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Bonadeo, Alfredo, Montaigne and Death, Romanische Forschungen, 92:4 (1980)

p.359

Alfredo Bonadeo/Santa Barbara,

Ca.

MONTAIGNE AND DEATH

The intense and somewhat nervous concern with death that Montaigne displays in the Essays by no means makes man's last act "an
incident that hardly ruffles the surface of a serene life" 1 . The French
writer insistently returns to his theme; he struggles at length with it,
but in the end does not succeed in reconciling himself to the inexorable
fact of extinction, nor in dispelling his persistent fear of it 2 . "Tamed
death", a term used by Philippe Aris to describe Renaissance man's
peaceful, or at least conscious acceptance of death 3 , is certainly not
Montaigne's attitude. Contrary to a fairly common position, his
thought and life are not left untouched by fear 4 ; his pervasive uncertainty and inquietude, his "angoisse de la m o r t . . . cette vritable psychose dont il souffrait" 5 , are indeed the roots of a considerable effort
made to master them; an effort that for Montaigne the humanist should
require the service of human wisdom and intelligence. "All the wisdom
and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us
not to be afraid to die", he remarks in the early chapter "That to
philosophize is to learn to die" 6 .
One facet of Montaig ne's thinking about death is the lucid awareness
of its ineluctability coupled to an apparent calm, almost indifferent
acceptance, sustained by aloof rationalizations. He proclaims not to
nourish any excessive hope in a long life even when he is in the best
state of health, because death intrudes into life unexpectedly, not
according to one's reasoned expectations. Demise by old age is a pros1

Robert Sayce, The Essays of Montaigne. A Critical Exploration, London 1972,


p. 135.
2
T. M. Green, "Montaigne and the Savage Infirmity", The Yale Review, 46
(1957), 195.
3

Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans.
P. M. Ranum, Baltimore and London 1974, pp. 1-25.
4
Alberto Tenenti, Il senso dlia morte e I'amore della vita nel Rinascimento
(Francia e Italia), Turin 1957, p. 416; Hugo Friedrich, Montaigne, trans. R. Rovini
Paris 1968, p. 272.
5

Jean Frappier, "Montaigne et la mort", Romance Philology, 30 (1976), 14.


The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. D. M. Frame, Stanford 1966, pp. 56,
57. All references to this work are indicated in the text by page numbers.
6

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Alfredo Bonadeo

pect that may comfort man, but that also develops a dangerous attachment to life; in most cases it is an illusion, for it is the "rarest of all
deaths and the least customary"; therefore he bravely counsels, "we
must be always booted and ready to go" (pp. 61, 236). Furthermore,
the hope for death brought on by old age almost amounts to clinging
to life for life's sake, an egocentric and wrong attitude disapproved
by both the behavior and the words of the "sages". Wisdom tells man
to live only so long as one should, not so long as one can. Death, after
all, is not the worst evil that may befall man; other experiences, such as
unbearable pain or the uncontrolled working of the imagination, are
indeed far worse than physical extinction (p. 252). Nevertheless, the
hope for a death late in life is so widespread and stubborn that a large
number of people die convinced that their departure from this world
is premature. This is a palpably erroneous notion rooted in human
presumption, in the excessive importance that man places upon himself: "It seems that the universe somehow suffers f r o m our annihilation."
Loss of life is indeed much less relevant than people think, Montaigne pertinaciously argues: since the dead can neither suffer nor have
regrets, he who undergoes death cannot even regret it. On the contrary, it is the living who might suffer from the fear and anticipation
of it. But Montaigne contends that Christian religion whose surest
human foundation is precisely "contempt for life", that is, disdain for
everything pertaining to this world, is a valid support to his view that
life is much less valuable than commonly thought (pp. 64, 458). U n doubtedly the French gentleman plays fast and loose with religious
concepts as he willfully ignores that the Christian contempt for life on
earth is rooted in the notion of the immortality of the soul in another
world, a belief foreign to his intellectual scheme. In any event, his bias
reveals a singular eagerness to reduce both the excessive importance
man usually places upon his own existence, and his excessive attachment to it. Thus the reduction of the value of life alleviates fear for its
loss in the same way that the Christian dogma's emphasis on life's
insignificance also lightens the fear of death. But whereas Christian
man's belief in the immortality of the soul and the day of judgment
never allows him to escape the thought and fear of evil, Montaigne's
conscious acceptance of non-being has the virtue of lifting from existence the oppressive thought of evil, and providing a freedom that
improves the quality of life: "There is nothing evil in life for the man
who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not

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an evil" (p. 60). And the passing away of life cannot be an evil because
it is an indissoluble part of the living process, "death mingles and fuses
with our life throughout". Decline foretells extinction, and every day
is a small but irreversible step toward death; thus, "you are in death
while you are in life". Sudi are the laws that rule existence, and therefore recoiling from death is absurd: "What does it [death] m a t t e r . . .
since it is inevitable?" (pp. 64-67, 846).
Montaigne concedes that according to God's commandment no one
is at liberty to part with his own life; he acknowledges that suicide
was prohibited by Plato's Laws, and explicitly stigmatized by the
ignominious burials given to those who committed it; he is also well
aware that the unflinching endurance of suffering and adversity is an
admirable mark of heroism. But he finds history "diock full" of individuals who chose death over a painful existence, and he approves of
suicide as necessary under certain circumstances. Thus he subscribes
to the view held by the ancients that "it is time to die when there is
more evil than good in living". Unerring Seneca advised a prominent
political personage to drastically modify his way of life or give it up
altogether, for suicide would be better than corrupt living. And Seneca
himself in choosing death luminously showed thath this is preferable to
living in a world that Nero had rendered wicked and unjust. Even
"pain and fear of a worse death" appear to be perfectly acceptable
motives for suicide (pp. 161-162, 253, 257, 262). The "olympic stand"
with respect to suicide which according to one critic expresses submission to death when it comes, to life as long as it lasts 7 , shows that
renouncing life, far from desperation or blind impulse, can be a rational and serene choice.
Untroubled resignation to non-existence is all the more remarkable
because of Montaigne's complete lack of faith in immortality 8 , that is,
in an after life that might compensate for the loss of life on earth: this
earthly existence is "the only one he has", and it is the only one that
has any meaning to him 9 . The immortality of the soul is unacceptable
because it cannot be proven by the human mind; it depends on revelation, but to Montaigne faith in God's word alone is apparently insufficient to establish the belief in immortality. He is rather in sympathy
with some radical ancient philosophers who rejected the existence of
7

Friedrich, Montaigne, p. 287.


Ibid., p. 305.
8
Erich Auerbach, "L'humaine condition*, Mimesis. The Representation of Reality
in Western Literature, trans. W. Trask, Princeton 1968, p. 310.
8

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a human soul at all on the ground that the soul, an eminently incorporeal entity, cannot coexist with the body. The idea of two profoundly
different substances such as body and soul living in the same being is in
fact so repugnant as to be unconceivable:
What more detached
Can we imagine, more repugnant, more ill-matched,
Than an immortal and a mortal thing, together,
Trying to stay united through the fiercest weather? (p. 413)

Furthermore, the concept of reward and punishment, the very essence


of life after death according to Christian teaching, disproves rather than
support, the concept of immortality. The promised enjoyments can
either be of a human or a divine nature. If they are human one must
admit that they must be paltry, for they cannot have anything in
common with infinity or sublimity. If they are divine, then they must
be so different f r o m those of this miserable existence and so removed
from the capacity of our mind to conceive them in their grandeur and
ineffability that they are utterly incomprehensible to man's intellect,
and for all practical purposes non-existent. As for punishment, its
meaninglessness is obvious: since men are not deterred from committing crimes by the threat of jail or death on earth, they will be restrained even less from sinning by the threat of fire and torture in an hypothetical after-life (pp. 385, 530).
But death does not simply mean a sudden plunge into a world where
all is permanently obliterated; it is a complete process that must be
fully experienced and implies living through a transitional phase, "le
moment du passage" 10 from being to not being. And Montaigne's
meditations dwell heavily on the operation of death itself. Already in
the beginning pages of his work he discusses the circumstances which
usually surround the death bed and their influence upon the dying: "It
is those dreadful faces and trappings with which we surround it [death]
that frighten us more than death i t s e l f : . . . the cries of mothers, wives,
and children, the visits of people dazed and benumbed by grief . . . ;
in short, everything horror and fright around us" (p. 68). Montaigne is
greatly preoccupied by this particular moment that he, like everyone
else, will eventually face, but he does not know how to deal with it in
that dispassionate, self-assured manner that characterizes his reflections
on death simply as the disappearance of life. He endeavors to reason
away his concern with the moment of death by arguing that it resides in
10

