The French writer Michel de Montaigne, known as Montaigne, was born on this day in 1533. He is most famous for his “Essais” (“attempts,” or “trials”), and he can be said to be the father of the personal essay.
“Personal” is the key word here. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics, from cannibals to coaches (the transportation kind), but his favorite subject was himself. He was fascinated by death, and in particular his own. Life is a brief prelude to death, which goes on forever, but by cultivating the proper attitude toward death, Montaigne says, we learn to savor the sweetness of life.
Death is a necessary end, Montaigne writes, so why fear it? And not to think of it is the remedy of the dull-witted. No; “We must bridle the ass by the tail,” he says. “Let us disarm him (death) of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him…Let us look for him everywhere.”
Why cozy up to death? Because it frees you to live life. “The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty,” Montaigne insists.
How can the contemplation of one’s own non-existence be salutary? Or anything but horrible? That’s where philosophy comes in. “To philosophize is to learn to die,” Montaigne says, but to think about death in the way he recommends requires one large assumption, namely, that we will really be dead.
Since death is unconsciousness, or unconsciousness squared, so to speak, “to lament that we won’t be alive 100 years from now is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive 100 years ago.” That is, we won’t know it.
The uncertainty of that is what torments Hamlet, and to be on speaking terms with death we must believe that death is oblivion. If contempt of death is a virtue, as Montaigne says, then death must be, literally and figuratively, nothing.
In other words, life is the thing, death is the perspective. As Montaigne puts it, “He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”
Montaigne died at the age of 59, of quinsy, a severe form of tonsillitis. The ailment robbed him – and posterity – of any last words, as it resulted in his case in paralysis of the tongue. But, having written hundreds of essays plumbing his heart (which is preserved in the church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne in Aquitaine) and mind, maybe he’d said all he had to say.
Read more about Montaigne and others’ thoughts about death: