Antony Wells, Michel de Montaigne, SF 69

The Great Self-Examiner

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Can anyone reconcile us with death?

Michel de Montaigne, one of the great sages of the Renaissance, tried his best; and he was trying to reconcile himself as much as any readers he might have. ‘We must always be booted and ready to go,’ he writes in an early essay. To be ready we need to familiarize our- selves with this final destination. ‘So,’ he tells us, ‘I have formed the habit of having death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth . . . He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.’

When in 1571 Montaigne retired from his position at the parliament of Bordeaux to the estate he had recently inherited, he wasn’t yet 40. Though no subject preoccupied him so much as death, he was still in good health, still free of the crippling kidney stones that would make his later years a torment. But to his surprise, all set as he was to dedicate the rest of his days to ‘liberty, tranquillity and leisure’, he found himself overwhelmed by depression. The only remedy he could think of was to write, as he explains to a friend in one essay:

It was a melancholy humour, and consequently a humour very hostile to my natural disposition, produced by the gloom of the solitude into which I had cast myself some years ago, that first put into my head this daydream of meddling with writing.

He could think of nothing to write about, however; so, with no other subject suggesting itself, ‘I offered myself to myself as theme and subject matter.’ If others could make portraits of themselves in pictures, why shouldn’t he portray himself with the pen?

In doing so, Montaigne takes as his watchword a motto from Plato: ‘Do what thou hast to do, and know thyself.’ To which he adds a characteristic rider: ‘Whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing

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About the contributor

Like Montaigne, Anthony Wells has retired from the world of work and has plans to write a book. There any comparison ends.

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