Montaigne and the Value of Repentance

Michel de Montaigne’s The Complete Essays is perhaps the most comprehensive search of the self ever composed in Western literature. He explores a wide variety of topics in depth, with the common thread of self-awareness and using the self as the authority on what is right and wrong. One particular essay, “On Repenting,” is an exploration of regret and repentance. Montaigne felt that repentance was not necessary because we should not be held to things we have said and done in the past, because our public nature is constantly changing. He also says that we are not able to change what we have done and will do in the future because our nature prevents us from being what we are not. I contend that Montaigne’s ideas on the self present a dangerous proposition for community life, but that his opposition to repentance is in some cases correct. I will illustrate points from Montaigne’s works and then discuss modern examples that disprove the idea of the self as a governing body. I will also explain the difference between interpersonal, public, and religious experience.

Montaigne started his treatise by saying that his subsequent works had portrayed man as “very badly formed” and in its real state. He set the tone for the rest of the work by stating that there is constant flux in the nature of humanity. Individuals are not capable of judging others because the person or object they are judging may be different the next day or hour. Montaigne says that his depiction of man is much like a portrait in that what we see may change, but the component parts are the same. The brushstrokes are still there in the same pattern. Individuals are not enamored with what makes a person unique but the overall picture of humanity.

Montaigne followed this opening statement with his characteristic arrogance and self-centered nature. He touted his essay as the first known exploration of the self. His work is described as the only one that had ever addressed such personal and private issues without humility or shame. Montaigne presents something that few had ever attempted to explore and many had tried to hide away in the deep recesses of their soul.

“On Repenting” took shape around Montaigne’s subsequent arguments. He first stated that he rarely repented and that his “conscience is happy with itself.” The reasons for this were bore out in the rest of the work, but the first compelling evidence against repentance is the weakness of such an action. Montaigne says, “Basing recompense of virtuous deeds on another’s approbation is to accept too uncertain and confused a foundation.” This statement was a commentary on the confused nature of humanity at the time of writing. Montaigne did not see any reason for a person to base their actions on another person because such a basis was not solid; man’s nature was and is dynamic and uncertain.

Montaigne presented a solution for this issue of judgement: the creation of individual models for personal judgement. Each individual needs to have an “inner model to serve as the touchstone for our actions,” according to the essay. This would create a personal responsibility and would eliminate the need for repentance. The public persona of an individual would not be the basis for scrutiny, but the personal life would be the true nature of each person. Montaigne said if people lived their lives rightly and ordinate, they would be living a greater life than the person who repented constantly and put forth public efforts of self-improvement. The best way to describe this is in quoting from the essay, “The soul’s value consists not of going high but going ornately.”

Montaigne further stated that even if one were to repent, this repentance would never be genuine. First, the act of repentance forsakes the ability to know virtue and what we thought was virtuous in the past. This idea puts man in a maze of self doubt and constant atonement. Second, Montaigne said that it was impossible to reconcile actions we have done to actions we would do in the future because of man’s nature. People cannot blame themselves for something they have done before because they apparently thought it was right. This all was rooted in the idea of the self acting as the “touchstone” for right action.

This essay included a very poignant example of Montaigne’s thesis. Montaigne told a story about his friend, who at a younger age stole for a living. He stole constantly until he acquired much wealth and could stop his life of crime. In his later years, this thief became disheartened with his past actions and insisted on paying back those he stole from. He went so far as to include this in his will, requiring his heirs to pay back the businesses from which he gained his wealth. Montaigne, while sympathetic of his friend in old age, disagreed with not only his actions but also the motivation. His friend was attempting to correct a behavior that was deeply embedded within his soul, so much so that it was impossible to extract it with even the greatest of deeds. Montaigne said that his friend’s thievery was a “habitual practice” and that it was impossible to change this type of behavior because humanity cannot change what it is inherently.

This point is accentuated by an example of Montaigne’s habits. He stated that he was born into the Latin language but learned and spoke French. In cases of great distress or emotion, the first statement out of his mouth was in his native Latin. This example illustrated Montaigne’s point that people cannot change qualities that they are born with, but can only mask or hide them. Montaigne stated, “Natural tendencies are helped and reinforced by education, but they can hardly be said to be altered or overmastered.” This statement is very telling of Montaigne because it brings up the issue of what determines our successes and failures.

Montaigne felt that our personality and characteristics are in place since our birth. With this in mind, it made sense for him to say that repentance is useless. Education and life experience only helped ring out these personality traits; they are not able to change anything. He mentions the Stoic precept that said humanity should acknowledge imperfections in character but should forbid any sorrow or anger for past actions because actions are rooted in the heart. Montaigne went on to say that he never found fault in himself because his actions were not in his control, but brought by luck and chance. According to this, circumstances beyond our control dictate the decisions were are forced to make and because luck and chance are constantly changing, we are not able to repent because what is right may change in the future.

Montaigne concluded his essay on repentance with a few interesting comments. He first stated that he mistrusted the judgement of even his closest friends, saying, “I receive little counsel. I give even less.” This goes back to his statement that the judgement of others is not valid because humanity is too unstable a source of authority. He also describes himself in old age and how he steadfastly remained against repentance. Some people at his age claim to be virtuous because they give up certain vices, but do so because their physical capabilities are declining. Montaigne condemns these people as fools because they are not doing anything but accepting their current abilities. The final point of interest in this work is Montaigne’s commentary on Socrates. He states that Socrates did not put up a strong defense in his trial because he knew his intellect was declining and knew it was his time. He finished by saying that he thought the old people he associated with were not as wise as assumed by society but in fact were long winded, hateful of modern society, and longing for days past.

