On Seeking Enlightenment in
Montaigne’s The Essays
Repenting is the absolute method by which the seeker of enlightenment may successfully progress. In his Essays, Montaigne not only demonstrates a familiarity with the value of reviewing personal experience, but too the importance of the representation of the same. To achieve this expression of the multifaceted form which one’s mind takes in life, Montaigne must establish sundry principles which each arise from the underlying concept of Transition. These are the definition of repentance and its application; the eternity of the present through the death—the sacrifice—of the Moment; and, the deliverance of existence from the chains of Portrayal to the heights of Being. Rooted even more firmly at the foundation of these three crucial tenets of Montaigne’s doctrine of repentance is the art of Becoming. A brief examination of each should familiarize one with this method.
To establish repenting as a method by which the seeker of enlightenment may successfully progress, Montaigne continually separates the Church’s definition and necessity of repentance from his own. To Montaigne, repentance takes on importance in its literal form: a changing of direction; a transition (Montaigne, 239-240). It is not an admission nor a remission of past sin, but a recollection of expressions—rather, the representations and manifestations—of each of the many facets of a person’s character within their past to date. “I can find no quality so easy to counterfeit as devotion unless our morals and our lives are made to conform to it; its essence is hidden and secret: its external appearances are easy and ostentatious” (Montaigne, 241). By this it is established that the Church’s doctrine of repentance is entirely separate from that nature and those uses which Montaigne stresses are its foundation. Of the Church’s stance on repentance, Montaigne stresses “ . . . these men would have us believe that they do feel deep remorse and regret within; yet no amendment or improvement, no break, ever becomes apparent” and that is because of their institution of a feeling of perpetual guilt and their recommendation of its continual grievance (Montaigne, 241). Once one realizes that repentance is the expediting force on the journey to reaching full enlightenment and self-actualization, one must then realize two more things: that repentance is a recollection of past presentations of one’s Self, and not a purging of the same, which are in no way sinful. Montaigne with great honesty imparts this with candid prowess: “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” (Montaigne, 241).
Secondly, one must realize that in order to advance through the journey of life, one must actively apply repentance as a practice. One can not look to the future without first looking to the past. “I do not find fault with myself: I blame not what I did but my fortune. And that is to be called repenting” is how Montaigne defines this principle (Montaigne, 242). Everything that is done is done right; repenting in the vein of Montaigne’s definition of it, reveals that man is a creature of symbols.
“In the subjects which we handle, and especially in the natures of men, there are hidden parts which cannot be divined, silent characteristics which are never revealed and which are sometimes unknown even to the one who has them but which are awakened and brought out by subsequent events” (Montaigne, 242).
Each of one’s acts and attitudes, even habits such as pastimes, costume, and diet are all subject to change, but each is not self-contained and temporary. Man does not adopt personas, but displays—rather, exposes and in so doing, symbolizes—throughout his life those incarnations of his true self which otherwise remain secret until his life is lived. Repentance is the method by which the seeker of enlightenment may progress. It becomes a method only when it is applied, and only when it is applied does repenting serve a purpose.
Repenting is the active assessment of fleeting moments of one’s existence to date which are each moments that are symbols of Self. The transient nature of these acts—the acts which are repented—and the recollection of them must be the essence of the Self. “The force of any advice depends upon the time: circumstances endlessly alter and matters endlessly change” (Montaigne, 242). Montaigne is expressing that it is a challenge for him to clearly stabilize his focus on a thought due to the eternity of the present. Thought is an action stuck perpetually in the present; it is only the object of the thought—its topic of recollection—which is able to navigate through either tense: past, present, or future.
“ . . . I neither regret the past nor the future[,]” says Montaigne, “[a]nd unless I deceive myself, things within have gone much the same as those without” (Montaigne, 245).
Since thought occurs always in the present, it creates the seeming drunkenness which pervades comprehension. The internal perception mirrors the external; that being experienced is that being perceived; likewise, perception becomes itself an experience. Essentially, a repudiation of one’s experiences—called by the Church in this definition of it, repenting—is the repudiation and annihilation of the self, of existence. Attacking the guilt imposed by ecclesiastical authority in the form of the necessity to repent, Montaigne points the reader to the paradox of contextual mortality; “[y]ou cannot boast of despising and of fighting pleasure if you cannot see her and if you do not know her grace and power, or her beauty as its most attractive” and as such, you basically cannot deem wrong what you have not encountered yourself, so the act of encountering and being able to recall such an encounter constitutes Montaigne’s own brand of repenting (Montaigne, 245-246). Repenting sacrifices the Moment to obtain for the thinking one a grip on the contemplated topic. This sacrifice is often referred to by many as Context.
Repenting is an activity regulated by the faculty of memory; of course, a trait linked practically to the past. “We must not allow ourselves to be so borne away by natural degeneration that it bastardizes our judgment” (Montaigne, 244). Here, Montaigne does acknowledge the importance of such a faculty, but warns it must not be the exclusive exercise of experience’s assessment. One can so easily be mislead the potential of aging to degenerate the pristine judgment often associated with our youth. Though an act of present evaluation and consultation of the past to facilitate the future, is not successful if it assumes that the past is the only correct era of personal judgment and decision.
Of his past as the sole guide for his present and ultimately future, Montaigne says “I have nothing to do with it now, but I judge it as though I did. Personally, when I give my reason a lively and attentive shake, I find that it is just the same as in my more licentious years, except that it has perhaps grown more feeble and much worse with age” (Montaigne, 244). Ultimately, then, reason is eternal, and flawless, on an individual basis of assessment and use. That what is right for one is right at all is the concern in the quote here. Reason, however eternal in the individual, does receive flaw when burdened with such ills as guilt and discriminate influence; neither exclusively external nor internal is the will, and nor is either its single mould. Were success a commodity to be weighed, it would be placed within the gaze of ever-present repentance as its set of scales. Only through repenting, as Montaigne has demonstrated, does one progress. The only authority to which repentance should be made is to oneself, and never to another. One is never a portrayal or mere depiction, but a repenting symbol of the present, seeking direction.
Montaigne, Michel de, The essays: a selection. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin Classics,