Wishing to Die

It can be quite unsettling to us when someone expresses a desire to die.

Even when a person is very elderly and is naturally approaching death, hearing them say that they want to die can sound to us like a complaint, a cry for help.

Yet, Michel de Montaigne has a very articulate reflection on how ageing and illness naturally draws a person into resignation concerning death and toward an acceptance of it in a way that makes sense.

He says:

I notice that in proportion as I sink into sickness, I naturally enter into a certain disdain for life. I find that I have much more trouble digesting this resolution when I am in health than when I have a fever. Inasmuch as I no longer cling so hard to the good things of life when I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, I come to view death with much less frightened eyes. This makes me hope that the farther I get from life and the nearer to death, the more easily I shall accept the exchange. . . . If we fell into such a change [decrepitude] suddenly, I don’t think we could endure it. But when we are led by Nature’s hand down a gentle and virtually imperceptible slope, bit by bit, one step at a time, she rolls us into this wretched state and makes us familiar with it; so that we find no shock when youth dies within us, which in essence and in truth is a harder death than the complete death of a languishing life or the death of old age; inasmuch as the leap is not so cruel from a painful life as from a sweet and flourishing life to a grievous and painful one.

The process of increasingly psychophysical acceptance of death is meant to be gradual. It is neither meant to be inordinately prolonged nor inordinately cut short.

If we make, as Hans Jonas puts it, “an existential interpretation of biological facts,” we can see that natural death is profoundly purposive.

Photo: Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris in January 2016

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