Frappier, "Montaigne et la mort", 13.

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the pain which is usually associated with it: what "we principally fear
in death is pain, its customary forerunner". And he dismisses his preoccupation with the unpleasant sensations of the passage as being
merely a product of the imagination: "Death is felt only by the mind,
since it is a momentary passage"; more precisely, "the instant and
point of passing a w a y , . . . is not to be feared that it carries with it any
travail or pain" (pp. 37, 268). But already in the first version of the
Essays this concern shows signs of heightening as a clear distinction is
made between fear of death as non-existence, which is deemed unimportant, and dying, the fearful moment of passage: "It is not death,
but dying that I fear", he quotes Epicharmus. And Pliny, too, who
deemed a quick death one of life's greatest fortunes, apparently harboured the same type of fear, the fear of being unable to negotiate the
final passage. Montaigne realizes that this dread is not peculiar to a
few men, but seems to be quite common as the ordinary behavior of
men condemned to death suggests; they hurry as much as they can to
meet the end, not out of resolution, but because they want to erase the
time and unbearable tension that separate them f r o m the fatal moment.
Very mucii like Montaigne himself, they do not fear being deprived of
life, but going through the process of extinction: "Being dead does not
trouble them, but dying does indeed." Of course there have been men
who stared into death's face without flinching, like Socrates whose
thirty days long meditation upon his own death sentence did not impair his inner or external composure; or like Pomponius Atticus, Cicero's correspondent, who possessed such fortitude that he refused to
be cured of his illness because he was anxious to face the moment of
death, not to get over with it quickly, but to make a display of bravery
in facing it (pp. 460-461). But these are examples f a r too rare, too
"illustrious" to be imitated by ordinary men, or even by Montaigne,
never a self proclaimed hero. Nevertheless, the urge to overcome the
terror of life's last moments persists and inspires sometimes slightly
wild fantasies. In the second version of the Essays he writes of recklessly and fearlessly plunging into mortally dangerous situations for
the purpose of abbreviating the duration of the "passage", and to
render it as painless as possible: "I plunge head down . . . into death,
without looking at i t . . . , as into a silent and dark abyss which swallows me up at one leap and overwhelms me in an instant with a heavy
sleep from feeling and pain. And in these quick and violent deaths, the
consequence that I foresee gives me more comfort than the occurrence
gives me fear." A quick death free from pain is a strong, but most likely

