To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die

January 21, 2008


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?