To Contemplate Death is to Contemplate Life
Think each day past as the last; the next day
as unexpected, will be the more welcome. Horatio
Jim Hankinson in his Bluff Your Way in Philosophy (Ravette Books, 1985) suggests that the art of the bluffing philosopher is to “hedge”. In other words, never commit
yourself to saying something that you may later wish to retract. Therefore, phrases such as “I’m inclined to think that …” or “Perhaps there is something to be said
for …” are useful for the budding philosopher. Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) does not do this. Neither does Hankinson mention the word “curiosity”, something that Montaigne indulged in as a means of asking questions about the human condition. But then, Montaigne was a real philosopher and did not bluff his way in philosophy or in life.
Montaigne’s essay, That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die, encourages us not to hedge, not to hesitate, but to live fully as we must do if we are not hesitating or hedging. He argued in this enlivening and witty essay that we should grab life in both hands and live it to the full. Being anxious about death, an inevitability, is to waste the life we have been given.
His first premise, from which he developed his argument, is that we all aim for pleasure whether it is the voluptuous pleasure of sheer pleasure or the pleasure that
sets us on our mettle: living a full life through work, its sweat and tears, its ups and downs, its challenge. Whatever life we live, he argued, we must live it fully, knowing that death is likely to take us at any time, often when we least expect it. To worry about death is to pretend that we can have some control over when we die. We need to live in contempt of death. In doing so, we accommodate life “with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct.” On reading this I was reminded of Richard Dawkins’ poster on a London double decker bus: There is probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Depression, anxiety and fear of death are the antithesis of living life fully. “The end of our race is death; ‘tis the necessary object of our aim, which, if it fright us, how is it to advance a step without a fit of ague?” – We cut our lives short, we fail to enjoy the voluptuousness of pleasure.
Montaigne pointed out that some ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians were conscious of the closeness of death and in feasts and celebrations, produced a
skeleton as a reminder of the presence of death. Our modern society seems to abhor the idea of death even though it is so often in the news through war, famine, disease, flood, fire and arbitrary mishaps such as death by a falling tree or being killed while crossing the road. We keep thinking that we can beat it through medical miracles – the desire to live longer and longer lives. Cryogenics is the vain hope of finally beating death.
Australia has recently released its Fourth Intergenerational Report. This report predicts that Australians will live to 105. However, it does not mention the potential of new diseases and the increased risk of food shortages that will potentially be the result of climate change. In other words, people living on the driest continent where desertification is as rampant as the expansion of cities on arable land, can continue to live lifestyles that kill the very environment that will keep them healthy an enhance their longevity. Australians can defy death.
Montaigne argued that we should live in anticipation of death (no hedging here!) and in doing so, live fully. He wrote: “Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape: at a stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves.” I take this to mean that we should live each day as if it were our last.
This is not to imply that we live hedonistically. After all, Montaigne, as pointed out earlier, saw pleasure a mixture of the absolute appreciation of life as well as the engagement with the labour of life – the sweat and the tears of it, the commitment to what is important to us – family, friends, our community, the environment.
I believe that Montaigne is imploring us to live boldly. Death will find us whether we hide in our homes or whether we are engaged with our community or whether we
are on some great adventure. This then, argued Montaigne, should be liberating. We should stop prevaricating and procrastinating and proceed with intent.
He asked “… why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? – but also, seeing 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? And what matters it, when it shall happen, since it is inevitable?”
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet have lived but a little. Make of time while it is present to you.” He added: “If you have not known how to make best use of it, if it was unprofitable to you, what need you to care to lose it, to what end would
you desire longer to keep it?”
Mischievously, Montaigne asked “ … have you ever found any who have been dissatisfied with dying?”
Montaigne’s essay is, I think, about the uselessness of anxiety that resolves nothing, that adds nothing to our lives, that constrains our ability to live and make choices. Read it. Ponder its message and be inspired. By embracing death and its inevitability, you can begin to appreciate life and embrace what it has to offer.