Montaigne’s ideas on the self as authority are dangerous to the modern notion of community politics. Human beings, like many other animals, are communal beings, constantly needing the support of their fellow man. Following the ideas of “On Repenting,” we are told to look at things out of their context. For example, if I stole a car when I was a teenager and I felt pain about this later in my life, Montaigne would have called me a fool. My robbery may have been justified at that specific point in my life and no amount of thought or self-improvement can change what happened.

I am disturbed the thought that each individual would be able to look at themselves as the sole authority for their actions. The problem lies in accountability. When a person murders another, society acts against that individual because they are incapable of knowing what is best for the community. There is subjectivity to personal accountability that, if extrapolated, would breed chaos. If one were to think of a world where each individual is the lone judge of their actions and which did not ponder history as a viable guide to action. I know that such a hypothetical would yield shocking results.

Montaigne’s ideas on the self are also a bit shocking when taken in comparison with many social science endeavors. Modern understandings of psychology and medical science would speak contrary to the fact that our personalities are embedded permanently in us from birth. Many who have been afflicted with depression or other physiological ailments have been helped by medicine and therapy. Doctors do not just hide these characteristics and the curse is not just to make behavior subjective; they use methods to explore the problem and create a solution thereafter. The medical community and Montaigne are not complimentary and,in fact, the basis of psychiatry is based on the ability to reform behavior and to solve problems from birth to death.

While I have bombarded Montaigne’s ideas on the self, I do find something compelling about his argument on the act of repentance. Repentance refers not only to the verbal and mental action of feeling sorrow for a past action, but an attempt on the person to change the driving behavior for that past action. Montaigne said that because we are the judges of our own actions and because our lives are in such flux, we are not able to commit repentance because it is not possible. I think that this contention is perhaps more complex than Montaigne could have imagined.

Several distinctions of repentance needs to be discussed. The first type of repentance is interpersonal. This type deals with individuals dealing within their personal lives with another individual when problems arise. Everyone encounters interpersonal conflicts at one point or another in their lives. I believe that this type of repentance is actually acceptable because it is much more practical and is capable of being proven genuine. If you know someone well enough to repent to them, it is then apparent that there is at minimum a foundation of trust within that relationship. The person who is repenting is also motivated to follow through on their act of repentance. This motivation comes from consistent interaction with other people as well as the need by each person to improve the relationship, which requires attempts to change any motives that may hinder trust and emotional growth. With this example, I take exception to Montaigne’s rejection of repentance.

I do think that Montaigne would work as a viable argument against public and, in a few cases, religious repentance. Public repentance refers to the act of repenting by a public figure to the general public through the media. Religious penance is the act of repenting to an agent of a religious organization, such as a priest, who would act as a linkage to an applicable deity. I think that religious penance can be either the most pure of actions or one of the most heinous of actions against faith. When a truly faithful and pious person commits an act worthy of repentance, there is a genuine concern for the results of their actions and a desire to return to their pure lifestyle. In contrast, there are a significant number of people who have lived in contradiction to their faith and repent in order to please their conscience and move on with their lives. In this case, I agree with Montaigne that these people are not only unable to change themselves, they are unwilling to change themselves. When “On Repenting” is applied to religious repentance, I am willing to agree with Montaigne.

I feel that the most important application of Montaigne’s critique of repentance is in dealing with public acts of repenting. In the United States, we are accustomed to seeing entertainers, politicians, and athletes apologize for foolish behavior and attempt to reconcile their actions with a promise for reform. Examples include basketball announcer Marv Albert, former president Bill Clinton, and numerous elected officials and other public figures. The problem with these acts of repentance is not that they were performed but the integrity of the statements. Undoubtedly, Marv Albert performed illegal activities and illicit personal actions, but he would not have apologized if he were able to find another television job. His economic motivation and his need to clean the slate of a very short term memory audience were the driving factors for his apology. Likewise, Bill Clinton committed acts that were unbecoming of his position as chief executive. Nevertheless, it would be very difficult to find a genuine statement out of this man when many of his other statements in the past were shrouded in uncertainty. Bill Clinton was trying to save his legacy with his comments on the Lewinsky affair as well as many of his other presidential statements of repentance. Public figures are given the impossible burden of proving that they will back up their statements and rightfully so. Until figures prove that they can correct their behavior, the media and the public will levy this criticism.

Montaigne presented a model that would allow the individual to be the judge and jury of their actions. This model is contradictory to notions of community and democracy because it eliminates the need for other people, besides the basic need of supplies and interaction. The self cannot be the model for judgement because the self is not capable of impartiality, a key factor in accurate judgement. Individuals lie to themselves more than they lie to any other person they know because they know that for any action that is performed, there is justification. In this part of the argument, Montaigne is incorrect. However, I am sympathetic of the criticism by Montaigne of repentance. It is difficult to judge the integrity of such statements with the bastardization of the act of repentance by countless public figures. Repentance, however, is still genuine in certain cases of interpersonal and religious dealings. Montaigne presents a model of the self that is appealing to some people but is not compatible with the way life is. We rely on otheres in judgement and resources and this is out of necessity and of want. Without the judgement of others and the ability to look back on our past actions, we would be unable to go forward. Each individual would be paralyzed by relativism and there would be chaos. Montaigne could never have imagined such a world.

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