Montaigne on Euthanasia

Following the surgeon’s rule when he cuts off a limb, I declared that life should be amputated at the point where it is alive and healthy; he who repays not his debt to nature in good time usually finds she exacts interest with a vengeance.

Montaigne suffered from colic pain. I sympathise: I have been woken with pain so severe that I thought of getting a taxi to A&E, though knowing what it is and that it goes makes it easier to bear. I suffered occasionally, so have sympathy over his chronic colic without modern painkillers. Yet he found that during his paroxysms he could communicate, and to some extent converse, beyond the sighs, sobs, tremblings and drainings of colour which Nature has placed beyond our control.

He quotes Maecenas: lop off a hand; lop off a foot and a thigh; pull out all my teeth; life itself is Good.

It makes sense to me. The thing I imagine to be unbearable becomes bearable. Slowly losing my mind to dementia or my physical powers (reading an author, I find myself imitating them) seems horrible. Yet, in that state, I am not sure I would long for death.

In those cases where people go to Switzerland to die, when they can still make the journey, they do not know how it would be actually to be reduced, as they know their illness will reduce them. Would they long for death constantly, or find some consolation?

Paradoxically, then, I would permit a doctor to assist a suicide of someone terminally ill or with a severe condition, at home or in hospital: because then the person could wait longer, and might find the unimaginable bearable. My fear of [these pains] exceeded the suffering they now cause me: that fact further increases my belief that most of the faculties of our soul disturb our life’s repose rather than serve it. They might think of death, then listen to the siren song:
You don’t have to-
Not yet…

Montaigne portrait

6 thoughts on “Montaigne on Euthanasia

  1. Yes I have experienced moments of such excruciating (as in migraines I used to suffer from) that death was an option that looked most attractive – more than ever having to go through excruciating pain ever again even if it does go away…one can easily see how people who experience no relief from pain etc choose not to want this life any longer etc…but still euthanasia does steal every hope…and that is one things I cannot personally condone…others do


  2. You say, Claire, “when they can still make the journey, they do not know how it would be actually to be reduced, as they know their illness will reduce them.” I think you will find that those who opt for assisted dying are fully aware of their conditions, and what future they face. Furthermore, those who do opt for AD are carefully counselled first and all other options available put to them.

    Many who condone AD state that we treat animals better than human beings. One wonders just how many are aware of the stark reality of that statement. When an animal is suffering without any hope of recovery, we euthanise it as a kindness. But while in pain an animal at least is unaware of what is happening to it. Human beings, as sapient creatures can be all too aware of what is happening to their bodies and what terrors lie ahead. I watched both my parents die of cancer, and I am learned enough about it that were I to develop terminal cancer, I would never allow myself to live through what they were forced to go through, against their wishes. I can’t afford Switzerland, so it would have to be a backpack full of bricks and a walk into the canal.

    My parents, when in full command of their faculties, both exclaimed that they would never want to linger, to hold on when all quality of life was gone. Due to arcane laws, based on. sprry, but I have to say it, a book of goat herders campfire tales, that is exactly what happened to them. My mother passed in 1998, my father in 2009, both in pain, both with no dignity or quality of life left, and I am still angry about that, very angry.

    Anything else apart, I see the refusal to allow euthanasia as a civil liberties issue. Just exactly is the law saying? That they somehow own our person, our bodies? I consider that an unwelcome intrusion into our personal lives and an infringement of human rights. My body, my person, are my own, which I should be allowed to do with as I wish. They are not the property of the state, far less of any church. And the same goes for each and every individual.

    I have seen palliative care in the UK in action. It is wonderful, as are the nurses and doctors who administer it, and who are among the most humane, most caring and compassionate people it has ever been my pleasure to meet, despite the circumstances of my meeting them being terrible. Yet they would be the first to admit that there are limits to what palliative care can do. There is only so much care you can give to the dying to make them comfortable. There is only so much you can do to give them a little dignity. There is only so much morphine sulphate you can administer to those in pain, the irony being that if they administer too much, they would kill the patient, which is illegal.

    I would also say that palliative care professionals, who know what they are talking about, are certainly a lot more caring and compassionate than the fundamentalist religious busybodies (not you dear) who steadfastly opposed AD on the grounds that it is against the Bible. Note that these are often the same people who will scream “abominition” at people like you and I.

    The Scottish Parliament is currently reviewing the Assisted Suicide Bill, as submitted by the late Margo MacDonald MSP, who died of Parkinson’s Disease last year. I admired Margo greatly, and met her once. She was a firebrand campaigner for social justice, who also had a heart as big as a house. I certainly hope when it comes to the vote that the parliament pass her bill into law. If they do not, then they will be going against 75% of Scots polled who fully support it.


  3. Xandrad makes a good point. I worked in a hospice for a while and heard the comments from the staff. There are limits to what even the most wonderful, specialist staff can do for terminally ill people in pain. I was in so much pain with my first birth that I genuinely just wanted to die, I couldn’t take it anymore. I can’t imagine having that kind of excruciating pain ongoing, plus knowing it’s impossible to get better, only worse.


    • There are two aspects to pain: the sensation, and the emotional component. Pain indicates something is wrong, and produces fear. A frontal lobotomy removes the emotional reaction: there is only the sensation. Montaigne felt he could come to accept the pain by stoic virtue, and live despite it, though he had not realised that beforehand. Not knowing, I wonder whether I could. My friend who died from MS at first took less painkillers than would remove the pain completely, in order to keep her mind clear. Before she lost all muscle control, she gave that up, taking the painkillers and tolerating her fuzzy, intoxicated thinking. Whether she would have found both those alternatives intolerable if she could have chosen euthanasia, I do not know.


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