Learning How to Die

David Randall

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted by First Things and is posted here with permission.


How should colleges educate students? We have wandered a long way from what Michel de Montaigne thought should be the first principles of education.

For it seems to me that the first lessons in which we should steep his [the student’s] mind must be those that regulate his behavior and his sense, that will teach him to know himself and to die well and live well. Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that liberates us.

Montaigne did not mean “liberation” as the devotees of Paolo Freire’s pedagogy understand it. Montaigne wrote, “He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.” No education matters more.

Modern American colleges dedicate themselves instead to life without limits, and the cant progressive politics of our day. The mission statements sprawl, paragraph piled on paragraph. Bureaucrats and professors unable to edit themselves teach an object lesson in the fruits of indiscipline. “Virtue . . . is a state of character concerned with choice,” said the philosopher; and colleges unable even to choose one guiding institutional virtue educate their students to a similar incapacity to choose, to develop character, to live by virtue.

Of course, students miseducated in such a regime display little virtue in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. They have no knowledge of how to die well, or even that they should. Death is a long way away: “Tan largo me lo fiáis,” said Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, and he had nothing on today’s college students. Nor do they know that to live well also means to help others to die well—or that it is fitting behavior to live so as to forestall others’ deaths, to overcome as best we can our natural dread of the grave, timor mortis conturbat me.

Colleges should educate citizens capable of working intelligently to bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic. But they should also educate citizens to endure the coronavirus—and, if it is so fated, to meet a fatal illness with dignity. So Montaigne:

Amid ladies and games, someone would think me involved in digesting some jealousy by myself, or the uncertainty of some hope, while I was thinking about I don’t remember whom, who had been overtaken a few days before by a hot fever and by death, on leaving a similar feast, his head full of idleness, love, and a good time.

“To philosophize,” Montaigne concludes, drawing on Cicero, “is nothing else but to prepare for death . . . all the wisdom and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.”

What college teaches that lesson? What college even remembers that the point of a liberal education is such philosophizing? They teach instead social justice, a mix of Marx and Marcuse, a blend of personal and social “transformation,” adhered to the sty of Carlyle’s pig-philosophy:

Moral evil is unattainability of Pig’s-wash; moral good, attainability of ditto. . . . It is the mission of universal Pighood, and the duty of all Pigs, at all times, to diminish the quantity of unattainable and increase that of attainable. All knowledge and device and effort ought to be directed thither and thither only; Pig Science, Pig Enthusiasm and Devotion have this one aim. It is the Whole Duty of Pigs.

What education policy to prescribe to fix so profound a failure by our professors and college presidents? Policy reform is sticking plaster on a wound to the soul, which needs the strongest physic: “Therefore now amend your ways and your doings.” Perhaps a Mortality Awareness Law, a Biron’s Bill out of Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Anyone employed by or attending an institution of higher education must first spend twelve months working in a hospice for the terminally ill.”

You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

Make our hospices our preparatory schools. Perhaps then we will have professors who can truly teach and students who can truly learn.


David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Portrait of Michel de Montaigne, Public Domain

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