Ives The Essays of Montaigne/Volume 1/Chapter 20

Chapter Introduction by Grace Norton (1834 – 1926)



This Essay opens with a consideration of the meaning of the sentence of Cicero which forms its title; and continues with the assertion that to lose the fear of death is part of that pleasure, or volupté (as Montaigne chooses to call it from a wilful desire to shock those to whom this word “is so abhorrent”), which is “the final object of our aim”; and from this he passes into a noble passage regarding the pleasure of virtue, condemning those “who instruct us that her quest is hard and laborious.” The last sentence could hardly be finer. (The whole paragraph belongs to 1595.)

Continuing, he says: “The end of our career is death; it is the unavoidable thing in full sight.” The original text has a deeper significance than can easily be conveyed in English; the phrase is: Death “est le but de nostre carriere … c’est l’object de nostre visee”; this can be paraphrased: “the winning post of our race … the object of our aim.” In one of the latest and noblest of the Essays (“Of Physiognomy,” Book III, Chapter 12) he precisely contradicts this remark; he had risen from a theological to a humane conception of death. He recognises that “Tf we have known how to live, it is unreasonable to teach us how to die … if we have known how to live steadily and quietly, we know how to die in like manner. … It is my opinion that it [death] is indeed the close but not the aim of life [c'est bien le bout, non pourtant le but de la vie]; it is its end, its extremity, not, however, its object; life should be its own aim and purpose [elle doibt estre elle mesme à soi sa visée, son desseing]; its true study is to order and guide it, and patiently to support it [se souffrir]. Among the number of several other offices which the general and principal chapter of knowing how to live includes, is this article of knowing how to die, and it is among the lightest, if our fears did not give weight to it.” Here we have the mature Montaigne, serene, simple, natural. In this present Essay he was dominated by Seneca; he had not yet shaken off the conventional emotions of his day; he was still youthful in mind, though, as he tells us, he was 39 years old.

Regarding the considerations he here turns to as to the common length of life, it is worth observing, as showing the different standard for it in his day and ours, — and not less in his day and earlier (Bible) days, — that he speaks of this age of 39 as beyond the usual term of life. This has a strange sound to our ears. The next point he touches upon is a curious one — the question whether or not the majority of famous men have died before they were 35; and this becomes more interesting when connected with a kindred question that he raises in a later Essay: whether or not the greater number of noble actions on record have been performed before the age of 30 years. He thinks so: “Yes, often in the life of the same man”; that is, even when the same men have lived on to later years.

The greater part of this Essay would seem to have been written somewhere about the date he gives in the course of it — the 15th March, 1572. But in the last part, which is not very closely connected with the rest, he made additions before its publication in 1580. Some discrepancies result; for instance on one page he says: “I have enjoyed to the present time very vigorous health, very seldom interrupted”; on another he says: “When I was well I had much more dread of sicknesses than since I have them.” He was attacked by the malady of the stone in 1573; by 1580 he had suffered from it.

From the paragraph beginning “These examples,” the chief interest is in observing the action of the essayist’s thought, the state of his mind at that time.

There is only a sentence here and there that is worth long remembrance, except the noble address of Nature to Man (imitated from Lucretius) asserting Death to be a part of the constitution of the universe, and largely composed of passages from Seneca. Regarding the rest, we feel with Lord Bacon: “Much of the doctrines of the philosophers seem to me to be more fearful and cautionary than the nature of things requires: thus they increase the fear of death in offering to cure it; for when they would have a man’s whole life be but a discipline or preparation to die, they must needs make men think that it is a terrible enemy, against whom there is no end of preparing.” (Advancement of Learning, II, 21.5.)

This criticism is of precisely opposite tone to that made by Pascal (Pensées), who, speaking directly of Montaigne, says: “His somewhat free and light feelings about some passages of life can be excused, but his wholly pagan feelings about death cannot be excused; for one must relinquish all piety, if one does not desire to die, at least, in a Christian manner; now, throughout his book he has in mind only to die weakly and gently.” — No, not lachement et mollement, but quietement et sourdement; or, in still better phrase, constamment et tranquillement.

CICERO says that to think as a philosopher is nothing else than to make ready for death.[1] This is inasmuch as study and contemplation to some degree withdraw our soul outside of us and set it at work apart from the body, which is a sort of apprenticeship and likeness to death; or, indeed, it is because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world finally comes at last to the point of teaching us not to be afraid to die.[2] In truth, either our reason fools itself,[3] or it must aim only at our satisfaction, and the sum of all its labour should tend to make us live rightly and at our ease, as says Holy Writ.[4] All the beliefs in the world agree in this, (c) that pleasure is our goal, (a) although they take divers means to attain it; otherwise we should reject them at once, for who would listen to that argument which should set our, affliction and discomfort as its end?

