The Influence of Repentance on the Self and Society

Repentance and regret are commonly thought to have the same meaning, but for Michael de Montaigne they are entirely different; repentance is the denial of one’s natural, everyday actions and regret is wishing to undo them. In his essay “Of Repentance” Montaigne argues that all people are born with a certain nature, some lean toward good and others toward evil, but we cannot change who we are. Therefore, if we reason and act within our nature, then there is nothing to repent of.

Moreover, repentance is not necessary because we should not be held to our actions and words of the past, because our public nature is constantly changing (Montaigne, 79) along with your inner nature (45-6). Montaigne’s concept of a public versus private persona, one that he does not condone, and where one is showing the world a different person than one is at home, is a dangerous proposition for community and personal life because it excuses a beguiling lifestyle. If one listens to Montaigne and strays away from this, than one can live an overall better life.

His point is valid, but if one does not listen, this life can lead to mistrust by others, losing the self, committing crimes, and sadness. In addition, religious repentance to a priest holds similar characteristics to personal, self-guided repentance where one determines if one’s actions are acceptable. For instance, if a person is a serial killer and lacks emotional capabilities, it is unlikely he or she will stop to think about what they do and then end their destructive habits.

Since this person is the judge of their actions, they cannot be impartial and therefore, he or she is a threat to their community. People are judged solely based on their public appearance and actions, and therefore express a false image to the world. Montaigne offers a solution to this false judgment: act the same in public and private and then one will feel a personal responsibility to live up to themselves, thus eliminating the need to repent because one is always acting in accordance with one’s self (79).

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The only way to accomplish this is by knowing how one acts in private: “Any man can play his part in the side show and represent a worthy man on the boards; but to be disciplined within, in his own bosom, where all is permissible, where all is concealed-that’s the point” (79-80). Knowing a person’s true character is key to understanding his or her actions and the intent behind them. He is no doubt logical, but it is very difficult for many people to live according to his model because there are expectations that society puts on every individual: expectations of appearance, relationships, and mannerisms for instance.

In Montaigne’s view, humans suffer on account of the gap between the personal, private self that only the individual knows, and the public self. The general population tends to look past the consequences of a two-faced life, a life of hurting the people one cares for and being labeled a deceiving, manipulative person for the benefits of this lifestyle. Leading a dual life one is able to adapt to different situations and become the person others want he or she to be instantaneously. Although this can be rewarding, one is living a lie not only to the public but also to the self.

Montaigne brushes over why one might act in this manner, which leads to why this lifestyle is so common: standards and laws. Human society has laws that dictate what is acceptable behavior from unacceptable behavior, and for many people this is stressful and causes them to represent themselves differently to the world. There exists laws within communities that illicit similar behavior. People feel pressure from others to act a certain way to fit in. Accordingly they lose themselves until they realize they have been acting contrary to their true self and then feel the need to repent.

If standards and laws were eliminated then people could follow Montaigne’s model and live in accordance with the self in every action, but this is quite unrealistic. Laws, standards, and expectations do exists and although they can have hindering effects on certain individuals, they are necessary to keep society functioning, which Montaigne does not acknowledge. Nonetheless, his idealized scenario would end the need to repent and allow one to lead a happier and more honest life, benefiting the self and the greater community.

To elaborate on his thesis, Montaigne offers a story of a friend, who at a younger age stole for a living. He stole until he obtained enough wealth to live on and end his life of crime. Years pass and the man becomes discouraged with his actions and tried to reconcile them by paying back to those he stole from. He even writes in his will to have his heirs continue his deeds (84). With this story comes the question of motivation. Are the man’s childhood crimes forgotten because of his seemingly benevolent endeavors as an adult? According to Montaigne his motives are in the wrong.

He is only looking to make up for his past actions, implying his good deeds supersede his earlier destructive actions. Moreover, despite this man’s sadness for what he did it does not change his actions and there is no need to repent with them. Montaigne would agree with this statement because the man was acting on what he thought was right at the time, but he does not discuss how the man should neither regret his actions, simply learn from them. Additionally, regret promotes self-loathing, another concept he fails to discuss, which does not advance one’s thinking.

