Montaigne here sets forth he disavowed in later years.

It was written (except the last two paragraphs) in 1572, when he was not quite forty years old, and when he had not passed beyond the ideas about death that were familiar to his generation. In after years he was far from considering the day of death as “the master day”; and the wish expressed in the last sentence, it is matter for rejoicing that he was able to accomplish — “one of my chief endeavours regarding my own end is that it may carry itself well, that is to say, quietly and insensibly.” The last words in the original are quietement et sourdement, and the passage is undoubtedly one that Pascal stigmatizes when he says: “Il ne pense qu’à mourir lâchement et mollement par tout son livre.” The word sourdement is to be noted. Montaigne substituted it (in the posthumous edition) for seurement, and it is open to question whether he did not thereby modify the conception. Cotgrave defines sourdement as “privately ... in huggermugger, without any din or noise.”

From what Montaigne says elsewhere of his preference for dying away from home, and of the common confusion and distresses of a death-bed (see Book III, chapter 12, a few pages from the beginning, and Book I, chapter 20, last sentence), it is possible to believe that he was thinking of external quietness as well as of that of the soul.

It may be that in the last paragraph, he refers to La Boëtie’s death; but the phrase “a glorious end,” — une fin pompeuse, — unless the word may be understood as descriptive simply of moral stateliness, sounds oddly in regard to his friend’s peaceful and domestic passing from life; as also does the statement about this death leading to “the power and the fame” to which the personage had aspired. La Boëtie’s fame was in some part of Montaigne’s creating. It would seem as if Montaigne were speaking of some great public character. But of whom? Henri, duc de Guise, has been suggested; but that is absurd. A brutal assassination is not une fin pompeuse; and neither honour nor honours followed the duke after death.

The allusion to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587), was added in 1595. Montaigne may have seen her at the French Court, and been all the more touched by her tragedy.

Scilicet ultima semper
Expectanda dies homini est, dicique beatus
Ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet.[1]

CHILDREN know the story of King Crœsus which regards this point: that, having been made prisoner by Cyrus and condemned to death, he exclaimed at the moment of his execution, “O Solon! Solon!” This being reported to Cyrus, and he having asked what it meant, Crœsus informed him that he was then, at his cost, verifying the warning which Solon had given him in other days, that men, however much Fortune may seem to smile on them [whatever riches and kingdoms and empires they may have on their hands],[2] cannot be called fortunate until we have seen how the last day of their lives went by, because of the uncertainty and variableness of mortal things, which, at a very slight stirring, change from one condition to another wholly different.[3] And therefore Agesilaus, to some one who called the King of Persia fortunate because he had come so young to such a powerful estate, replied: “Yes, forsooth, but Priam at the same age was not unfortunate.”[4] Sometimes, of kings of Macedonia, successors of the great Alexander, Fortune makes joiners and clerks at Rome;[5] of tyrants of Sicily, schoolmasters at Corinth;[6] and a conqueror of half the world and the ruler of countless armies, she renders a wretched suppliant of the base-born officials of the king of Egypt, so high a price did the great Pompey pay for the lengthening of his life by five or six months.[7] And in the time of our fathers that Ludovic Sforza, tenth duke of Milan, who had so long kept all Italy in a turmoil, was seen to die at Loches, but not till he had lived there ten years, which was the worst part of his catastrophe.[8] (c) The loveliest of queens,[9] widow of the greatest king in all Christendom, has she not just died by the hand of an executioner? Shameful and barbarous cruelty![10] (a) And a thousand like examples; for it would seem that, as storms and tempests rage against the pride and loftiness of our buildings, so there are, on high, spirits envious of earthly grandeurs.