(c) The disagreements of the philosophical sects about this matter are verbal. Transcurramus solertissimas nugas.[5] There is more opinionativeness and wrangling than befits so godly a calling. But whatever part in the world’s drama a man undertakes to play, he always plays his own nature too.[6] Whatever they may say, in virtue herself the final object of our aim is delight.[7] It pleases me to belabour their ears with that word, which is so abhorrent to them; and if it signifies some supreme enjoyment and excessive satisfaction, it is due rather to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance. This delight, because it is more lusty, vigorous, robust, and virile, is only the more completely delightful; and we should give it the name of pleasure,[8] which is more gracious, more gentle, and more according to its nature, and not that of vigour, by which we have denominated it. That other, baser delight, if it deserved that fair name, would do so only conjointly, not exceptionally. I find it less free from troubles and trammels than virtue is. Besides that its savour is more transitory, unstable, and unreliable, it has its vigils, its fastings, and its labours, and sweat and blood, and also, especially, its poignant sufferings of so many sorts, and, accompanying it, so heavy a satiety, that it is equivalent to a penance. We are in the wrong in thinking that its troubles serve as a spur and seasoning to its sweetness, — as in nature one contrary is vivified by another, — and in saying, when we come to virtue, that similar consequences and difficulties over-burden her and make her austere and inaccessible; whereas much more quickly than in earthly delight, they ennoble, intensify, and heighten the divine and perfect pleasure which she brings us. Surely very unworthy of her acquaintance is he who balances her cost against her fruit, and who knows neither her charms, nor her proper use. They who proceed to instruct us that her quest is hard and laborious, and her possession agreeable, what do they suggest by that, if not that she is always disagreeable? For what human power ever attained to her possession? The most perfect are well content to aspire to her and to approach her without possessing her; but they[9] are mistaken; for of all the pleasures that we know, the very pursuit of them is pleasant. The enterprise is affected by the quality of the thing with which it is concerned, for the quality is a large part of the deed, and is of the same substance.[10] The happiness and blessedness which shines in virtue fills all her avenues and approaches, even to the first entrance and the furthest gate. Now, among the chief benefactions of virtue is the contempt of death, a means of supplying our life with placid tranquillity and giving to it a pure and agreeable savour, without which all other delight is abolished.

(a) That is why all doctrines meet and agree on this article;[11] and although they all with common accord lead us also to despise pain, poverty, and other calamities to which human life is liable, it is not with equal painstaking; not only because these calamities are not of the same necessity (the greater number of men pass their lives without a taste of poverty, and some even without feeling pain or illness, as Xenophilus the musician, who lived a hundred and six years in perfect health[12]), but also because, at the worst, death whenever we please can put an end to all other mishaps, and cut them short. But death itself is inevitable:

(b) Omnes eodem cogimur; omnium
Versatur urna, serius ocius
Sors exitura et nos in æternum
Exsilium impositura cymbæ.[13]

And consequently, if it terrifies us, it is a constant source of anguish, which can in no wise be allayed. (c) It may come upon us from everywhere.[14] We may turn our heads incessantly this way and that, as in a suspicious country: queæ quasi saxum Tantalo semper impendet.[15] (a) Our parliaments often send criminals back for execution to the place where the crime was committed; on the road, take them to fine houses, give them all the good cheer you please, —

(b) non Siculæ dapes
Dulcem elaborabunt saporem,
Non avium cytharsæque cantus
Somnum reducent,[16]

(a) do you think that they could be gladdened by it, and that the final purpose of their journey, being all the time before their eyes, has not weakened and destroyed their taste for all those enjoyments?

(b) Audit iter, numeratque dies, spacioque viarum Metitur vitam, torquetur peste futura.[17]

(a) The end of our career is death; it is the unavoidable object of our vision; if it terrifies us, how is it possible to go a step forward without trembling? The remedy of the common people is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can they derive such gross blindness! It makes them put the bridle on the ass’s tail, —

Qui capite ipse suo instituit vestigia retro.[18]

It is no wonder that they are so often caught in the trap. Such people are terrified by only hearing death named, and most of them cross themselves as at the name of the devil. And because it is mentioned in testaments, do not expect them to put their hand thereto until the doctor has pronounced their final doom; and then, betwixt pain and fear, God knows with what excellent judgement they cook it[19] up!

(b) Because that syllable struck their ears too harshly, and that word seemed to them of evil omen, the Romans had learned to soften it, or to stretch it out by periphrases. Instead of saying, “He is dead,” they said, “He has ceased to live,” “He has lived.”[20] So long as it is life, even past life, they are consoled. We have borrowed from them our feu[21] Master Jehan. (a) Is it, perchance, that, as the saying goes, the delay is worth the money?

I was born between eleven o’clock and noon, on the last day of February one thousand five hundred thirty-three, as we reckon nowadays, beginning the year in January.[22] It was just fifteen days ago that I completed my thirty-ninth year; I need at least as many more. Meanwhile, to trouble oneself with thoughts of a thing so distant would be folly. But see how it is! the young and the old leave life in the same condition.[23] (c) No one goes hence otherwise than as if he were to return forthwith. (a) Moreover, there is no man so decrepit that, so long as he has Methuselah before him, he does not think that he still has twenty years in his body. Furthermore, poor fool that you are, who has fixed the limits of your life? You rely on the tales of doctors. Look rather at fact and experience. By the common run of things you have lived long already by extraordinary good fortune. You have passed the accustomed term of life; and that it is so, count up how many more of your acquaintance have died before your present age than have attained it. And even of those who have ennobled their lives by winning renown — make a list of them, and I wager that I shall find more who died before the age of thirty-five than after.[24] It is truly reasonable and pious to take example even from the human existence of Jesus Christ: now, his life ended at three-and-thirty years. The greatest man who was a mere man, Alexander, also died at the same age.[25]

How many ways of surprising us Death has!

