Dear Monsieur de Montaigne,
I hope this letter finds you well, in spite of the fact that you are dead. First, I must tell you how much I enjoy your work, and how sorry I was to hear the reports of said death. I suppose it is only to be expected as you did live several centuries before my birth. Despite the four hundred odd years that separate your writing from my world, I still find much relevance in your words.
What I like about your work is that you really get the heart of whatever matter you’re talking about at the time. Of all of your many and varied topics, I find the one in Book 1, Chapter 19—“That no man shall be called happy until after his death”(p.33)—to be the most enlightening to me personally. I suppose that, being dead yourself, you have had the premise you worked out from classical examples proven or disproven to your own satisfaction. It simply remains to your readers to decide whether or not we agree with your thoughts on the matter.
I definitely agree with what I see as your premise: you cannot judge a man’s life until he’s lived all of it, including the end. As you said, “In judging another man’s life, I always inquire how he behaved at the last; and one of the principal aims of my life is to conduct myself well when it ends—peacefully, I mean, and with a calm mind.”(p.36) To do otherwise would be the same as judging the quality of a book, without ever reading the final chapter—or even worse, without the final chapter ever being written. This can be seen even in more modern literature. Would Lord of the Rings as trilogy of either books or movies be regarded as a great achievement of imagination and storytelling if the dark lord had not been destroyed when hero Frodo (with some help from non-hero Gollum) destroyed his One Ring of Power? What if instead, good lost to evil and Sauron regained the One Ring—and his power—and darkness covered all the lands of Middle Earth? A good ending can make a book, and a bad one can break it. Likewise, a good death can add a brightness and a respectability to the memory of even the worst man’s life, while a bad death can tarnish the memory of the life of the very best of men.
In addition to agreeing with your thesis, I also approve of your method. Your work is interspersed with examples from the classical world. Even the very beginning of your essay is quoted from Ovid: “One should always wait till a man’s last day, and never call him happy before his death and funeral.”(p.33) You then proceed with the story of King Croesus, who had been warned by Solon that it was premature to call himself happy until the last moment of his life. He realized the truth of this as he related Solon’s words at his own execution. Names like Ovid and Solon definitely add credibility and weight to your ideas. My approval of your use of classical evidence is twofold. Not only does the antiquity and respectability of your sources add depth and meaning to your points, but I also appreciate that you give examples to help make your case. To me, your most compelling piece of corroborating evidence is this:
We may see the kings of Macedon, successors to the great Alexander, reduced to the level of carpenters or scribes at Rome, and Sicilian tyrants who have become schoolmasters at Corinth. The conqueror of half the world and the commander of many armies is turned into a miserable suppliant to the rascally offices of an Egyptian king; such was the price paid by Pompey the Great for the prolongation of his life by some five or six months.(p.34)
The fact that you give your readers so many examples to choose from, both from great antiquity and from your own time, is very helpful. In short, you do not ask your readers to take your word for it.
In closing Monsieur de Montaigne, let me once again offer my deepest appreciation of your most excellent and thought-provoking work. I intend to re-read the rest of your essays in light of the understanding of your work I have gained from this one. I hope that you got your wish of a peaceful end.
A Fan of Your Work
This was something of an experiment for me. All quotes/paraphrasing came from this edition: Montaigne, Michel. Essays. Trans. J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1993. I’d love to know what people think about the form!