This essay includes Montaigne’s harshest and funniest insult. In discussing Cato the Elder’s famous decision to learn the Greek language in his waning years, Montaigne wrote:
Cato the Censor was learning to talk just when he ought to be learning to shut up forever. We can always continue our studies but not our school-work: what a stupid thing is an old man learning his alphabet!
This is an important essay because it clarifies some of Montaigne’s earlier thoughts about the proper time-line for activities. Earlier, Montaigne seemed to suggest that culture has it wrong, young people should throw themselves into work while more mature people should withdraw from the world of controversy and toil and pursue more philosophical quests. Montaigne doesn’t abandon the thought here, but he does cast new light on the proper activities inherent in that withdrawal:
What they tell of Cato the Censor, that among other things, when he was well advanced in years, he set about learning Greek with a burning craving as though he were satisfying some long-felt thirst, does not seem to me to be greatly to his honour. That is exactly what we mean by tumbling into second childhood. There is a season for all things.
Specifically, Montaigne suggests that we not withdraw to pursue passions, but to escape them:
And the greatest flaw which they find in our nature is that our desires are for ever renewing their youth. We are constantly beginning our lives all over again. Our zeal and our desire should sometimes smell of old age. We already have one foot in the grave yet our tastes and our pursuits are always just being born.
So he gives some practical advice: keep your projects short, don’t get caught up anew in yet another adventure:
The longest of my projects are for less than a year; I think only of bringing things to a close; I free myself from all fresh hopes and achievements; I say my last farewell to all the places I am leaving and daily rid myself of my belongings.
As we age, we need to start letting go of some ambitions. Forget about accumulating wealth, pursuing fame or building a name for history, because these quests inevitably lead to worries that bring trouble:
In short all the comfort I find in my old age is that it deadens within me many of the desires and worries which trouble our lives: worry about the way the world is going; worry about money, honors, erudition, health… and me.
Montaigne doesn’t add sex to that list and he’s never shy about bringing up the subject so you can’t chalk that up to modesty. But it does seem to fit the general theme — and might even be the driving force for this wise withdrawal. Give up thinking or caring about sexual conquest and suddenly life becomes simpler, more manageable. Without naming philosophy specifically, Montaigne seems to imply that it’s pursuit is the most suitable area of study for the mature and wise:
If study we must, let us study something suitable to our circumstances, so that we can make the same reply as that man who was asked what use were his studies in decrepit old age: ‘That I may better and more happily leave it behind,’ he said.