Quid quisque vitet, nunquam homini satis
Cautum est in horas.[26]

I say nothing of fevers and pleurisies. Who would ever have thought that a duke of Bretaigne would be stifled by the crowd, as he was at the entry into Lyons of Pope Clement, my neighbour?[27] Have you not known of one of our kings killed while jousting?[28] and did not one of his ancestors die from being jostled by a hog?[29] To no purpose did Æschylus, when threatened with the fall of a house, remain out-of- doors;[30] lo, he was killed by a tortoise-shell that fell from the claws of an eagle in the air.[31] Another died from a grapeseed;[32] an emperor from the scratch of a comb in dressing his hair; Æmilius Lepidus from stumbling over his threshold, and Aufidius from hitting against the door of the council chamber as he went in.[33] And while lying with women, Cornelius Gallus, prætor; Tigillinus, captain of the watch at Rome; Ludovic, son of Guy de Gonzague, Marquis of Mantua; and, of even worse example, Speusippus the Platonic philosopher, and one of our popes.[34] Poor Bebius, a judge, was seized as he was granting an extension of bail, his own [extension] of life having expired; and Caius Julius, a physician, while he was anointing a patient’s eyes, lo, death closed his own.[35] And, if I must bring myself in, a brother of mine, Captain St. Martin, twenty-three years of age, who had already given good proof of his worth, while playing at tennis received a blow from a ball which struck him just above the right ear, with no bruise or wound. He did not sit down or stop playing; but five or six hours later he died of a stroke of apoplexy caused by that blow. While such examples as these occur so frequently and familiarly before our eyes, is it possible that we can get rid of the thought of death, and that it should not every moment seem as if he may clutch us by the collar?[36] What does it matter, you will say, how that may be, so long as we give ourselves no trouble about it? I am of this opinion,[37] and in whatever manner one can find shelter from blows, were it in the skin of a calf, I am not the man to refuse it; for it suffices me to hold my course in ease; and the best way that I can play my cards, I use,[38] as little praiseworthy and exemplary it may be as you please.

Prætulerim … delirus inersque videri,
Dum mea delectent mala me, vel denique fallant,
Quam sapere et ringi.[39]

But it is madness to think of arriving where one desires by that road. Men go and come, they gad about and dance — of death, no thought. That is all very fine; but when death comes to them, or to their wives, children, or friends, surprising them suddenly[40] and defenceless, what anguish, what shrieks, what frenzy, and what despair overwhelms them! Saw you ever any thing so cast down, so changed, so bewildered? We must provide against it earlier; and such brutish thoughtlessness, if it could lodge in the head of a man of intelligence, — which I deem altogether impossible, — sells us its merchandise too dear. If it were an enemy that could be avoided, I would advise borrowing the arms of cowardice; but since it is such a one as can not be avoided, (b) since it overtakes you running away and a coward, as it does a worthy man, —

(a) Nempe et fugacem persequitur virum,
Nec parcit imbellis juventæ
Poplitibus timidoque tergo;[41]

(b) since the best cuirass does not protect you, —

Ille licet ferro cautus se condat ære,
Mors tamen inclusum protrahet inde caput,[42]

(a) let us learn to meet it firmly and to combat it; and, to begin by depriving it of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a course just contrary to the usual one. Let us deprive it of its unfamiliarity, let us live with it, let us habituate ourselves to it; let us think of nothing so often as of death; let us constantly place it before our imaginations and in all its aspects; at the stumbling of a horse, at the fall of a tile, at the slightest prick of a pin, let us immediately reflect: Well, what if this were death itself? and thereupon let us stiffen and strengthen ourselves.[43] Amid festivals and merry-making, let us be always restrained by the remembrance of our condition, and let us not be so carried away by pleasure but that at times our memory recalls in how many ways this lightheartedness of ours is exposed to death, and with how many modes of attack death threatens. So did the Egyptians, who, at the height of their festivals, and amid their best cheer, used to have the skeleton of a man brought in, as a warning to the guests.[44]

Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum;
Grata superveniet, quæ non sperabitur hora.[45]

It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere.[46] Prevision of death is prevision of liberty. He who has learned to die has unlearned servitude. To know how to die frees us from all subjection and compulsion. (c) There is nothing evil in life for him who clearly understands that the loss of life is not an evil.[47] (a) Paulus Æmilius replied to the messenger whom that wretched king of Macedonia,[48] his prisoner, sent to him to beg that he would not carry him in his triumph, “Let him make the request to himself.”

In truth, in all things, if Nature does not help a little, it is very hard for art and endeavour to go far. I am myself not melancholy, but given to serious dreaming;[49] there is nothing with which I have always been more occupied than with thoughts of death; yes, even in the most wanton season of my days, —

(b) Jucundum cum ætas florida ver ageret,[50]

(a) among ladies and in games it was thought that I was occupied in inwardly considering some suspicion, or an uncertain hope, when I was thinking about some one, whoever it might be, who had been lately seized upon by a high fever and by death, when leaving a similar festivity, and with his head full of trifles and love and gaiety, like myself; and that I had as much to answer for.[51]

(b) Jam fuerit, nec post unquam revocare licebit.[52]

(a) I no more scowled at that thought than at another. It is not possible that at the outset we should not feel stings from such thoughts; but by handling them and going over them again and again, we are sure to make them tractable in the long run; otherwise, for my part, I should be in a constant terror and frenzy; for never was man so distrustful of his life, never did man count less on its duration. My health, which has hitherto been very robust and infrequently interrupted, does not lengthen my expectation, nor do illnesses shorten it. Every moment it seems to me that I come through safely; (c) and I reiterate to myself incessantly: “Whatever can happen another day, can happen to-day.”[53] (a) In truth, risks and perils bring us little, or not at all, nearer our end; and if we think how, besides the danger that seems most to threaten us, there are millions of others hanging over our heads, we shall find that, lusty or fever-stricken, at sea or in our houses, in battle or at rest, it is equally near to us.[54] (c) Nemo altero fragilior est: nemo in crastinum sui certior.[55] (a) What I have to do before I die, any amount of leisure seems to me short to accomplish it, were it but an hour’s work. Some one, turning over my tablets the other day, found a memorandum of something that I wished to have done after my death. I told him — and it was true — that, being only a league from my house, and sound and hearty, I had made haste to write that down because I was not sure of reaching home. (c) As one who is constantly brooding over his thoughts, and imprinting them on his mind, I am at all hours prepared as much as I can be so; and the sudden coming of death will admonish me of nothing new. (a) We must be always booted and ready to depart, so far as lies in us, and, above all, look to it that we have no business then except with ourselves.