Usque adeo res humanas vis abdita quædam
Obterit, et pulchros fasces sævasque secures
Proculcare, ac ludibrio sibi habere videtur.[11]

And it would seem that Fortune precisely watches for the last day of our life, in order to show her power to overturn in an instant what she has built up in long years,[12] and makes us cry, like Laberius: Nimirum hac die una plus vixi mihi quam vivendum fuit.[13]

So that good judgement of Solon may wisely be accepted. But because by him, as a philosopher, the favours of Fortune are ranked neither as good luck nor as ill luck, and grandeur, wealth, and power are almost indifferent chances of condition, I think it very possible that he looked deeper, and meant to say that this same good luck of our lives, which depends on the tranquillity of a lofty spirit,[14] and on the resolution and confidence of a well-ordered mind, should never be accredited to a man until we have seen him play the last and, doubtless, the most difficult act of his drama. In all the rest there may be disguise, whether it be that those fine reasonings of philosophy are in us only conventionally, or that the things that happen, not proving us to the quick, permit us to keep always a serene demeanour. But in this last scene between Death and ourselves, there is no more feigning, we must talk plainly,[15] we must show what there is good and unspotted in the bottom of the pot;

Nam veræ voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Ejiciuntur, et eripitur persona, manet res.[16]

It is thus that all the other acts of our lives must be put to the touch and tested by this last stroke. It is the master-day, it is the day that is the judge of all other days. It is the day, says one of the ancients, which is to pass judgement on all my past years.[17] I postpone until death the trial of the fruit of my studies. We shall see then whether my words come from the lips or the heart.[18] (b) I have known many men by the manner of their deaths to give to their whole life a good or evil esteem. Scipio, Pompey’s father-in-law, amended, by dying nobly, the evil opinion that men had held of him up to that time.[19] Epaminondas, being asked which of the three he most valued, Chabrias, Iphicrates, or himself, replied: “It must first be seen how we die, before the question can be solved.”[20] Verily, he[21] would be robbed of much were he weighed without the glory and grandeur of the end of his life. God hath willed it as it pleased him; but in my own days, three of the most execrable persons I have known, living in every sort of abomination, and the most infamous, have had well-ordered deaths and perfectly disposed in every detail.

(c) There are noble and fortunate deaths. I have seen death cut short a wonderful upward progress in the springtime of its development,[22] by an end so glorious that, in my opinion, there was nothing in the man’s ambitious and daring plans so exalted as was their interruption. He arrived without going thither at the place where he would be, more grandly and gloriously than had been his desire and hopes, and attained by his fall the power and the fame to which he aspired by his course in the race.

In judging another’s life I observe always how its close has borne itself, and my chief endeavour regarding my own end is that it may carry itself well, that is to say, quietly and insensibly.[23]

  1. For always the last day of a man must be awaited; and no man should be called blessed before his death and the last rites of his funeral. — Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 135.
  2. Passage in square brackets omitted in 1595.
  3. See Herodotus, I, 86. Montaigne had already referred to this saying of Solon in chapter 3 of this Book.
  4. See Plutarch, Apothegms of the Lacedæmonians.
  5. An allusion to Philip, son of Perseus. See Plutarch, Life of Paulus Æmilius.
  6. An allusion to the familiar story of Dionysius the tyrant, driven from his realm by Timoleon.
  7. See Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 35.
  8. See Guicciardini, IV.
  9. Mary, Queen of Scots, widow of François II. She was executed in 1587, but this passage did not appear in the Essays until after Montaigne’s death.
  10. This last sentence is not in the Édition Municipale, but was added in 1595.
  11. So true it is that a hidden power tramples on human affairs, and seems as in sport to tread underfoot the fair rods and the cruel axes. — Lucretius, V, 1233.
  12. See Seneca, Epistle 98: Incrementa lente exeunt, festinatur in damnum.
  13. Surely I have lived to-day one day longer than I should have lived. — Macrobius, Saturnalia, II, 7.
  14. D’un esprit bien né.
  15. Parler françois.
  16. For then at last words of truth come from the depths of the breast; the mask is torn off; reality remains. — Lucretius, III, 57. The original has eliciuntur in the second line.
  17. See Seneca, Epistle 26, 4: Ille laturus sententiam de omnibus annis meis dies veneret.
  18. The Essay ended here in the editions preceding 1588.
  19. See Seneca, Epistle 24.
  20. See Plutarch, Apothegms of Kings, etc.
  21. Epaminondas.
  22. Dans la fleur de son croist.
  23. Sourdement: substituted in 1595 for seurement.