Everyone wishes for his own good death and envies the rare ones that seem to qualify. Of all the deaths of people I have known, the one I envy is that of my mother’s best friend Phyllis. She had spent most of the day in her flower beds, weeding and mulching and thinning her Boston ferns. For some months, she had been experiencing some dizziness while working in the sun but ignored it. Gardening was her passion. That evening after her husband had gone to bed (they always retired hours apart), she sat down in her rocker to watch a late TV movie. The next morning when her husband saw her there, so peaceful, he thought she was still asleep. How awful for him but how good for her.
My idea of death has changed somewhat after reading the French philosopher Montaigne. I was led to his Essays by Sarah Bakewell’s thoroughly engaging introduction, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, the winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. Bakewell made Montaigne so appealing I had to know more, and I have not been disappointed. One test, they say, of great literature is that it passes the test of time. Montaigne’s Essays was a bestseller over four hundred years ago and is still amazingly accessible and relevant.
As Bakewell says, he is likeable. How can you not like someone who tells you right up front that to read his book would be a waste of your time? His writing style is so personal, as if were speaking to a very close friend, you, telling you about his inadequacies, his laziness, his poor memory, his small penis. You feel you know him and that he knows you, you want to visit his castle in the Dordogne and walk through his library in the tower where he spent so much time thinking and writing and look out at the views he saw: the garden, the courtyard, the segmented fields through the seasons. If he were alive today, there would be countless women trying to insinuate themselves into his life as did Marie de Gournay, who was so successful he adopted her. In many ways, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin, his brilliance most visible in the way he endeared himself to his readers by his complete ease in acting silly, of guilelessly reflecting back to us our own humanity.
Montaigne reminds us time and again that he was far from perfect, but he seemed to possess many of the qualities we most admire. Even his self-absorption is admirable because its impetus was self-improvement not self-aggrandizement. You guess that someone so gallant, so accepting of himself, so blessed with sociability, affability, humility and generosity, could surely help you become a better person. Certainly less troubled about your own end. He took Socrates’ maxims “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living” to heart. Inscribed on his library rafters were these and other Greek and Latin quotes from his favorite books. The one at the center reads, “I do not comprehend. I pause. I examine.” He found that holding a microscope on himself and dissecting his moods and motivations, his flaws and fears and doubts with a pen was therapeutic. Instead of running from his demons, he laid them inkerized upon the page and boldly probed them, an exercise which weakened their power over him and allowed him to live more fully.
Montaigne did not equate title and wealth with superiority over the common man. He thought most humans incapable of clear judgment because of their pretensions, and he was determined not to have any. ‘I prefer the company of peasants,” he said, “because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” He thought that most of our problems in life stem from vanity. If he were alive today, he’d be the guy who, even though he’s office manager, is not above making the morning coffee. He would be the perfect travel companion: the guy on the train who strikes up a convivial conversation with the baggage handler, who is as inquisitive about the life of laborers in the field as of monarchs in the castles, and who follows no strict itinerary and will detour at the slightest inducement. When in Morocco, he would not be hunting down an American hamburger but a supply of saffron to replicate the native dishes back at home. Because of his feelings toward animals, he would be vegan and, in memory of his beloved cat, bequeath half his fortune to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He would be a statesman, never a politician, which means, alas, he could not exist today because, apparently, it is not a world in which a statesman can be bred.
Even though Montaigne developed the courage to look closely at himself, he didn’t start out that way. He, too, came to the Greek and Roman philosophers the same way I come to him—wanting help with a fear of death. Like Montaigne and most of us, it’s not being dead I fear, but the getting there. Montaigne initially believed that in order to accept death, one must prepare for it by thinking about it a lot. Seneca and Lucretius, though, said that it’s foolish to let fear make your life miserable; learn instead how to live. If you have lived well, your death will be easy. Montaigne reached that conclusion himself,n but it wasn’t due solely to Seneca and Lucretius; he had personal concrete evidence. At about age thirty-six, he had a near fatal fall from his horse. According to Bakewell, his companions who carried him home “later told him that he was vomiting blood and clawing at his chest, violently, as if to tear himself from his body.” This physical state was in dramatic opposition to his mental state which he remembered as being one of “infinite sweetness.” From then on, he was convinced that dying was nothing to fear. Nature takes care of dying; one should focus instead on learning how to live.
