The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter LVII

Chapter LVII. Of age. Edit

I cannot allow of the way in which we settle for ourselves the duration
of our life. I see that the sages contract it very much in comparison of
the common opinion: "what," said the younger Cato to those who would stay
his hand from killing himself, "am I now of an age to be reproached that
I go out of the world too soon?" And yet he was but eight-and-forty
years old. He thought that to be a mature and advanced age, considering
how few arrive unto it. And such as, soothing their thoughts with I know
not what course of nature, promise to themselves some years beyond it,
could they be privileged from the infinite number of accidents to which
we are by a natural subjection exposed, they might have some reason so to
do. What am idle conceit is it to expect to die of a decay of strength,
which is the effect of extremest age, and to propose to ourselves no
shorter lease of life than that, considering it is a kind of death of all
others the most rare and very seldom seen? We call that only a natural
death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with
a fall, be drowned in shipwreck, be snatched away with a pleurisy or the
plague, and as if our ordinary condition did not expose us to these
inconveniences. Let us no longer flatter ourselves with these fine
words; we ought rather, peradventure, to call that natural which is
general, common, and universal.

To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular, and,
therefore, so much less natural than the others; 'tis the last and
extremest sort of dying: and the more remote, the less to be hoped for.
It is, indeed, the bourn beyond which we are not to pass, and which the
law of nature has set as a limit, not to be exceeded; but it is, withal,
a privilege she is rarely seen to give us to last till then. 'Tis a
lease she only signs by particular favour, and it may be to one only in
the space of two or three ages, and then with a pass to boot, to carry
him through all the traverses and difficulties she has strewed in the way
of this long career. And therefore my opinion is, that when once forty
years we should consider it as an age to which very few arrive. For
seeing that men do not usually proceed so far, it is a sign that we are
pretty well advanced; and since we have exceeded the ordinary bounds,
which is the just measure of life, we ought not to expect to go much
further; having escaped so many precipices of death, whereinto we have
seen so many other men fall, we should acknowledge that so extraordinary
a fortune as that which has hitherto rescued us from those eminent
perils, and kept us alive beyond the ordinary term of living, is not like
to continue long.

'Tis a fault in our very laws to maintain this error: these say that a
man is not capable of managing his own estate till he be five-and-twenty
years old, whereas he will have much ado to manage his life so long.
Augustus cut off five years from the ancient Roman standard, and declared
that thirty years old was sufficient for a judge. Servius Tullius
superseded the knights of above seven-and-forty years of age from the
fatigues of war; Augustus dismissed them at forty-five; though methinks
it seems a little unreasonable that men should be sent to the fireside
till five-and-fifty or sixty years of age. I should be of opinion that
our vocation and employment should be as far as possible extended for the
public good: I find the fault on the other side, that they do not employ
us early enough. This emperor was arbiter of the whole world at
nineteen, and yet would have a man to be thirty before he could be fit to
determine a dispute about a gutter.

For my part, I believe our souls are adult at twenty as much as they are
ever like to be, and as capable then as ever. A soul that has not by
that time given evident earnest of its force and virtue will never after
come to proof. The natural qualities and virtues produce what they have
of vigorous and fine, within that term or never,

                   "Si l'espine rion picque quand nai,
                    A pene que picque jamai,"

               ["If the thorn does not prick at its birth,
               'twill hardly ever prick at all."]

as they say in Dauphin.

Of all the great human actions I ever heard or read of, of what sort
soever, I have observed, both in former ages and our own, more were
performed before the age of thirty than after; and this ofttimes in the
very lives of the same men. May I not confidently instance in those of
Hannibal and his great rival Scipio? The better half of their lives they
lived upon the glory they had acquired in their youth; great men after,
'tis true, in comparison of others; but by no means in comparison of
themselves. As to my own particular, I do certainly believe that since
that age, both my understanding and my constitution have rather decayed
than improved, and retired rather than advanced. 'Tis possible, that
with those who make the best use of their time, knowledge and experience
may increase with their years; but vivacity, promptitude, steadiness, and
other pieces of us, of much greater importance, and much more essentially
our own, languish and decay:

              "Ubi jam validis quassatum est viribus aevi
               Corpus, et obtusis ceciderunt viribus artus,
               Claudicat ingenium, delirat linguaque, mensque."

          ["When once the body is shaken by the violence of time,
          blood and vigour ebbing away, the judgment halts,
          the tongue and the mind dote."—Lucretius, iii. 452.]

Sometimes the body first submits to age, sometimes the mind; and I have
seen enough who have got a weakness in their brains before either in
their legs or stomach; and by how much the more it is a disease of no
great pain to the sufferer, and of obscure symptoms, so much greater is
the danger. For this reason it is that I complain of our laws, not that
they keep us too long to our work, but that they set us to work too late.
For the frailty of life considered, and to how many ordinary and natural
rocks it is exposed, one ought not to give up so large a portion of it to
childhood, idleness, and apprenticeship.

     [Which Cotton thus renders: "Birth though noble, ought not to share
     so large a vacancy, and so tedious a course of education." Florio
     (1613) makes the passage read as-follows: "Methinks that,
     considering the weakness of our life, and seeing the infinite number
     of ordinary rocks and natural dangers it is subject unto, we should
     not, so soon as we come into the world, allot so large a share
     thereof unto unprofitable wantonness in youth, ill-breeding
     idleness, and slow-learning prentisage."]