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   Literary and Philosophical Essays.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
That We Should Not Judge of Our Happiness Until after Our Death
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
              ———scilicet ultima semper
Expectanda dies homini est, dicique beatus
Ante obitum nemo, supremaque funera debet. 1
We must expect of man the latest day,
Nor ere he die, he’s happie, can we say.

  THE VERY children are acquainted with the storie of Croesus to this purpose: who being taken by Cyrus, and by him condemned to die, upon the point of his execution, cried out aloud: “Oh Solon, Solon!” which words of his, being reported to Cyrus, who inquiring what he meant by them, told him, hee now at his owne cost verified the advertisement Solon had before times given him; which was, that no man, what cheerful and blandishing countenance soever fortune shewed them, may rightly deeme himselfe happie, till such time as he have passed the last day of his life, by reason of the uncertaintie and vicissitude of humane things, which by a very light motive, and slight occasion, are often changed from one to another cleane contrary state and degree. And therefore Agesilaus answered one that counted the King of Persia happy, because being very young, he had gotten the garland of so mightie and great a dominion: “yea but said he, Priam at the same age was not unhappy.” Of the Kings of Macedon that succeeded Alexander the Great, some were afterward seene to become Joyners and Scriveners at Rome: and of Tyrants of Sicilie, Schoolemasters at Corinth. One that had conquered halfe the world, and been Emperour over so many Armies, became an humble and miserable suter to the rascally officers of a king of Ægypte: At so high a rate did that great Pompey purchase the irkesome prolonging of his life but for five or six months. And in our fathers daies, Lodowicke Sforze, tenth Duke of Millane, under whom the State of Italie had so long beene turmoiled and shaken, was seene to die a wretched prisoner at Loches in France, but not till he had lived and lingered ten yeares in thraldom, which was the worst of his bargaine. The fairest Queene, wife to the greatest King of Christendome, was she not lately seene to die by the hands of an executioner? Oh unworthie and barbarous crueltie! And a thousand such examples. For, it seemeth that as the sea-billowes and surging waves, rage and storme against the surly pride and stubborne height of our buildings, so are there above, certaine spirits that envie the rising prosperities and greatnesse heere below.
        Vsque adeò res humanas vis abdita quædam
Obterit, et pulchros fasces sævásque secures
Proculcare, ac ludibrio sibi habere videtur. 2
A hidden power so mens states hath out-worne
Faire swords, fierce scepters, signes of honours borne,
It seemes to trample and deride in scorne.
  And it seemeth Fortune doth sometimes narrowly watch the last day of our life, thereby to shew her power, and in one moment to overthrow what for many yeares together she had been erecting, and makes us cry after Laberius, Nimirum hac die unâ plus vixi, mihi quam vivendum fuit. 3 Thus it is, “I have lived longer by this one day than I should.” So many that good advice of Solon be taken with reason. But forsomuch as he is a Philosopher, with whom the favours or disfavours of fortune, and good or ill lucke have no place, and are not regarded by him; and puissances and greatnesses, and accidents of qualitie, are well-nigh in different: I deeme it very likely he had a further reach, and meant that the same good fortune of our life, which dependeth of the tranquillitie and contentment of a welborne minde, and of the resolution and assurance of a well ordered soule, should never be ascribed unto man, untill he have beene seene play the last act of his comedie, and without doubt the hardest. In all the rest there may be some maske: either these sophisticall discourses of Philosophie are not in us but by countenance, or accidents that never touch us to the quick, give us alwaies leasure to keep our countenance setled. But when that last part of death, and of our selves comes to be acted, then no dissembling will availe, then is it high time to speake plaine English, and put off all vizards: then whatsoever the pot containeth must be shewne, be it good or bad, foule or cleane, wine or water.
        Nam veræ voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Ejiciuntur, et eripitur persona, manet res. 4
For then are sent true speeches from the heart,
We are ourselves, we leave to play a part.
  Loe heere, why at this last cast, all our lives other actions must be tride and touched. It is the master-day, the day that judgeth all others: it is the day, saith an auncient Writer, that must judge of all my forepassed yeares. To death doe I referre the essay 5 of my studies fruit. There shall wee see whether my discourse proceed from my heart, or from my mouth. I have seene divers, by their death, either in good or evill, give reputation to all their forepassed life. Scipio, father-in-law to Pompey, in well dying, repaired the ill opinion which untill that houre men had ever held of him. Epaminondas being demanded which of the three he esteemed most, either Chabrias, or Iphicrates, or himselfe: “It is necessary,” said he, “that we be seene to die, before your question may well be resolved.” 6 Verily, we should steale much from him, if he should be weighed without the honour and greatnesse of his end. God hath willed it, as he pleased: but in my time three of the most execrable persons that ever I knew in all abomination of life, and the most infamous, have beene seen to die very orderly and quietly, and in every circumstance composed even unto perfection. There are some brave and fortunate deaths. I have seene her cut the twine of some man’s life, with a progresse of wonderful advancement, and with so worthie an end, even in the flowre of his growth and spring of his youth, that in mine opinion, his ambitious and haughtie couragious designes, thought nothing so high as might interrupt them, who without going to the place where he pretended, arrived there more gloriously and worthily than either his desire or hope aimed at, and by his fall fore-went the power and name, whither by his course he aspired. When I judge of other men’s lives, I ever respect how they have behaved themselves in their end; and my chiefest study is, I may well demeane my selfe at my last gaspe, that is to say, quietly and constantly.  3
Note 1. OVID. Met. l. iii. 135. [back]
Note 2. LUCRET. l. v. 1243. [back]
Note 3. MACROB. l. ii. c. 7. [back]
Note 4. LUCRET. l. iii. 57. [back]
Note 5. Assay, exact weighing. [back]
Note 6. Answered. [back]


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