Montaigne: Our death is no great thing

When we judge of the assurance of other men in dying, which is without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life, we must be mindful of one thing: that people do not easily believe that they have reached that point. Few men die convinced that it is their last hour; and there is no place where the deception of hope deludes us more. It never stops trumpeting into our ears: “Others have certainly been sicker without dying; the case is not as desperate as they think; and at worst, God has certainly worked other miracles.”

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; because our vision, when altered, represents things to itself as being likewise altered, and we think they are failing it in proportion as it is failing them; like travelers at sea, for whom mountains, countrysides, cities, heaven, and earth move right along with them and at the same pace:

We leave the port, and lands and towns retreat. [Virgil]

Who ever saw old age not praising times past and blaming the present, charging the world and the ways of men with its own misery and chagrin?

The old man shakes his head and heaves a sigh,
Compares the present day with days gone by,
Praises his father’s lot, and to satiety
Prates of the dead, and of their piety. [Lucretius]

We drag everything along with us.

When it follows that we consider our death a great thing, and one which does not pass so easily, nor without solemn consultation of the stars: so many gods in an uproar about one single head [Seneca]. And we think so all the more, the more we prize ourselves. What? Should so much learning be lost, with so much damage, without the special concern of the destinies? Does a soul so rare and exemplary cost no more to kill than a plebian and useless one? This life, which protects so many others, on which so many other lives depend, which employs so many people in its service, which fills so many places, is it displaced like one that holds only by its one single knot? Not one of us is convinced enough that he is only one.

Montaigne, “Judging the death of others”

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