When one regrets actions of the past there is no room to learn from them. One must recognize that each and every decision is rooted in the heart and therefore one must refrain from feeling sorrow and anger. Montaigne continues to boast that he never found fault in himself because his actions were out of his control, but happened by luck (87). Thus, circumstances beyond our control dictate the decisions we make and because luck and chance are constantly changing, we are not able to repent because what is right may change in the future (87).

Although this makes sense, it eliminates personal accountability for one’s actions. The religious and personal aspects of repentance intertwine on the subject of accountability, a point Montaigne does not examine. On religion, Montaigne says, “If repentance were weighing in the scale of the balance, it would outweigh the sin. I know of no quality so easy to counterfeit as piety… ” (85). Catholicism specifically, promotes the idea that if one sins, they can be forgiven simply though confession. If this is so, then how does one take responsibility for that action?

Does repentance mean one can continue committing sins, but they will always be forgiven after confession? The answer seems to be yes. Murderers and adulterers can give themselves over to the church and then be forgiven. Of course there are people who repent and never again repeat the sin, but nonetheless the entire system is somewhat flawed. Montaigne’s argument that repentance is unnecessary is valid, but nonetheless a person who has committed such crimes as murder and adultery need to look back and understand their actions, or the chance of repetition is high.

There is no need for regret because the past cannot be undone, but to learn from the past is crucial, a point Montaigne is in accession with. Similarly, self-authority of one’s actions is equally dangerous to modern community politics. If each person governs himself or herself and is the determiner of their actions, there would be utter chaos. The problem is that many people are the governor of their actions and believe that a “good” deed will cancel out their “bad” one, which is not true. There is no sense of responsibility in a person who leads his or her life like so.

There are cases where repentance is necessary though, which Montaigne fails to discuss because of his unquestionable stoicism. Interpersonal relationships require a certain type of repentance. When problems arise between people in any type of relationship, they have to be resolved in some manner or the bond cannot continue to positively grow. Montaigne argues that any type of repentance is disingenuous, but interpersonal repentance can be very sincere. The act of repenting means there is a certain level of trust within the relationship, and therefore the one repenting is motivated to follow through with their words.

Motivation originates from constant human interaction and the desire to have relationships that rely on trust and growth. Finally Montaigne declares, “If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived. I have neither tears for the past nor fears for the future. And unless I am fooling myself, it has gone about the same way within me as without” (90). Montaigne makes living life in this manner seem easy when in fact it is not. Leading a life with no regrets and no inconsistencies is uncommon because people are people, and we naturally make mistakes.

The key is not to see these “mistakes” as wrong, but to learn from them and grow as an individual without repentance and self-pity. The issue remains that allowing individuals to judge their actions is contradictory to promoting a healthy community because it removes the need for other people and human interaction. Montaigne alludes to the dangers of individual judgment when he says, ” I have fallen into some serious and important mistakes in my life, not for lack of good counsel, but for lack of good luck” (87).

He is alleviating all responsibility from himself by blaming his actions on luck, an obvious threat to community and personal life. Furthermore people are not impartial and generally do not like to think of themselves as in the wrong; there is always a justification for any action. Overall, Montaigne’s model of the self is somewhat unsuited for today’s society. If people were constantly looking past their actions without contemplation, there would never be human and societal growth.

The beauty of humankind is that we have the capability to analyze our actions and understand the motives and reasoning behind them. If people were not judging others on, then no one would think to reassess him or herself. Social judgment, or questioning others is therefore important, but too much judgment and pressure only leads to one losing one’s true self. It is essential, as Montaigne says, to remain true to the self and follow suit in all aspects of life, but if who you are is extremely detrimental to others, than a degree of acknowledgment is necessary.

Even though at one point in someone’s life they committed crimes and hurt others, it does not mean they should continue in the same manner. Therefore, a certain amount if repentance in necessary to understand one’s actions. The result is an improved personal and community life. If one can learn from the past and remain true to the self in all his or her actions, then one has accomplished the goal that so many strive for; a goal that can be accomplished on a bigger scale if societal pressures were not weighing so heavily on the individual.