(b) Quid brevi fortes jaculamur ævo

(c) For we shall have enough work then without surplusage. One man bewails, more than for death itself, that it breaks off the progress of a glorious victory; another, that he must leave his lodging before he has married his daughter or arranged for the education of his children. One deplores the loss of the company of his wife, another of that of his son, as chief pleasures of his existence. (c) I am at this hour in such a state, God be praised, that I can dislodge whenever it may please him, without regret for anything whatsoever, if it be not for life itself, if its loss begins to be important to me.[57] I am untying myself from all things; my farewells are now said to every one save myself. Never did man prepare to leave this world more wholly and entirely, or to detach himself from it more completely, than I endeavour to do.[58]

(b) Miser, o miser, aiunt, omnia ademit
Una dies infesta mihi tot præmia vitæ.[59]

(a) And the builder: —

Manent [he says] opera interrupta minæque
Murorum ingentes.[60]

We must not plan any thing requiring so long a breath, or, at least, not with the idea of being distressed if we do not see the end of it.[61] We are born to act [and I am of opinion that not only an emperor, as Vespasian said, but every high-spirited man ought to die standing up].[62]

Cum moriar, medium solvar et inter opus.[63]

I desire that a man should act, (c) and prolong the employments of life as long as he can, (a) and that death may find me planting my cabbages, but indifferent regarding it, and even more regarding my unfinished garden. I have seen a man die, who, when he was at the last gasp, incessantly complained because his fate cut the thread of the history he had in hand of the fifteenth or sixteenth of our kings.

(b) Illud in his rebus non addunt, nec tibi earum
Jam desiderium rerum super insidet una.[64]

(a) We must get rid of such ordinary and harmful ideas. Just as our cemeteries have been laid out adjoining the churches and in the most frequented part of the towns, in order, as Lycurgus said,[65] to accustom the lower classes, the women and children, not to take fright at the sight of a dead body, and that the constant spectacle of bones and tombs and funerals might warn us of our condition —

(b) Quin etiam exhilarare viris convivia cæde
Mos olim, et miscere epulis spectacula dira
Certantum ferro, sæpe et super ipsa cadentum
Pocula, respersis non parco sanguine mensis;[66]

(c) and as the Egyptians, after their festivals, caused a great image of death to be exhibited to the guests by one who cried: “Drink and enjoy yourselves, for when dead you will be like this,”[67] (a) so I have fallen into the habit of having death constantly, not in my mind alone, but on my lips; and there is nothing of which I enquire so eagerly as of the deaths of men, what words they said, what their expression was, and their bearing; nor are there any passages in histories which I read so carefully. (c) This appears by my cramming these pages with examples; and that I have a special fondness for this sort of matter. Were I a maker of books, I should make an annotated record of different deaths.[68] He who should teach men how to die would teach them how to live. Dicearchus[69] made a book with a similar title, but with another and less useful purpose.

(a) I shall be told that the thing itself goes so far beyond one’s idea of it, that the best fencing is at a loss when one reaches that point. Let them say what they will: to think upon it beforehand unquestionably gives one a great advantage;[70] and then, too, is it nothing to go so far as that without emotion and without trembling? Yet more:[71] Nature herself lends us a hand and gives us courage. If it be a sudden and violent death, we have no time to dread it; if it be otherwise, I perceive that, in proportion as I become sick, I feel involuntarily some contempt of life.[72] I find that I have much more difficulty in swallowing the thought of death when I am in health than I have when I am sick, inasmuch as I no longer cling so closely to the pleasures of life, since I begin to lose the habit and enjoyment of them; then I look upon death with a much less terrified vision. This makes me hope that the further I shall draw away from life and the nearer I approach to death, the more easily I shall accept the exchange. Just as I have experienced on several occasions the truth of what Cæsar says,[73] that things often appear greater to us at a distance than close at hand, so I have found that when well I have had much more horror of maladies than when I have been touched by them. My lightheartedness, my enjoyment, and my vigour make the other condition[74] appear to me so utterly disproportionate to this, that in imagination I magnify its discomforts by half, and fancy them more burdensome than I find them when I have them on my shoulders; I hope that it will be so for me with death.

(b) See how Nature, in the ordinary changes and impairments that we undergo, takes from us the perception of er loss and our waning powers. What is left to an old man of the vigour of his youth and his past years?

