Sunday, May 16, 2004


Montaigne's essay, "On Repenting" is a long and complicated one. Let me begin by saying Montaigne is a Stoic. The Stoics believe that causation is absolute and that everything is fated and unalterable. This is why Montaigne can write that he rarely repents. He believes that repentance is not a regret, but a denial of the rightness of what one had formerly willed:

My doings are ruled by what I am and are in harmony with how I was made. I cannot do better: and the act of repenting does not properly touch such things as are not within our power--that is touched by regretting.
Regret and repentance are two different things for Montaigne. We are all born with a certain nature, some lean toward good and others lean toward evil, but we cannot change who were are. Therefore, if we reason and act within our nature, then there is nothing to repent of. "You cannot extirpate the qualities we are originally born with: you can cover them over and you can hide them." The key is to know a person's character "Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles: but to be right-ruled within, in you bosom, where anything is licit, where everything is hidden--that's what matters." We should, therefore, govern ourselves in public just as we do in private when no one is watching. If you want to know truly about a person, talk to the children, the spouse, the servants. It is possible for "vicious souls" to be "incited to do good by some outside instigation." It is also possible for "virtuous souls to do evil." This is why souls must be judged in "their settled state, when thy are at home with themselves...or at least when they are nearest to repose in their native place." People can repent, but true repentance for Montaigne is a cleaning out of the soul and body, "Before I call it repentance it must touch me everywhere, grip my bowels and make them yearn." If the evil from which a person repents is not gotten rid of, then "there has been no cure." Montaigne warns us of the elderly who claim they are wise and have given up all of their vices. Don't believe it he says. Just because you are old doesn't mean you have given up your vices. Vices are given up, yes, but not by choice; age forces us to relinquish what in our youth we had no intention of abandoning:
Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue.
In the end Montaigne declares, "If I had to live again, I would live as I have done; I neither regret the past nor fear the future." The Stoic beliefs that Montaigne holds perhaps makes such a statement easier to make. But I believe in free will. There is much that goes into making a person's character, some of it chosen, some of it not. But in the end, it is the individual's responsibility for who he or she is and becomes. I agree that true repentance requires the expurgation of the vice (no bowel movement required), but I don't think it should be such a rare thing. Unfortunately it is. Why repent if you don't have to? If are you convincingly contrite and put on a good show, you can get away with murder. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Thumbs"