Montaigne’s essay “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die” is filled with quotations of the ancient Romans because they reflect Montaigne’s own interests and personality — slightly bemused by the affectations of others, skeptical of their motives and foolishness, and reconciled to the folly of worldly endeavors. In the essay, Montaigne strives, with the gentle assistance of Horace, Lucretius, Catullus, Seneca, plus Cicero, who provides the essay title, to keep a sober perspective on our aspirations, to root the self to a simple sense of virtue. With the Romans, he takes the view that nature exercises a great wisdom in refusing to spare living things of death. “Our mother Nature” speaks thus, he says:
Chiron refused immortality when informed of its conditions by the very god of time and duration, his father Saturn. Imagine honestly how much less bearable and more painful to man would be an everlasting life than the life I have given him. If you did not have death, you would curse me incessantly for having deprived you of it. I have deliberately mixed with it a little bitterness to keep you seeing the convenience of it, from embracing it too greedily and intemperately. To lodge you in that moderate state that I ask of you, of neither fleeing life nor fleeing back from death, I have tempered both of them between sweetness and bitterness.
Montaigne embraced the Stoicism of the Greeks and Romans as the reconciling philosophy of a chaotic age. The Greeks had lost faith in democracy with the Peloponnesian War and the Hellenism of empire, just as the Romans had witnessed the disappearance of their republic. Only dramatists and philosophers could resolve the contradictions of worldly affairs and tragedy, which includes death. The ancient eras of chaos were reproduced in the France of Montaigne’s era, bloody civil wars of religion, with, again, only dramatists and philosophers — but not the clergy — to reconcile the contradictions of religion and the world.
Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus does not take this context into account when he avers (in his As I Lay Dying, p. 127) that
Montaigne wrote a famous essay, “To Philosophize Is To Learn To Die.” I do not believe that. I believe that one learns to die not by philosophizing, but by dying.
But did Neuhaus read the essay? Or did he read the rest of Montaigne? For Montaigne did indeed learn a great deal — from the deaths of his father, his brother, his best friend, five of his six children — but especially from his own near-death, which he describes in the essay “Practice” written only a year or two after the previously mentioned essay.
Montaigne’s near-death experience resulted from a fall from his horse. He lost consciousness and his retainers hauled him back to his chateau, where he wavered from half-lucid awareness to unconsciousness, on the brink of dying. Eventually he recovered, concluding that death was no terror, did not even require philosophical inquiry, but only required one to cede to nature, which has arranged a simple and unremarkable passing.
Of course, the cumulative lessons of life, plus Montaigne’s own personality, brought him to a mature state of mind that nevertheless did not contradict his original philosophical observations, only broadened them to a more secularizing sensibility suited to fideism, not just fatalism. Understandably, Neuhaus demurs here, but the wonders of modern technology that saved him from cancer should not override a philosophical or natural point of view about death, inevitable even for the initially saved. Montaigne is both philosophical about death and did indeed learn to die by dying. He embraced contradiction, and the life of contradiction that necessarily seeks tranquility in a chaotic world.