Montaigne ascribes the quote about philosophy being the act of learning how to die to Cicero; it may well have been Socrates or someone else. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t tell you much about how you are supposed to think about it. Webster, roughly contemporary with Shakespeare and according to Eliot was much concerned with death. Shakespeare too, if we can interpret him through his characters. Consider Hamlet, constantly musing on it; what happens after death is his issue, ‘the undiscovered land from whose bourne no traveller returns’. Claudio, in Measure for Measure, runs a similar vein (‘Ay, but to die and go we know not where/To lie in cold obstruction and to rot’), written maybe in the year after Hamlet, 1602. Ten years before in Richard III Clarence’s dream of his own death is equally lurid, a mysterious journey inflected by guilt, where he is taunted by the ghosts of his past. At this time we were taught by religion to think on our death, to ponder it in all its gory detail. Shakespeare takes this on board though the religious get-out clause rarely fires his imagination.
The turning point comes with Montaigne after a riding accent. Before that he did what he was told and fretted about death, its torments and particularities. After his brush with death when he was thrown from his horse perhaps by another insouciant rider or perhaps by careless gunfire, where he felt he had drifted unknowingly into death’s ambit, he reviewed this approach. Death was just a few blurry moments at the end of life. Best not worry about it too much. And so to Goethe in the 1820s in his poem on the contemplation of Schiller’s skull. When you compare it with Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yoric it is uplifting. We might be tempted to see the skull and, like Hamlet with Yoiric’s skull, lament the terror of bones where once there was flesh. But no, the skull is a cause for refreshing thoughts because of what the man was and what he did in life. Goethe, unsurprisingly, had little truck with religion; he shook his head at the image of the crucified Christ. For him death was, as for Montaigne, just a nice blur at the end of life.
Cheering you up this post-Easter week.