FORCED to flee Nazi Germany, the Austro-Jewish novelist and playwright, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), soon ended up in Brazil. Once there, he began to consider what it means to retain one’s humanity in the face of serious conflict.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) had pondered much the same thing in his own century, when France had been plunged into a bitter sectarian battle between Catholics and Protestants. In fact Zweig was inspired to such an extent by Montaigne that he eventually selected one of the writer’s more Stoic maxims to represent his own blossoming attitude towards existence. “Be free from death,” Montaigne had said, because “life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”
Centuries earlier, Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE) had expressed a virtually identical sentiment and it is he who inspired first Montaigne and then Zweig. In fact so enthused was he by this passage that Zweig took his own life on February 23rd, 1942 in a fashion of his own choosing. “I salute all my friends,” he said in a suicide note. “May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.”
The fact that Zweig was suffering from a severe bout of depression may well have undermined his intention to fulfil Montaigne’s “death on our own will” to the letter, but it was only on account of his rapid descent into personal despair that Zweig was able to fully appreciate the value of Montaigne’s poignant words.
Just as the most ‘human’ facets of Ernst Jünger’s personality came out in the midst of an inhuman war, so too was a thoroughly downcast Zweig able to re-evaluate his life in accordance with the transposed Stoicism of Montaigne. Like Jünger’s Stahlgewittern (1920), therefore, Zweig had reached a state in which the only thing left to defend was one’s own self and Zweig, of course, decided not to defend his at all. To quote Joseph Macé-Scaron, author of Montaigne: Notre Nouveau Philosophe (2011), who was examining the deep psychological impact of the sixteenth-century:
Only a person who has lived through a time that threatens his life and that valuable substance, his individual freedom with war, power and tyrannical ideologies – only he knows how much courage, how much honesty and determination are needed to maintain the inner self in such a time of herd insanity.
If Zweig had chosen to prolong his own existence, he may have seen that conflicts of this kind – however brutal and destructive – do not last indefinitely. Real freedom, I believe, is making an effort to engage with the future. If we are threatened directly and need to struggle in order to defend ourselves and those we love, then so be it, but our finest reserves of energy are surely best spent in creating something that will outlive the intermittent idiocy of totalitarian ideologies and those who serve them like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.
We must be as a flower that stands defiant on the ruins of civilisation. Transcendent and aloof.