But dying, like living, is unique to each individual, and Montaigne, although a Skeptic, became the eternal optimist concerning death. Could his theory possibly hold true for all deaths? I think my father had the death Montaigne came to believe in. My father had Bright’s disease, and one night, at age 43, his kidneys shut down. Death came in no more than ten minutes. He never seemed to be in pain and, after the initial fear of losing his sight, seemed calmed and comforted by some vision. “I see my sweet Jesus,” were his exact words. He was not a religious man, had never attended church. I continue to believe that Jesus was the only word in his vocabulary that came closest to what he was seeing. I don’t know what he saw, but I believe that whatever it was, it was infinitely sweet.
But then there was the very painful death of a favorite older cousin. He died at age 68, his body knotted and twisted by forty years of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease not uncommon among Korean War veterans who had spent so much time sleeping in and wading through rice paddies fertilized with human feces. He was in a wheelchair for the last twenty years of his life. By his early fifties, my mother was sewing Velcro closures on his shirts because he was no longer able to manipulate buttons. The ravages of the disease and the years of meds resulted in heart disease. His daughter said he screamed for interminable minutes before he died, before paramedics arrived with morphine. That was troubling to imagine, because he was always a smiling, soft-spoken man who never complained, never mentioned his infirmities. Montaigne, who said that the highest form of wisdom is continued cheerfulness, would have called him wise. Such a good man who had suffered so much should have had an easy death.
Montaigne himself, according to personal accounts by his wife and a good friend, did not die the way he might have wished. He had suffered for years from painful kidney stones and, at age 59, one failed to pass and infection set in. Without antibiotics, his body swelled, including his throat, which, too, became infected. To the observer it was a torturous way to die, but if Montaigne was right, his mind had already detached from his body and had entered that state of infinite sweetness. The physical manifestations of the dying process were only the body’s reflexive reactions; what registered in the subconscious, or perhaps at the soul level, was only a soft drifting toward sleep, a sedating-like euphoria invisible to witnesses.
Montaigne tells us to reflect on everything and regret nothing. He said that so many people who are near death despair that they are being cheated out of time, prevented from gaining some great victory or witnessing an important event such as a child’s graduation or marriage, when their only business at that moment should be with themselves. “For my part,” he wrote, “I am, thanks be to God, at this instant in such a condition, that I am ready to dislodge, whenever it shall please Him, without regret for anything whatsoever.” Of course, he added, “We are all born to action. I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of his life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished.”
So far, Montaigne hasn’t lessened my fear of death, but I can’t imagine any words, in today’s frenetic pursuit of diversion and achievement, more comforting than his. If I am not lucky enough to dislodge while chopping vegetables, sitting at the computer thinning an essay, or scooping out the litter box, maybe the “how” doesn’t matter. Even if he was wrong about Nature taking care of our dying, he was right about one thing: “Seeing [that] we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them?”
Like Montaigne, I tend to forget most of what I read. Likely, if someone asks me a year or two from now for an example of his excellent advice, I won’t be able to say. But I will remember the feeling of acceptance I have while reading Montaigne, that it is okay to feel ridiculous, to doubt, to have poor judgment, to pursue some frivolous and vain activity; of not having to adapt myself to his company with explanation, apology, or dissimulation. If there is any residue left of him, I hope it is the muscle memory of the Ah-loose-breath moment that came from reading this: “Whoever shall consider, as in a painting, that great image of our mother Nature, in her full majesty and lustre, whoever in her face shall read so general and so constant a variety, whoever shall observe himself in that figure, and not only himself but a whole kingdom, no bigger than the least touch or prick of a pencil in comparison of the whole, that man alone is able to value things according to their true estimate and grandeur.” It relieves you of having to try or pretend to be something you are not while, at the same time, making your imperfections integral to something bigger and grander. That, in itself, will be a gift of infinite sweetness.