Heu! senibus vitæ portio quanta manet.[75]

(c) To a worn-out and broken soldier of his guard who came to him in the street and asked his leave to kill himself, Cæsar, observing his decrepit aspect, replied jestingly: “Do you think then that you are living?”[76] (b) Were we to fall into it suddenly, I do not think that we should be capable of enduring such a change; but, led by her[77] hand, down a gentle and, as it were, imperceptible descent, little by little, step by step, she impels us into that wretched state and enures us to it, so that we feel no shock when our youth dies in us, which is essentially and in truth a sterner death than is the utter death of a languishing life, and than is death in old age; because the leap from half-existence to non-existence is not so great as from a pleasant and flourishing existence to a painful and grievous one. (a) The bent and bowed body has less strength to sustain a burden; so likewise our soul: we must train her and educate her to meet the force of this adversary. For, as it is impossible for her to be at ease while she stands in fear of death, on the other hand, if she be reassured, she can boast (which is something surpassing, as it were, the human state) that it is impossible that anxiety, anguish, fear, nay, even the least annoyance, should lodge with her:

(b) Non vultus instantis tyranni
Mente quatit solida; neque Auster
Dux inquieti turbidus Adriæ,
Nec fulminantis magna Iovis manus.[78]

(a) She has made herself mistress of her passions and lusts, mistress of destitution, shame, poverty, and all other buffets of Fortune. Let those of us who can, gain this superiority: here is the real and sovereign liberty, which gives us the power to snap our fingers[79] at force and injustice, and to laugh at prison-bars and fetters:[80]

in manicis et
Compedibus sævo te sub custode tenebo.
Ipse Deus, simul atque volam, me solvet. Opinor,
Hoc sentit: Moriar; mors ultima linea rerum est.[81]

Our religion has had no more solid human basis than contempt of life. Not only do reasonable considerations[82] lead us to this: for why should we dread the loss of a thing which, when lost, can not be regretted? And since we are threatened by so many ways of dying, is there not more harm in dreading them all than in enduring one of them?[83] (c) What does it matter when it happens, since it is inevitable? To him who said to Socrates, “The thirty tyrants have sentenced you to death,” he replied, “And Nature them.”[84] What folly, to distress ourselves on the subject of the passage to exemption from all distress! As our birth brought to us the birth of all things, so will our death the death of all things. Wherefore it is no less foolish to weep because we shall not be living a hundred years hence than to weep because we were not living a hundred years ago.[85] Death is the beginning of another life. Thus we wept; thus it was painful for us to enter into this life; thus did we divest ourselves of our former veil on entering into it.[86] Nothing can be grievous which happens but once. Is it reasonable to fear so long a thing so brief? A long life and a short life are made quite the same by death, for long and short are not of things that have ceased to be. Aristotle says that there are tiny things on the river Hypanis that live only one day.[87] The one that dies at eight o'clock in the morning dies in youth; the one that dies at five in the evening dies in decrepitude. Who of us does not find it amusing to see this moment of duration considered as good or ill fortune? The greater or the less length of our lives, if we compare it to eternity, or even to the duration of mountains and rivers and stars and trees, and even of some animals, is no less absurd.

(a) But Nature forces us to it.[88] “Go from this world,” she says, “as you came into it. The same transition that you made from death to life, without suffering and without fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is one of the parts of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world”;

(b) inter se mortales mutua vivunt
Et quasi cursores vitaī lampada tradunt.[89]

(a) “Shall I change for you the admirable arrangement of things?[90] Death is the condition of your creation, it is a portion of yourself; you fly from yourself.[91] This existence of yours, which you have the enjoyment of, is equally divided between death and life. The day of your birth starts your steps toward dying as well as toward living.”

Prima, que vitam dedit, hora, carpsit.[92]
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.[93]

(c) All the time you live you purloin from life; it is at its expense. The continual work of your life is to build up death. You are in death while you are in life, for death has passed when you have ceased to be in life. Or, if you like it better in this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death treats the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more acutely and essentially.[94]

(b) If you have profited by your life, you have had enough of it;[95] go hence content.

Cur non ut plenus vitæ conviva recedis?[96]

If you have not known how to make use of it, if it was useless to you, what does it matter to you to have lost it? wherefore do you still desire it?

Cur amplius addere quæris
Rursum quod pereat male, et ingratum occidat omne?[97]

(c) Life is in itself neither good nor evil: it is the seat of good and evil according as you dispose it.[98] (a) And if you have lived one day, you have seen every thing: one day is equal to all days. There is no other light, there is no other darkness. This sun, this moon, these stars, the whole disposition of the heavens is the same which your ancestors enjoyed and which will be unchanged for your distant descendants.

(c) Non alium videre patres; aliumve nepotes

(a) And, at the utmost, the division and variety of all the acts of my comedy are completed in a year. If you have taken heed to the movement of my four seasons, they embrace the childhood, the youth, the manhood, and the old age of the earth. It has played its game; it knows no other trick than to begin again; it will be always the same: —

(b) Versamur ibidem, atque insumus usque,[100]
Atque in se sua per vestigia volvitur annus.[101]

(a) I have no intention of manufacturing new pastimes for you.

Nam tibi præterea quod machiner, inveniamque
Quod placeat, nihil est; eadem sunt omnia semper.[102]

Give place to others as others have done to you.

(c) Equality is the chief part of equity.[103] Who can complain of being included where all are included? However long you may live, you will thereby subtract nothing from the time that you must be dead; it is all for naught; you will be as long in that state which you dread as if you had died in infancy.[104]

Licet, quod vis, vivendo vincere secla,
Mors æterna tamen nihilominus illa manebit.[105]

(b) And truly I shall put you in such a condition that you will have no discontent: —

In vera nescis nullum fore morte alium te,
Qui possit vivus tibi te lugere peremptum,
Stansque jacentem;[106]

neither will you desire the life which you so bewail.

Nec sibi enim quisquam tum se vitamque requirit.
Nec desiderium nostri nos afficit ullum.[107]

Death is less to be feared than nothing, if there be any thing less than nothing: —

multo mortem minus ad nos esse putandum,
Si minus esse potest quam quod nihil esse videmus.[108]

(c) It concerns you neither dead nor living: living, because you are existing; dead, because you no longer are.[109] (a) No man dies before his hour; what amount of time you leave behind was no more yours than what passed before you were born,[110] (b) and concerns you no more.

