The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XVIII

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne
Chapter XVIII. That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death.

Chapter XVIII. That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death.[edit]



                         "Scilicet ultima semper
               Exspectanda dies homini est; dicique beatus
               Ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet."

     ["We should all look forward to our last day: no one can be called
     happy till he is dead and buried."--Ovid, Met, iii. 135]

The very children know the story of King Croesus to this purpose, who
being taken prisoner by Cyrus, and by him condemned to die, as he was
going to execution cried out, "O Solon, Solon!" which being presently
reported to Cyrus, and he sending to inquire of him what it meant,
Croesus gave him to understand that he now found the teaching Solon had
formerly given him true to his cost; which was, "That men, however
fortune may smile upon them, could never be said to be happy till they
had been seen to pass over the last day of their lives," by reason of the
uncertainty and mutability of human things, which, upon very light and
trivial occasions, are subject to be totally changed into a quite
contrary condition. And so it was that Agesilaus made answer to one who
was saying what a happy young man the King of Persia was, to come so
young to so mighty a kingdom: "'Tis true," said he, "but neither was
Priam unhappy at his years."--[Plutarch, Apothegms of the
Lacedaemonians.]--In a short time, kings of Macedon, successors to that
mighty Alexander, became joiners and scriveners at Rome; a tyrant of
Sicily, a pedant at Corinth; a conqueror of one-half of the world and
general of so many armies, a miserable suppliant to the rascally officers
of a king of Egypt: so much did the prolongation of five or six months of
life cost the great Pompey; and, in our fathers' days, Ludovico Sforza,
the tenth Duke of Milan, whom all Italy had so long truckled under, was
seen to die a wretched prisoner at Loches, but not till he had lived ten
years in captivity,--[He was imprisoned by Louis XI. in an iron cage]--
which was the worst part of his fortune. The fairest of all queens,
--[Mary, Queen of Scots.]--widow to the greatest king in Europe, did she
not come to die by the hand of an executioner? Unworthy and barbarous
cruelty! And a thousand more examples there are of the same kind; for it
seems that as storms and tempests have a malice against the proud and
overtowering heights of our lofty buildings, there are also spirits above
that are envious of the greatnesses here below:

              "Usque adeo res humanas vis abdita quaedam
               Obterit, et pulchros fasces, saevasque secures
               Proculcare, ac ludibrio sibi habere videtur."

     ["So true it is that some occult power upsets human affairs, the
     glittering fasces and the cruel axes spurns under foot, and seems to
     make sport of them."--Lucretius, v. 1231.]

And it should seem, also, that Fortune sometimes lies in wait to surprise
the last hour of our lives, to show the power she has, in a moment, to
overthrow what she was so many years in building, making us cry out with
Laberius:

                         "Nimirum hac die
          Una plus vixi mihi, quam vivendum fuit."

     ["I have lived longer by this one day than I should have
     done."--Macrobius, ii. 7.]

And, in this sense, this good advice of Solon may reasonably be taken;
but he, being a philosopher (with which sort of men the favours and
disgraces of Fortune stand for nothing, either to the making a man happy
or unhappy, and with whom grandeurs and powers are accidents of a quality
almost indifferent) I am apt to think that he had some further aim, and
that his meaning was, that the very felicity of life itself, which
depends upon the tranquillity and contentment of a well-descended spirit,
and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, ought never to
be attributed to any man till he has first been seen to play the last,
and, doubtless, the hardest act of his part. There may be disguise and
dissimulation in all the rest: where these fine philosophical discourses
are only put on, and where accident, not touching us to the quick, gives
us leisure to maintain the same gravity of aspect; but, in this last
scene of death, there is no more counterfeiting: we must speak out plain,
and discover what there is of good and clean in the bottom of the pot,

              "Nam vera; voces turn demum pectore ab imo
               Ejiciuntur; et eripitur persona, manet res."

     ["Then at last truth issues from the heart; the visor's gone,
     the man remains."--Lucretius, iii. 57.]

Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be
tried and sifted: 'tis the master-day, 'tis the day that is judge of all
the rest, "'tis the day," says one of the ancients,--[Seneca, Ep., 102]--
"that must be judge of all my foregoing years." To death do I refer the
assay of the fruit of all my studies: we shall then see whether my
discourses came only from my mouth or from my heart. I have seen many by
their death give a good or an ill repute to their whole life. Scipio,
the father-in-law of Pompey, in dying, well removed the ill opinion that
till then every one had conceived of him. Epaminondas being asked which
of the three he had in greatest esteem, Chabrias, Iphicrates, or himself.
"You must first see us die," said he, "before that question can be
resolved."--[Plutarch, Apoth.]--And, in truth, he would infinitely
wrong that man who would weigh him without the honour and grandeur of his
end.

God has ordered all things as it has best pleased Him; but I have, in my
time, seen three of the most execrable persons that ever I knew in all
manner of abominable living, and the most infamous to boot, who all died
a very regular death, and in all circumstances composed, even to
perfection. There are brave and fortunate deaths: I have seen death cut
the thread of the progress of a prodigious advancement, and in the height
and flower of its increase, of a certain person,--[Montaigne doubtless
refers to his friend Etienne de la Boetie, at whose death in 1563 he was
present.]--with so glorious an end that, in my opinion, his ambitious
and generous designs had nothing in them so high and great as their
interruption. He arrived, without completing his course, at the place to
which his ambition aimed, with greater glory than he could either have
hoped or desired, anticipating by his fall the name and power to which he
aspired in perfecting his career. In the judgment I make of another
man's life, I always observe how he carried himself at his death; and the
principal concern I have for my own is that I may die well--that is,
patiently and tranquilly.