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Alfredo Bonadeo

unattainable ideal, for that sentence does not represent a resolution on


the part of the writer, it is mere work of the imagination, as the words
that introduce it reveal: "It often happens that I imagine . . . " (p. 742).
Negotiating the rough and dark passage is to remain Montaigne's
obsession throughout the Essays, and presumably throughout his life.
"Dying . . . is the greatest task we have to perform." And therefore it
must be difficult, for it seems impossible to prepare for it: "We are all
apprentices when we come to it." He fixes then his gaze with stupefied
admiration upon those rare examples of people in history whose behavior "in that instant of death, so short and brief", showed fearlessness
and perfect composure. Canius Julius, for example, noble, virtuous,
and prodigiously resolute, who on the point of being executed told a
friend he was concentrating on capturing the essence of the moment
of death: perceiving the dislodgment of the soul from the body
(p. 267). Montaigne's "average" temper could hardly reach such
heights: it was more likely to succumb to the mundane and somewhat
morbid preoccupations about the manner of death that did nothing to
assuage the anxiety surrounding the passage. He worries about various
possible types of deaths, natural and violent ones, such as being crushed
to earth in a fall from a building or pierced by a sword. Some type
would appear more comfortable than others; he felt that drowning in
the channel of a shallow river would be infinitely better than burning
in a fiery furnace. He dreads dying in bed (as he, however, eventually
did), because it is an " a b j e c t , . . . lingering, and distressing" end; his
preference is for death in war, in which the exhilarating and tumultuous fervor of battle dispels pain and fear, and dissipates "the painful
anticipation of a lingering and elaborate death" (pp. 633, 841).
But reality, rather than his excited fantasies, helped Montaigne to
reconcile himself to some extent with the moment of death. He discovers that sickness does not engender helplessness and desperation, but
it actually boosts the morale. While in health the thought of the
moment of departure from the world is extremely painful because it is
so incongruous with the present condition. In illness, on the contrary,
he experiences a "certain disdain for life". By virtue of its very nature
disease "gently" separates man from life as he is gradually carried
closer to extinction; it diminishes his attachment to life, so that death is
perceived with much less terror than in a state of full physical well
being: "The farther I get from life", Montaigne confesses, "and the
nearer to death, the more easily I shall accept the exchange" (p. 63).
This process of "familiarization" with death that seems to soften or

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even eliminate the excruciating starkness of the encounter with the


grim reaper is not bookish 11 because it is reasserted on the basis of
personal experience as it appears from the essay "Of practice", where
the author reminisces about an accident, a fall from the horse, of perhaps two years earlier. Montaigne felt he had come face to face with
death, but he describes the sensation experienced immediately after the
spill as pleasant and delicate, and relates that he took pleasure in
abandoning himself to a state of growing languor. He defines the experience "not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling* one perceives when sliding into a deep slumber (pp. 269-270).
Thus the revelation has come to him that physical disability carries no
suffering with itself 12 . Only after he recovers his senses, when the
danger of losing his life has receded, the fear of meeting death returns
to oppress him 13 . This curious but symptomatic correlation between
physical impairment and the vision of death is later reinforced in
Montaigne by the disease that attacked him around 1578 and that was
to torment him intermittently for the rest of his existence. The stone,
he writes, brings him a "profit", a complete reconciliation and familiarization with death since now his suffering, which is the prelude to
death, breaks down the barrier between life and its opposite: "The
more my illness oppresses and bothers me, the less will death be something for me to fear" (p. 576). The disease will continue to play this
mediating role later in the Essays, as well as in life, by "artfully and
gently" weaning Montaigne from life, almost compelling him to be a
"brave man". Under its recurrent attacks death becomes a more familiar and less fearful vision as he every so often "shakes hands" with it

(p. 837).
It has been said that Montaigne's sickness throws a bridge between
life and death 1 4 ; but what is precisely the nature of this connection,
and how does it reduce the horror for the moment of death? Unquestionably Montaigne's fear decreases, but the contraction occurs not
because he has gained, through a new belief or attitude, control over it,
but because the impairment of life and the reduction of vitality have
made existence less attractive and death correspondingly less repugnant. Furthermore, his dread, that is, his psychic suffering, is superseded or outweighed by another concern, that for the precariousness of
11
12
18
u

As Frappier, ibid., 16, maintains.


Ibid., p. 17.
Friedrich, Montaigne, p. 291.
Ibid., p. 312.

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his physical condition; as Marx once remarked, the most powerful


