Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius and Montaigne: Learning How to Die

In his version of the trial of Socrates, Xenophon makes his teacher consider death (Xenophon, Apology 6.1-7.3):

“And if my age proceeds along still more, I know that old age’s traits will necessarily develop: worse vision, weaker hearing, slower learning and less memory for what I have learned already. And when I perceive I am deteriorating I will blame myself, wondering “How can I keep living with pleasure?” Perhaps, he said, the god is kindly on my side not just in ending my life at the perfect age but also in doing it so easily.”

νῦν δὲ εἰ ἔτι προβήσεται ἡ ἡλικία, οἶδ’ ὅτι ἀνάγκη ἔσται τὰ τοῦ γήρως ἐπιτελεῖσθαι καὶ ὁρᾶν τε χεῖρον καὶ ἀκούειν ἧττον καὶ δυσμαθέστερον εἶναι καὶ ὧν ἔμαθον ἐπιλησμονέστερον. ἂν δὲ αἰσθάνωμαι χείρων γιγνόμενος καὶ καταμέμφωμαι ἐμαυτόν, πῶς ἄν, εἰπεῖν, ἐγὼ ἔτι ἂν ἡδέως βιοτεύοιμι; ἴσως δέ τοι, φάναι αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ θεὸς δι’ εὐμένειαν προξενεῖ μοι οὐ μόνον τὸ ἐν καιρῷ τῆς ἡλικίας καταλῦσαι τὸν βίον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ᾗ ῥᾷστα.

So Xenophon’s Socrates muses on the end of his life and the serendipity of his death sentence. Plato’s Socrates talks about death too and not without some similarity. And, yes, I seem to have a weakness for death scenes.

Remember, that a philosopher’s true mission is to learn how to die:

Plato, Phaedo 67e

“In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying.”

τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι

There are, however, a few different ways to interpret this mission. Michel de Montaigne begins his essay “That to Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” by quoting the same idea from Cicero: Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est (Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5). Cicero, of course, does not footnote properly and attribute it to Plato (nor does Montaigne).

Montaigne offers interpretations of this idea:

“Cicero sayeth that to Philosophize is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death: which is the reason that study and contemplation doth in some sort withdraw our soul from us, and severally employ it from the body, which is a kind of apprentisage and resemblance of death. Or else it is that all the wisdom and discourse of the world doth in the end resolve upon this point: to teach us not to fear to die.  Truly either reason mocks us, or it only aimeth at our contentment, and in fine bends all her travel to make us live well and, as the holy Scripture sayeth, at our ease. All the opinions of the world conclude that pleasure is our end, howbeit they take diverse means unto and for it, else would men reject them at their first coming. For who would give ear unto him that for its end would establish our pain and disturbance?”

(Shakespeare’s Montaigne, Greenblatt and Platt 2014: 13) Other translations are available online. But for fun, here’s the French (Also available online from the Montaigne Project)

Ciceron dit que Philosopher ce n’est autre chose que s’aprester à la mort. C’est d’autant que l’estude et la contemplation retirent aucunement nostre ame hors de nous, et l’embesongnent à part du corps, qui est quelque aprentissage et ressemblance de la mort; ou bien, c’est que toute la sagesse et discours du monde se resoult en fin à ce point, de nous apprendre à ne craindre point à mourir. De vray, ou la raison se mocque, ou elle ne doit viser qu’à nostre contentement, et tout son travail tendre en somme à nous faire bien vivre, et à nostre aise, comme dict la Saincte Escriture. Toutes les opinions du monde en sont là, que le plaisir est nostre but, quoy qu’elles en prennent divers moyens; autrement on les chasseroit d’arrivée: car qui escouteroit celuy qui pour sa fin establiroit nostre peine et mesaise?

Near the end of this same essay, Montaigne gets hot and heavy with Lucretius–one might have expected the Epicurean strain from his opening line “ll the opinions of the world conclude that pleasure is our end”).

“Death is less to be feared than nothing, if there were anything less than nothing

–multem mortem minus ad nos esse putandum
Si minus esse potest quam quod nihil esse videmus 
(DRN 3.926-7)

Death is much less to us, we ought esteem,
If less may be, than what doth nothing seem

Nor alive, nor dead,it doth concern you nothing. Alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.

Moreover, no man dies before his hour. The time you leave behind was no more yours than that which was before your birth and concerneth you no more.

Respice enim quam nil ad nos anteacta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit (DRN
3.972-3)

For mark, how all antiquity fore-gone
of all time ere we were, to us was none

Wheresoever your life ended, there is it all. The profit of life consists not in the space, but rather in the use. Some man hath lived long that hath a short life. Follow it whilst you have time. It consists not in the number of years, but in your will, that you have lived long enough….”

(Shakespeare’s Montaigne, Greenblatt and Platt 2014: 31)

La mort est moins à craindre que rien, s’il y avoit quelque chose de moins,

multo mortem minus ad nos esse putandum
Si minus esse potest quam quod nihil esse videmus.

Elle ne vous concerne ny mort ny vif: vif, parce que vous estes: mort, par ce que vous n’estes plus. Nul ne meurt avant son heure. Ce que vous laissez de temps n’estoit non plus vostre que celuy qui s’est passé avant vostre naissance: et ne vous touche non plus,

Respice enim quam nil ad nos ante acta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit.

Où que vostre vie finisse, elle y est toute. L’utilité du vivre n’est pas en l’espace, elle est en l’usage: tel a vescu long temps, qui a peu vescu: attendez vous y pendant que vous y estes. Il gist en vostre volonté, non au nombre des ans, que vous ayez assez vescu.

Happy, Happy Saturday. May it be more than enough.

5 thoughts on “Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius and Montaigne: Learning How to Die

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