Respice enim quam nil ad nos ante acta vetustas
Temporis æterni fuerit.[111]

(a) Wherever your life ends, it is all there?[112] (c) The usefulness of living is not in length of time, but in its use.[113] A man may have lived long who has lived little.[114] Look well to life whilst you are in life. It depends on your will, not on the number of your years, whether you have lived long enough.[115] (a) Did you think that you were never to arrive where you were always going? (c) There is no road that has not its end.[116] (a) And if companionship can comfort you, does not all the world go the same way that you go?

(b) Omnia te vita perfuncta sequentur.[117]

(a) Does not every thing dance your dance? Is there any thing which does not grow old with you? A thousand men, a thousand beasts, and a thousand other creatures die at the same instant that you die.[118]

(b) Nam nox nulla diem, neque noctem aurora secuta est,
Que non audierit mistos vagitibus ægris
Ploratus, mortis comites et funeris atri.[119]

(c) Wherefore do you recoil if you can not go back?[120] You have seen many men who have found it well to die, thus avoiding great calamities[121] But any one who has found himself badly off from death — have you seen such a one? Surely it is great folly to condemn a thing that you have never experienced, either by yourself or by another. Why do you complain of me and of fate? Do we wrong you? Is it for you to govern us, or for us to govern you? Although your age may not be finished, your life is.[122] A small man is as whole a man as a large one. Neither men nor their lives are measured by the ell. Chiron refused immortality when informed of its conditions by the very god of time and duration, his father Saturn.[123] Imagine, in fact, how much less endurable and more toilsome to man an everlasting life would be, than the life that I have given him. If you had not death, you would incessantly curse me for having deprived you of it. I have purposely mingled something of bitterness with it, to prevent you, seeing how advantageous it is, from embracing it too greedily and unadvisedly. To establish you in this moderate course, of neither flying from life nor shunning death, which I demand of you, I have modified both with sweetness and with bitterness. I taught Thales, the first of your wise men, that to live or to die was indifferent; wherefore he replied very wisely to one who asked him why, then, he did not die, “Because it is a matter of indifference.”[124] Water, earth, air, fire, and other elements of this edifice of mine, are no more instruments of your life than of your death.[125] Why do you fear your last day? It contributes no more to your death than does each of the other days. The last step does not cause lassitude: it manifests it. All days go toward death; the last day arrives there.[126]

(a) Such are the good counsels of our mother Nature. I have often reflected why in war the face of death, whether we see it in ourselves or in others, seems incomparably less appalling than in our houses (otherwise the army would consist of physicians and wailers); and, death being always one and the same thing, why there is always much more composure among peasants and those of low estate than among others. I believe, truly, that it is the fear-inspiring visages and paraphernalia with which we surround death which frighten us more than the thing itself: a wholly new form of life, the outcries of mothers, wives, and children, the visits of surprised and grief-stricken friends, the presence of a number of pale-faced, weeping servants, a darkened room, lighted candles, our bedside besieged by physicians and preachers — in short, all about us horror and dismay. Lo, we are already shrouded and interred. Children are afraid even of their friends when they see them masked; so it is with us.[127] We must remove the mask from things as from persons. When it is removed, we shall find underneath only the selfsame death that a man-servant or mere chamber-maid met but now without fear.[128] Fortunate is that death which allows no time for the preparation of such an array.

