Monday Morning Montaigne: Of judging the death of others

Our first post-Apology essay from Montaigne is Of judging the death of others (pp. 556-62): not exactly a pleasant change of pace after the sermonizing of the Apology, but at least it was brief, and I was in need of a break.

M. starts this one out by referring to dying as “without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life,” but almost immediately manages to undercut the notion that most people die with dignity. In fact, he points out, most people refuse to believe they must die, figuring that the heavens will part to save them and only them: “And this comes about because we set too much importance on ourselves. It seems that the universe somehow suffers by our annihilation and that it has compassion for our state.”

Correcting our belief that our death only occurs after “solemn consultation of the stars,” M. he quotes Pliny: “There is no such association between us and the heavens that at our death the splendor of the stars should also die.”

So don’t get carried away with yourself. And if you have all sorts of wisdom and learning to share, write a book. Or have kids and raise them right.

M. moves from everyman’s denial of death to examples of suicides in history. How better to explore the judgment of death than to examine people who chose it over living? He contends that it takes a strong heart to resolve on suicide.

For color, he gives us the example of Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor whom I first read about in a mini-comic by Neil Gaiman. Sez M.:

[T]he most effeminate man in the world, Heliogabalus, amid his laxest sensualities, indeed made plans to kill himself delicately when the occasion should fore him to. And so that his death should not belie the rest of his life, he expressly had a sumptuous tower built, the base and front of which were floored with planks enriched with gold and precious stones, to throw himself from; and he also had cords of gold and crimson silk made for strangling himself, and a gold sword forged for running himself through; and he kept venom in emerald and topaz vessels for poisoning himself, according as the whim should seize him to choose from all these ways of dying: “By a forced valor resolute and brave.” (Lucan) Yet as for him, the luxuriousness of his preparations makes it more likely that he would have had a nosebleed from fear if he had been put to the test.

Gaiman writes that H. ended up assassinated by his troops and dumped in a latrine.

M.’s first set of suicides are martial captors, those who chose to off themselves rather than get tortured by their enemies. Of those, he seems to have more respect for those who failed at first attempt and chose, despite their pain, to redouble their efforts and finish the job.

After these wartime suicides, he writes about the gravely ill who either choose to forego treatment or who recover but decide, having tasted death, to embrace it. M. privileges those who take the time to think about their choice of death.

His epitome of a stout death seems to be Cato’s. Unwilling to live under Caesar, he tried to stab himself, but his wounded hand made the attempt fail. His aides bandaged him up, but he went on to rip off the bandages and then disembowel himself by hand. M. writes, “If it had been up to me to portray him in his proudest posture, this would have been all bloody, tearing out his own bowels, rather than sword in hand, as did the statuaries of his time. For this second murder was much more savage than the first.”

Frankly, I’m not sure how the Christian Montaigne of the previous 180 pages jibes with this Roman celebration of self-destruction, but it does make for more entertaining reading than the Apology, that’s for sure.

At the center of the essay, M. quotes a line from Epicharmus that I think sums up the whole piece: “It is not death, but dying, that I fear.” For these non-Christian historical figures, the best they can do is choose their time and manner of death, and face it bravely.

But that quote sent me back to one of the saddest days of my life, when my next-door neighbor / “second father” passed away in 2001. He had a heart attack, wouldn’t let his wife call an ambulance or their children, and died. That morning, standing in the yard where we spent our childhoods at play, his oldest son said those same words to me about his father. He said that his dad, after watching the lingering deaths of his own father and a brother, didn’t want to go through the hospitalizations, the sufferings and, most critically, the imposition upon the lives of those around him.

He let go. The stars didn’t weep, but his goodness propagates in his children and us.