Monday, November 07, 2016

Facing life



 The author facing life

The main lesson we can learn from my last blog is that death comes often in an unexpected way. If these inhabitants in Herculaneum had been asked how they might die, perhaps they would have mentioned ten or more ways how death could come to them, but probably none of them would have thought that they could die because of a volcanic eruption: For them, volcanic eruptions were an unknown phenomenon. Actually, the way these people in Herculaneum died, and even more what they knew about ways of dying is an argument in support of Montaigne’s contention that “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?” For if we are afraid of all kinds of possible deaths, we may be afraid of the wrong one. And if we simply try to avoid that one of these kinds of death will happen, we are on the wrong track. I don’t mean that it isn’t good to take precautions against a possible premature death. It’s good to get injections against common illnesses and I should advice everybody to wear a seat belt in a car. But such measures should be seen as what they in fact are: They are not precautions – which suggests that they can prevent what we don’t wish to happen – but safety measures that reduce the chance that something undesirable happens but doesn’t exclude it. If this is the only thing we do, we are in the wrong. Safety measures are necessary but they are not sufficient and it is not right to think that this is the way to face death. It’s only negative and it doesn’t help us stand in life.
In his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” (Essays I, 19), from which I borrowed the quotation above, Montaigne tells us about Chiron who rejected to get eternal life from his father Saturn. Why? In Montaigne’s words: “Do but seriously consider how much more insupportable and painful an immortal life would be to man [if it were eternal]. If you had not death, you would eternally curse me for having deprived you of it”. Suppose that you had eternal life. What would you do? What reason would you have to act? Everything could be done later. It’s quite likely that you’ll think so and act accordingly, even if having eternal life does not involve having eternal youth (many people who think that eternal life is something to be wished for, forget that it may be a life in which you still become physically older and cripple and helpless after some time). To my mind, just the fact that man is forced to act in order to survive gives life sense. Not taking precautions against death – which is impossible in the end, also because, as we have seen, death can come in an unexpected way – is the way to face death but acting is and so performing what we positively want. By doing so we give sense to life and we give it a meaning – namely in the way we act. Therefore I can fully agree with what Montaigne had written a few paragraphs before: “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time”. It’s what Montaigne learned from his own experiences. When he was about thirty years old, several people dear to him died, including his father and his beloved friend Étienne de La Boétie. It made him afraid of death. And then it happened almost to himself, when he fell from his horse. Although he was unconscious and vomiting blood, for himself it was not an unpleasant event. When Montaigne came round, he tells us, “I shut my eyes, to help, methought, to thrust it out, and took a pleasure in languishing and letting myself go. It was an imagination that only superficially floated upon my soul, as tender and weak as all the rest, but really, not only exempt from anything displeasing, but mixed with that sweetness that people feel when they glide into a slumber.” (Essays II, 6). It made that Montaigne changed his attitude towards death and he was no longer scared of it and he became positive towards life. As we have seen, we find this vision on life already in his essay “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”. Even though the essay is mainly about death, it’s why I think a better title would have been “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Live”, for what it actually says is that facing death is facing life.

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