To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die


Okay, so philosophy isn’t to solve puzzles…so what is it for? To study philosophy is to learn how to die. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the complete essay by Mr. Michel de Montaigne, one of my favorites by him. I think he knew whereof he spoke. Maybe that’s what Ludwig Wittgenstein was groping for when he said philosophy should teach us how to live.

Whaaaa?! Live, Die, aren’t they the opposite? A zen Buddhist might say that you cannot truly live unless you are ready to die. Story:

Woman is chased by tigers, runs to cliff. Jumps off and grabs a branch sticking out. Hanging in space, she sees water filled with vicious snakes below. Looking up, she sees rodents gnawing her branch off. Soon she will fall to her death. She sees some succulent berries hanging nearby. What does she do? Scream, wail, go crazy? No, she eats the berries, relishing their wonderful taste.

That lady knew how to live- knew how to die!

Some of Montaigne’s essay is about the old cliches, “living each moment like it is your last…” but in scholarly humanist garb. Carpe diem, all that. It’s always the same message, isn’t it? If you can’t take the measure of your own life, the measure of your life’s value to yourself, how can you live well? And how can you take the measure of your life’s value if it isn’t over? (Sure, any fool can take the measure of his life when he’s lying on his deathbed, hee, hee. That’s why priests always show up!) The trick is, to see the truth when your death is far off, and so he finds himself saying to himself during everyday actions, “What if this action were my last..?”

Upon all occasions represent [death] to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, “Well, and what if it had been death itself?” and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves.

As a zen nun wrote, when you are dying, will you really care who won that argument? And if not, why care so much now?

And so, with the help of Philosophy, we learn to live. Maybe we learn some other things too, like the difference between universals and particulars, but that’s all rather trivial compared to our own life and death, isn’t it?

4 Responses to To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die

  1. Jonathan says:

    Seems to me that when we confront death as a real possibility life becomes very vivid in a way that is both joyful and serious.

    The trivial low grade mere contentment of a life unthreatened by mortality is a life unaware of what it might lose.

    Why is it that we do not appreciate now what we would appreciate more if we lacked it?

    “What are the dreams of corpses? If the dead, decaying shells of humanity had consciousness, what thoughts would fester in the imagination. Hope and longing for this we call life – the time to breathe, the space to move. Die that you might live.”

  2. bill greene says:

    How to Enjoy REALLY Life
    A wise son recently taught me that the best way to enjoy our brief lives is, one, never attend a committee meeting, and, two, never watch the news. My own guess, after a lifetime of serious scholarly study, is to never read philosophy–it’s all crap and nonsense–Look instead to the actual past doings of real people, evaluate their successes and failures, feel their joy and their pain, learn from them and ignore the abstract arm-chair musings of all those wierd Great Thinkers. After all, all wisdom and progress came from the common people–See my book “Common Genius” for details. AND, on the matter of dying, there is that great story about Adam and Eve– They found themselves in this Paradise, with every food and drink possible, surrounded by natural beauty and magnificent sounds of nature, with no work needed, just pleasure and enjoyment to fill their minds. THEN, one day God came down and asked them, “Is everything to Your liking?” And of course they assured him their lives were perfect. Then HE asked them, “Is there any way at all that I could make it better?” And one of them said, “You know, we might enjoy it more if we knew it would someday end.”

  3. Larissa says:

    i stumbled upon this doing a simple world history project on Michel De Montaigne, and i must say it really had my interest…and i just wanted to add…..we all know that more than likely 99.9 percent of people know the saying “live every moment like it’s your last” right? well most also know is that is almost impossible, do you really go to the store and walk through that door and shop like it’s the last time you will…pushing the cart with a smile on your face buying the best of the bets because you know you may never get to again……that was a silly example but really… can’t live every moment like it’s your last…maybe for the fact humans are not wired to think like that… like the guy in the above comment said, instead of looking at the past and how you didn’t do something like you were dying, evaluate your success, your accomplishments, and the times that you did do something like it was your last….if you die happy with yourself i really don’t see the reason in taking everything to an extreme to “live like you were dying”

  4. Larissa says:

    however, i may add don’t be boring….take the saying as serious as possible..because i mean who doesn’t want to live to the fullest… THEY can any way

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