Montaigne’s Experience of Mortality

A Man of The Mind

Today I fear that I will bore most readers, but such endeavor is my privilege, earned through labor of an old man’s need for solitude and introspection. And, of course, your privilege is to read ahead or not, for I am not so fearful as to edit my intentions to suit yours; nor am I meaning to show you disrespect by way of my selfish pursuit. More simply put, today I do not want to write a modern novel.
This past weekend, exhausted by my own depressed mood, I took once again to reading the more uplifting words of Michel de Montaigne. I first read Montaigne when I was a student studying the French language at the tender age of fifteen. I managed then to acquire a limited ability to speak a certain French dialect, more to acquire a thirst for languages in general, and most of all to acquire a lifelong love of examining my own mind.
If you will and if you are able, then imagine a man named Michel who exits the womb in the early sixteenth-century year of 1533. He is born to wealth, although this wealth cannot afford him a toilet or any form of what we today name indoor plumbing. His father, proprietor of the family Chateau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, sends his son Michel to live — until that son is six years of age — with a family of peasants in order that the boy might learn the nature of life outside the ivy-covered walls.
Michel’s first language is Latin (this, another system of communication that I once knew well), his second is Greek, and his eventual tongue is French.
Michel is an intelligent boy, but not a person prone to brag of knowledge that is in fact beyond his grasp.
For sake of brevity herein, as well as for sake of the inpatient state of a twenty-first-century western mind, move ahead with Michel some twenty-five years hence, and find a man of thirty-one. By this time Michel has become a lawyer and a “romantic friend” (please don’t misconstrue the term to express what it might mean today) of the humanist writer Etienne de la Boetie.
Michel sits beside the deathbed of Boetie and listens to his friend reminisce, remind and make his final wishes known. Boetie, at turns, calls to his side his wife, his niece, his daughter, his uncle and several friends. At the moment most immediate to his departure, it is Michel whom Etienne requests to remain.
Montaigne’s account of this event is not one included in his book of essays. On the contrary, I read this tale as being as close to that of our current sense of “story” as Michel de Montaigne ever penned.
Much of the chronicle, then, includes Etienne’s thoughts regarding his own life and his impending demise. I’ll not repeat the fable word-for-word, nor even thought-by-thought, because you can read the yarn yourself should you feel curious by my mention of the same. But just now rather to comment on what struck me in a profound manner yesterday as I read.
Boetie says to Montaigne, “Brother, friend, there are many acts in my life, I think, which have caused me as much difficulty as this one is likely to do, and after all, I have been long prepared for it, and have my lesson by heart. Have I not lived long enough? By the grace of God, my days so far have known nothing but health and happiness; but in the ordinary course of our unstable human affairs, this could not have lasted much longer; it would have become time for me to enter upon graver avocations, and I should thus have involved myself in numberless vexations, and among them the troubles of old age, from which I shall now be exempt.”
Long enough, of course, in parlance common to the sixteenth century. For Etienne de la Boetie died of dysentery and its complications, just short of his thirty-third year.
If you’ve read this far into my minor reflection, then you might wonder why these recorded comments of a sixteenth-century writer, and the thoughts of his heartfelt friend, fascinate me here and now. I have lately felt imposed upon to consider my own mortality, and to guess about what one man’s life can be worth after he becomes a part of mad oblivion.
One dear friend of mine seems to maintain a positive view of his future as he grows old; he speaks of writing a book in which he apparently believes a reader will discover interest. Another friend, seventy-five years old and precious inside my heart, just this morning, before the sun had seemed to rise, rode as a passenger in my dark-blue pickup truck as I steered him toward a hospital where he this moment undergoes a surgeon’s knife. A smile remained upon my companion’s face for the entirety of our journey.
And I? Meanwhile, I complain of worthlessness.

No author as fine as Michel de Montaigne will ever write about me. No book’s cover will ever display my name. No great romance to match my youthful dreams will ever entertain my soul.

Yet, Montaigne teaches me, each time I read his words, that peasants and La Noblesse alike need not fear death at the expense of what remains of life.
Now if only I could stop talking to myself about myself.
In any event, I’d look silly in Montaigne’s clothes.

Time to leave a bed not quite ready for my final journey.

Time to trim the ivy from the walls with which I surround myself.
Time to feel grateful for what talent I own, as small a space as that talent occupies.
Time to appreciate my friends, to cherish those who led me to reach such obvious conclusions.

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