antidote "to mental suffering is physical pain" 1 5 .
But concern for death is not confined to the effort to prepare for it,
to minimize or eliminate the uncertainty and fear surrounding man's
last hour. It has a third dimension, man's attitude toward his own
existence in view of its extinction. "Death holds less pain than does the
wait for death", Montaigne quotes Ovid (p. 37); and man's wait for
death may span nearly all of his lifetime. H o w does the thought of
impending death affect his living? The French gentleman tries very
hard to convince himself that he is able to ward off, or at least control
the anxiety attending the wait for the inevitable demise, but not very
successfully. He recognizes that this preoccupation may be so strong as
to deprive man of his inner freedom, and that, vice versa, he, and
humanity could indeed live free only if they despised death (p. 251).
To be able to disdain it one must rid oneself of the fear of it, and to
achieve this freedom Montaigne proposes assiduous meditation upon it,
for he believes that "premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom". At the time he was not aware that concentration upon death to
master it is a method entailing considerable risks as it may generate
obsession and fright rather than relief. In any case Montaigne in the
early stages of the Essays urges thinking about death "at every moment", and to keep it present "in our imagination in all its aspects", in
the midst of all our activities, pleasant or less enjoyable ones. He not
only suggests assiduous meditation, but he also claims to have personally "formed the habit of having death continually present, not merely
in my imagination, but in my mouth". The Egyptians who were so
concerned with extinction and after-life must have known what they
were doing when in the course of their festivities and greatest pleasures
they had the skeleton of a dead man brought in and exhibited to joyful
gatherings. This served to remind them that death threatens man at
every step of his way and that human happiness and life may be
snatched away at any moment. Supposedly this procedure helped to
strengthen mind and heart to face the inevitable outcome of existence,
and taught them to "unlearn . . . how to be a slave" of the fear of death
(pp. 60, 62). To keep the thought of the end from upsetting one's life,
one may, besides premeditation, usefully "practice" death, and in the
essay appropriately entitled "Of practice" the author theorizes that

15

Quoted by W. H. Auden, "The Megrims", The New York Review of Books,


16 (1971), 26.

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identifying in one's mind sleep and its immediately precedent phase


with approaching death "makes us more fortified and assured" (p. 268).
However, in the third book of the Essays the notion of relying upon
premeditation to avoid falling prey to weakness and desperation in the
course of one's life loses strength. Montaigne realizes that the capacity
to make oneself nervelessly familiar with death does not belong to the
average man. Only the exceptional one possesses the strength to undergo the process of familiarization as outlined by Montaigne; and only
he can derive the intended benefits from it. For the French writer only
one man had in fact that skill, Socrates: "It belongs to the one and
only Socrates to become acquainted with death with an ordinary
countenance, to become familiar with it and play with it" (p. 632).
Even great philosophers and sages experienced considerable difficulties
in gaining an ordinary countenance in life at the thought of death, or
in any way adjusting their existence to death. Seneca, for example, was
successful, but the labor and tension employed in "steeling and reassuring himself" were such as to arouse more doubts for the outcome
than admiration for his endeavor (p. 795). To lesser men than Socrates
and Seneca trying to adjust life to the grim reality of death "has given
more torment than the dying" itself, for the thought of further, more
acute suffering in the future when death closes in is perhaps worse than
a pain objectively experienced. If it is true that it is "our inability to
stand the idea of death that makes us unable to stand pain", then when
fear, rather than self-confidence prevails, man compounds his torment,
for "he who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fears" (pp.
38, 804).
But at this point of his thinking Montaigne also discovers that
ordinary men who have never worried about death and who have
never tried to make their inner life more comfortable in view of the
very uncomfortable prospect of extinction, men like the peasants of
the Prigord hit by the plague in 1585, spontaneously possess that
capacity that the sages of the universe, as well as Montaigne, have
anxiously sought, but in vain. In the presence of death their life runs
undisturbed, calm, controlled, and their faces and voices are "so little
frightened that it seemed that they had made their peace with this
necessity". They are at peace both with themselves and with probable,
imminent extinction; their chief concern is with the possible disappearance of their relatives that will leave them in an horrible solitude and
with making arrangements for the burial of their own bodies. Those
uncultured people had not exercised their mind and imagination in