  1. See Tusc. Disp., I, 30. In this whole passage Cicero follows very closely the Phædo of Plato.
  2. See Ibid., 31.
  3. See Cicero, De Fin., II, 27.
  4. See Ecclesiastes, III, 12.
  5. Let us pass quickly over these trifling subtleties. — Seneca, Epistle 117.
  6. Mais quelque personnage que l’home entrepreigne, il joue tousjours le sien parmy.
  7. Volupté = earthly delight.
  8. Plaisir.
  9. That is, “they who proceed to instruct us.”
  10. Car c'est une bonne portion de l'effaict, et consubstantielle.
  11. In 1580—1588, Voylà pourquoy toutes les sectes des philosophes … à cet article de nous instruire à la mespriser.
  12. See Pliny, Natural History, VII, 51.
  13. We are all driven to the same end; for all of us our lot is shaken in the urn, and sooner or later will come forth to launch us on our everlasting exile. — Horace, Odes, II, 3.25.
  14. See Seneca, Epistle 74.
  15. This, like the rock of Tantalus, ever hangs overhead. — Cicero, De Fin., I, 18.
  16. Not the banquets of Sicily will produce a sweet taste, nor will the songs of birds and of the lyre bring back sleep. — Horace, Odes, III, 1.18.
  17. He asks about the route and counts the days, and measures his life by the length of the road; he is tortured by the coming calamity. — Claudian, In Rufinum, II, 137.
  18. Who places himself with the head where his feet should be. — Lucretius, IV, 472.
  19. That is, the testament.
  20. See Plutarch, Life of Cicero.
  21. Feu, deceased, or, as we say, “late.” The derivation of the word is uncertain, whether from the Latin functus (deceased), or, through the Italian, from the Latin fuit (he was). According to Hatzfeld and Darmesteter, from the vulgar Latin fatutus: who has fulfilled his destiny (fatum).
  22. In 1565 Charles IX of France decreed that the year should begin on January 1, instead of at Easter; but the decree was not carried into effect until two years later.
  23. The editions of 1580-1588 add: y pensent aussi peu les uns que les autres.
  24. Montaigne reasserts this belief in the Essay “Of Age,” Book I, chap. 57.
  25. In 1580 and 1582 we have, et ce fameux Mahumet aussi.
  26. What is to be avoided from hour to hour, man never sufficiently foresees. — Horace, Odes, II, 13.13.
  27. This was Bertrand de Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux, Pope from 1305 to 1314, under the name of Clement V. Montaigne jestingly calls him “my neighbour” because he was of Bordeaux. The Duc de Bretaigne was Jean II, died 1305. Montaigne took this from Les diverses leçons of Pierre de Messie, translated from the Spanish in 1552 by Claude Gruget. The original work was published ten years earlier.
  28. Henri II, in 1559.
  29. Philippe, son of Louis le Gros; his horse was frightened by a hog. See Jean Bouchet, Annales d’Aquitaine.
  30. A l’airre (1580-1588); à l’airte (Éd. Mun.). This phrase was borrowed from the Italian all’erte (on the height), and was used in the sense that Montaigne gives it, by Baïf and others.
  31. This legend came originally from Valerius Maximus, IX, 12, ext. 2; but Montaigne apparently took it from the Officina of Ravisius Textor, one of the “compilations” of his time.
  32. Anacreon. See Valerius Maximus, IX, 12, ext. 8.
  33. These last three instances are taken from Pliny, Natural History, VII, 33 and 53.
  34. John XXII. The names of these five, and the manner of their deaths, are taken from Ravisius Textor, Officina.
  35. Bebius and Caius Julius, as well as Cornelius Gallus (above), are found in a longer list given by Pliny, Natural History, VII, 53.
  36. This last clause well illustrates the difference between French and English usage in the matters of gender. In such impersonal expressions as “it seems,” where the neuter pronoun is always used in English, the French use the masculine pronoun: “il me semble.” Again, all nouns in French being either masculine or feminine, the pronoun always follows in gender the noun for which it stands; whereas in English we personify certain nouns as masculine or feminine according to no fixed rule. Mort (death) being feminine, the feminine pronoun elle is always used; while if we personify Death, we always speak of it as “he.”
  37. That is, that it does not matter. Compare Montaigne’s change of note in the later Essay, Book III, chap. 12
  38. Le meilleur jeu que je me puis donner, je le prens.
  39. I would rather appear foolish and feeble, provided that my weaknesses gave me pleasure, or, at least, that I were not aware of them, than be wise and uncomfortable. — Horace, Epistles, II, 2.126.
  40. En dessoude; from de and soude, a variant of soudain.
  41. And assuredly it pursues the man who flees and does not spare the hamstrings and the timid back of cowardly young men. — Horace, Odes, III, 2.14. The original has in the first line Mors instead of Nempe.
  42. He may protect himself prudently with iron and bronze; none the less death drags his head forth from its encasement. — Propertius, III, 18.25.
  43. Cf. Seneca, Epistle 4.
  44. See Plutarch, Banquet of the Seven Sages; Herodotus, II, 78.
  45. Think of each day that shines upon you as your last; the unhoped-for hours will be welcome when they come. — Horace, Epistles, I, 4.13.
  46. This and the four sentences following are taken from Seneca, Epistle 26.
  47. See Idem, Epistle 78.
  48. Perseus. See Plutarch, Life of Paulus Æmilius.
  49. Songecreux.
  50. When my flowering life was in its pleasant spring. — Catullus, LXVIII, 16.
  51. Et qu’autant m’en pendoit à l’oreille.
  52. Soon [the present] will be the past, never to be recalled. — Lucretius, III, 915.
  53. Tout ce qui peut estre faict une autre jour, le peut estre aujourd’hui.
  54. Cf. Seneca, Epistle 49.
  55. No man is more frail than another, no man more certain of his morrow. — Idem, Epistle 91.
  56. Why, in so short a life, make so many plans? — Horace, Odes, II, 16.17.
  57. The last words, from “if it be not,” are found only in the Édition Municipale.
  58. The edition of 1595 adds: Les plus mortes morts sont les plus saines. (The deadest deaths are the most healthful.) This puzzling sentence is not found in the Édition Municipale.
  59. “Qh, wretched, wretched man that I am!” they say; “one hostile day has taken everything from me — all that life has won.” — Lucretius, III, 898. The usual reading is misero misere aiunt.
  60. The works remain broken off, and the great walls of threatening height. — Virgil, Æneid, IV, 88. The original has pendent instead of manent.
  61. The Édition Municipale has pour n’en voir la fin; all other texts, pour en voir la fin.
