By Mukul Kashyap
Death is an uncomfortable subject for most people.
Cultures around the world have different ways of dealing with death. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks left a penny for the boatman who took the dead to the afterlife. Christians believe in the Day of Judgment that leads to heaven or hell. Hinduism believes that the circle of life continues till a person acquires enough good Karma to attain Moksha. Most recently, terrorists believe that there are 72 virgins waiting for them post death.
Religion, thus, attempts to know the unknowable. It provides assurance that there is a life after death. For what would humans do if they thought there were no consequences to how they lived?
The Mysterious Montaigne
Montaigne is one of the most erudite philosophers of the 16th century and is best known for his “Essays.” In his essay, “On the length of life” he reflects on how we have been approaching death in the wrong fashion. According to Montaigne, wise men do not consider a long life as more satisfying than a short one.
Lived Too Fast and Died Too Young
‘Its better to burn out than to fade away,’ reads Kurt Cobain’s epitaph. Similarly James Dean, ‘too fast to live, too young to die,’ perished before his time. The twenty-seven club is a legitimate category in the rock universe of artists who died at the same age.
Reaching old age is considered natural and any deviation as such is an aberration. Montaigne dismisses such thinking by saying that, “What madness it is to expect to die of that failing of our powers brought on by extreme old age and to make that the target for our life to reach when it is the least usual, the rarest kind of death.”
For most people, the aim is to die as old as possible. But Montaigne challenges this belief by asserting that dying in our stage of second childishness (Shakespeare As You Like It, All the World’s A Stage) is not a fate one should look forward to. Deprived of our most basic faculties, it is not a glorious death. Moreover, very few people (at least in his times) died at such an advanced stage.
Age is Arbitrary
Montaigne shows the negatives of society that attempts to structure a person’s life according to their age.
Hindu texts outline four stages in a man’s life. The first twenty-five years are ‘Brahmacharya’, where a man is to be devoted to education and learning. The ages between twenty-five and fifty are ‘Grihastacharya’ where a man should amass resources and raise a family. Between fifty and seventy-five a man enters Vanaprastha, which means retirement. And post seventy-five one enters Sannyas or renunciation. Most cultures assign similar age related expectations.
A man is mostly seen as unable to manage his affairs before the age of twenty-five. Montaigne sees the fact that age equals maturity and responsibility as defective.
Montaigne also criticizes retirement age as an arbitrary number, which may not have any bearing on the abilities of an individual. During the Roman Period, Knights were exempt from active duty after the age of forty-five. Today most organizations cap sixty as the retirement age.
Montaigne believes that the problem lies on both fronts but is mainly based on not allowing people to take up responsibilities at a young age. The youth end up spending a majority of their 20s in education and unproductive work and are not able to realize their full potential until much later, due to these fetters. While a four-year college education is beneficial, it should not be a norm for everyone as it might feel like an enforced obligation.
The Sapling predicts the Tree
According to Montaigne, twenty is the age when a person begins to show his potential. A great artist will show early signs of creativity; a musician will have show a flair for melody, an investor will be following the markets while an aspiring writer will have penned down his first lines.
The natural qualities of an individual will have revealed themselves in some form by the age of twenty. If a person does not show any flair or talent by twenty; then he will begin showing the first signs of mediocrity.
“Si l’espine nou pique quand nai,
A peine que piqu jamai
If a thorn pricks not at its birth,
It will hardly prick at all.
If twenty can be considered the age when the first signs of a genius can be seen in a person, then thirty is the age by which a person would have polished his talents and made his first contribution. Montaigne goes on to give examples of Hannibal and Scipio who lived long fulfilling lives but had significant achievements before the age of thirty. Career oriented people will have settled into middle management positions by thirty, writers would have an established readership and lawyers will have sold a part of their soul to the devil.
One can argue that with age and experience comes a certain perspective and wisdom. Perhaps, an almost reverential respect for elders in the eastern hemisphere comes from this notion.
Montaigne characteristically dismisses such a notion by saying that vitality, firmness, quickness and more such qualities that define us begin to droop and fade with age.
“ Ubi jam validis quassatum est viribus ævi
Corpus, et obtusis ceciderunt viribus artus,
Claudicat ingenium, delirat linguaque mensque.
‘When the body is shattered by the mighty blows of age and our limbs shed their blunted powers, our wits too become lame and our tongues and our minds start to wander.’
With old age comes an infirmity of our physical and mental faculties. The decline in physical faculties is well marked with various health parameters. But the decline in mental faculties, which is a more serious infirmity, may not be apparent.
Thus, Montaigne shows that age can be a limiting marker and considering the frailty of our lives; we should start young at whatever we wish to succeed in.
Most people squander away their twenties in leisure and complacency since they know they have long decades of toil awaiting them. This is a false belief since we are at our most productive as well as our most creative in our twenties and thirties. The energy and vitality we possess at this stage should propel us to achievement.
So What Is The Right Age To Die?
Coming back to the original question, the right age to die could be tomorrow. An unnatural death or an illness could afflict us and take us to the afterlife sooner than we expect. But this realization can make us appreciate our limited time even more.
Rather then be on a quest to extend our life by any means possible, we should focus on our natural talents and make the best of our youth. The smokers and drinkers among us can stop getting worried about how they’ll die ten years earlier than everyone else and instead, focus on making positive contributions and living life to the fullest while they can.
As Neil Young very rightly said:
It’s better to burn out, than to fade away
Thought provoking article. Fact still remains that a vast majority of humans are actually not contributing anything to the mankind. They get mingled into the mediocre crowd at an early age, may be earlier than their twenties, and stay there till the call comes. For them fading away is the only option because they do not have it in them to burn out.
While I agree that burning out may sound a preferred option, but when does a person know when he’s fully burnt out? When he gets tired? Tired of doing the same thing over and over again and improving at it? When along the path of burning out, one realizes that one has potential to do better things than what one had been doing thus far, what does he or she do? Start burning out in new found talent?
I admire Mukul’s deep understanding of philosophy of life and how it can be made meaningful. But afterlife should not be a motivator to decide how we live our life. Unfortunately, it is.
So what’s the right age to die?
It remains a “yaksh prashna” !!