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Alfredo Bonadeo

subduing the specter of death; and they had not done so because taming the thought of death in life had never been a problem in their existence. They spontaneously avoided the problem possibly because they
livecT simply and naturally, the kind of life which, as Montaigne himself had recognized, was the most effective restraint to the unbridled
and prostrating rumination of the mind and imagination (pp. 802-805).
Thus it was becoming evident that meditation upon death does very
little to build tranquillity and self-confidence in life; on the contrary, it
causes more problems than it solves 16 .
The revelation that the peasants of the Prigord approached their
end with unsuspected and enviable composure suggested that knowing
how to die depends perhaps to a large extent upon a particular manner
of living: "If we have known to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we
shall know how to die in the same w a y " (p. 805). Whether by steadfastness and tranquillity Montaigne means a self-imposed style of life
or a "natural" style such as peasants lead, one cannot tell for sure. In
any event, it is clear that he comes to regard the quality and character
of one's existence as the determinant element in the approach and
acceptance of death. An appropriate life style would seem to provide a
smooth transition from being to non-being; it builds a character whose
strength remains intact when physical resources fail and extinction
knocks on the door. But could mere steadfastness and tranquillity serve
Montaigne's purpose? Or did he not aspire to confer to his own existence a character somewhat superior to one built merely on constancy
and placidity? That such an aspiration did indeed prevail is revealed
by his reflections on the death of Cato the Younger who in the last
version of the Essays appears to be in perfect self-control, totally unperturbed by the approaching end: "The extreme degree in treating
death courageously, and the most natural, is to see it not only without
being stunned, but without concern, continuing the course of life freely
right into death. Like Cato, who spent his time sleeping and studying
while having present in head and heart a violent and bloody death,
and holding it in his hand." Cato's attitude surely reveals a noble and
strong character, but what is its root? It is the moral and political
values he believed in, namely his love of liberty; as Cicero wrote, Cato
"had to die rather than look upon the face of a tyrant" (pp. 309, 515).
Death, then, no longer terrorizes man, causing him to violently recoil
from it; it is a "strong" death, faithfully reflecting life's character
16

Cf. Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought, N e w York 1963, p. 99.

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(p. 309) 17 . It is truly a part of the living process in the sense that it can
be the direct outcome of man's moral choice, the expression of the belief
that opposition to tyranny and love of liberty are values transcending
both life and death. Against the background of those passionate ideals
death is a negligible event.
To what degree does the admiration Montaigne holds for Cato's life
and demise influence his own life style and death? In the last of his
Essays he writes: "It takes management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice
as mudi as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater
or lesser attention that we lend it. Especially at this moment, when I
perceive that mine is so brief in time, I try to increase it in weight. . .
The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make
it. w As the French gentleman approaches the end, his appreciation of
life increases; and the more intense his feeling for life, the less repugnant extinction becomes: " N o t to dislike dying is properly becoming
only to those who like living" (p. 853). But what are the values and
ideals supporting this attitude? As the passage quoted above makes
clear, it is "enjoyment" of life 18 , that is, a passive "use" of existence.
And it is a value opposite to "enrichment" of life by means of the cultivation and pursuit of noble ideals whose affirmation rendered both
life and death indifferent to Cato. As for Montaigne it can be certainly
said that as he approaches extinction his love of life grows 19 ; but this
correlation is explained only by the gain in value of an increasingly
shrinking possession, that is, life, not by an expansion of a spiritual or
ideological horizon holding permanent values. Montaigne's death will
not in fact possess the character that distinguished Cato's. As he himself confesses, he has not developed that inner tension capable of
transcending all preoccupations about extinction, and he is still concerned about the manner of his own death: "I have not attained that
. . . vigor which finds fortitude in itself . . . ; I am a peg lower . . . It is
not my idea to prove or display my fortitude in this act of dying . . .
I am content with a collected, calm, and solitary death, all my own, in
keeping with my retired and private life" (p. 748). Perhaps Montaigne
17

In connection with Cato's death Montaigne writes that "every death should
correspond with its life. We do not become different for dying. I always interpret
the death by the life" (p. 309).
18
For Montaigne living entails first of all gaining freedom "from everything
that might waste or hinder the enjoyment of life". Auerbach, Mimesis> p. 310.
19
Frappier, "Montaigne et la mort", p. 11; Tenenti, Il senso dlia morte e Vamore
della vita, p. 416.

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Alfredo Bonadeo

modestly tended to underestimate the quality of his life and his inner
resources, but the external circumstances preceding, and attending, his
death do portray indeed a plain, conventional conclusion to existence,
not an epilogue that marks victory over death. The gentleman from
the Prigord expired quietly surrounded by family and friends, and,
forgetful of having once denied the immortality of the soul, in the
conforting arms of the Catholic church.

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