BOOK I, CHAPTER XX
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