  62. The passage in brackets is omitted in the Édition Municipale and in 1595.
  63. When I die, may I find my release in the midst of my work and surrounded by it. — Ovid, Amores, II, 10.36.
  64. They do not add thereto: “Neither does there now remain in your mind any longing for these things.” — Lucretius, III, 900.
  65. See Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus.
  66. Once it was the custom to enliven a banquet for the revellers by carnage, and to combine with the feast the horrible spectacle of fighting swordsmen, who often fell over the cups, and the tables were splashed with blood.— Silius Italicus, XI, 51. Montaigne took it from J. Lipsius, Saturnalium sermonum libri duo, I, 6.
  67. See Herodotus, II, 78. Cf. p. 114 supra.
  68. See such lists in Pliny, Natural History, VII; Valerius Maximus, IX, 12; also Rabelais, IV, 18.
  69. A philosophical writer — a pupil of Aristotle. See Cicero, De Off., II, 5.
  70. This is an idea that constantly recurs in Seneca’s letters.
  71. The editions of 1580—1588 add: Je reconnoy par experience que.
  72. Cf. the Essays, “Of Experience” (Book II, chap. 6), and ‘‘Of the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers” (Book II, chap. 37), near the beginning.
  73. In De Belle Gallico, VII, 84.
  74. That is, illness.
  75. Alas! how small a portion of life remains for the old! — Maxi- mianus (or Pseudo-Gallus), Elegies, I, 16.
  76. Seneca (Epistle 77) tells this, not of a soldier, but of an old prisoner.
  77. That is, Nature’s.
  78. Neither the countenance of a threatening tyrant, nor Auster, the boisterous ruler of the stormy Adriatic, nor the mighty hand of thunder-hurling Jupiter can shake his firm soul. — Horace, Odes, III, 3.3.
  79. Faire la figue.
  80. Cf. Seneca, Epistle 26, at the end.
  81. “I will hold you captive in fetters and shackles, under the eye of a pitiless jailer.” “A god himself will set me free as soon as I so desire.” He means this, I suppose: “I shall die. Death is the end and goal of all things.” — Horace, Epistles, 1, 16.76. A figurative allusion to chariot races is intended. The alba linea marked the goal of the race.
  82. Le discours de la raison.
  83. See St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, I, 11.54.
  84. See Diogenes Laertius, Life of Socrates. In the passage of Laertius from which Montaigne took this, there is previously a mention of the thirty tyrants, by which he was misled. The thirty tyrants had fallen four years before the death of Socrates. It was the Athenians, as Laertius says, who decreed his death.
  85. See Seneca, Epistle 77.
  86. Ainsi nous despouillames nous de nostre ancien voile en y entrant.
  87. See Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 39.
  88. This refers back to the sentence a few lines above: “Is there not more harm in dreading them all than in enduring one of them?” The following pages, almost to the end of the chapter, are reminiscent of the famous passage in the third book of Lucretius (near the end). It may be observed that in 1580 Montaigne’s text in this Essay was built up on borrowings from Lucretius, illustrated and filled out by translations of Seneca. The additions of 1588 are chiefly from Lucretius. Those of the Édition Municipale are almost all from Seneca. Very often the sentences in French following the quotations from Lucretius are paraphrases of connecting lines not quoted.
  89. Mortals live mutually dependent, and like runners pass on the torch of life. — Lucretius, II, 76, 79.
  90. The text here is of peculiar grammatical construction: Changeray-je pas pour vous cette belle contexture des choses.
  91. That is, in shunning it.
  92. The first hour that gave us life shortened our life. — Seneca, Hercules Furens, Act III, 874.
  93. From our birth we die, and our end hangs upon our beginning. — Manilius, Astronomica, IV, 16.
  94. The phrase Et ne mouriez jamais trop tost stood here in 1580, but was dropped in 1588.
  95. See Lucretius, III, 935.
  96. Why do you not depart like a guest who has had enough of life? — Idem, 938.
  97. Why desire to add to the length of that which will again come to an evil end and will altogether perish unavailingly? — Lucretius, III, 941.
  98. See Seneca, Epistle 99.
  99. Your fathers saw no other things, nor will your sons behold anything different. — Manilius, I, 522. Montaigne took this quotation from Vivès’s Commentary on St. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XI, 4.
  100. We turn, ever enclosed in the same circle. — Lucretius, III, 1080.
  101. And the year returns, circling in its own track. — Virgil, Georgics, II, 402.
  102. For there is nothing else that I can devise or find that can please you: all things are the same always. — Lucretius, III, 944.
  103. See Seneca, Epistle 30.
  104. Cf. Lucretius, III, 1087-1089, 1092-1094.
  105. Live as long as you will, conquering time; eternal death will yet no less remain. — Idem, III, 1090.
  106. Thou dost not see that in true death there will be no other self which, living and standing by thy prostrate body, can mourn to thyself thy extinction. — Idem, III, 885. In the original text, line 885 reads: —
    Nec videt in vera nullum fore morte alium se.
  107. For then no man feels the want of his own life. Nor are we affected by any regard for ourselves. — Idem, III, 919, 922.
  108. We must account death to be much less to us, if indeed there can be less than what we see to be nothing. — Idem, III, 926. Translated by Montaigne before quoting.
  109. Cf. Cicero, Tusc. Disp., I, 38.
  110. See Seneca, Epistle 69.
  111. For consider, how as nothing to us is the bygone antiquity of old times. — Lucretius, III, 972.
  112. See Seneca, Epistle 77.
  113. See Idem, Epistle 49.
  114. See Idem, Consolatio ad Marciam, 20, and Epistle 93.
  115. See Idem, Epistle 61.
  116. See Idem, Epistle 77.
  117. All things, when they have done with life, will follow thee. — Lucretius, III, 968.
  118. See Seneca, Epistle 77.
  119. For night has never followed day, nor dawn night, without hearing the sound of lamentation and plaintive wailings, the companions of death and of the sad funeral rites — Lucretius, II, 578.
  120. See Seneca, Epistle 107, where Seneca gives a Latin translation of the so-called “Prayer of Cleanthes” (the Stoic philosopher), which expresses more or less this same thought.
  121. See Seneca, Epistle 91.
  122. See Idem, Epistle 93.
  123. See Lucian, Dialogues of the Dead, XXVI.
  124. See Diogenes Laertius, Life of Thales.
  125. See Seneca, Epistle 117.
  126. See Idem, Epistle 120.
  127. See Seneca, Epistle 24.
  128. See Ibid.