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Cambridge student essay on essays, Montaigne's Repenting

Updated: May 29, 2022

“And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book”. M. Montaigne

Montaigne's final sentence to his short preface, 'To the Reader', reveals the aims of the writer in completing his essays and the subject he is intending to focus upon; himself. However, even though the Essays are based on one 'everyman character', Montaigne invites the reader to contemplate, through this single man's experiences and thoughts, their own views and morals. He attempts, as the word 'assay' suggests, to 'hunt for truth, personality and a knowledge of humanity through an exploration of his own reaction to his... experiences'. This relates to the constant theme running throughout his 'unconventional biography', which is that of 'the self'.

Expectations are therefore set up for the reader immediately, in the sense that many major themes seen throughout the Essays are introduced in this preface, as it is brimming with the suggestion of many significant ideas and topics.

Montaigne's chapters 'On repenting' of Book III and 'On liars' of Book I are it seems greatly significant in the light of the preface 'To the Reader', as many ideas explored in these essays, relate back to this unique introduction. These themes, often interwoven with each other, include truth and lies, the 'Nature' of individuals and the 'native' being, repentance, as previously mentioned the theme of 'the self' and many more minor topics.

Each one is in need of study for the importance of the preface for our appreciation of these chosen chapters to become clear. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. xv of the introduction.) In the preface, Montaigne sets up an inviting, humorous and 'trusting' ambiance through the use of a colloquial style and ironic tone: “It is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain”.(M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, 'To the Reader').

This ironic but typically good-humoured statement by Montaigne almost acts as an escape to criticism as it is a form of warning to the reader that they may not appreciate his 'attempts'. Simultaneously it cleverly intrigues the reader and entices them to read on. Montaigne often uses this 'self-depreciating' tone, such as in the opening of 'On repenting': “I give an account of Man and sketch a picture of a particular one of them who is very badly formed”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 907.)

This characteristic tone seems to represent Montaigne's feelings on the 'limited scope' of his attempts. This illustrates the idea of the preface hinting to the reader the content and style of the Essays to follow. Montaigne makes a reference to another culture in 'To the Reader' to emphasise his point by using a rather shocking and powerful image for the reader: “had I found myself among those peoples who are said to live under the sweet liberty of Nature's primal laws, I can assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself whole, and wholly naked” (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, 'To the Reader')

In doing so, the writer wants to stress his disclosure and bare truth. The use of examples, anecdotes and fictional characters is an important part to Montaigne's Essays and can be found throughout his work, more specifically in both chapters, 'On repenting' and 'On liars'. They act to support Montaigne's ideas and theories and they also convey the humanist writer's extended knowledge and wider reading.

Montaigne often juxtaposes classical references with 'earthy anecdotes' as can be seen in the chapter 'On repenting' in which he writes of the story from his own experience of a 'peasant' 'born to beggary' who 'became a thief' which is immediately followed by information of 'Pythagorean' philosophy: “I cannot follow the Pythagorean dogma that men take on a new soul”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essay, p. 916.)

These 'historical examples of behaviour (exempla) followed by pithy reflections on the human condition (sententiae)', were a 'ready-made format for books'. Montaigne claimed that he owned around 1000 volumes in his own private library, which can clearly be seen through his familiarity with literature from 'antiquity' and his continuous references to such philosophers and important theorists as Plutarch, Aristotle, Socrates and many others, expressed throughout the Essays. (Holyoake, Montaigne Essais (Critical Guide to French Texts), (Grant & Cutler Ltd, London, 1983), p. 15.)

The 'Nature' of man is an idea Montaigne often refers back to as can be observed in both the chosen chapters of study. Again however, the reader is introduced to the idea in the preface, as are so many other themes. Montaigne had 'unbounded approval and trust' in 'Nature' and believed humans had a 'native form' which they should not stray from. In 'To the Reader', Montaigne tells the reader how they 'will read of my defects and native form'.

To follow a natural path in life is how it should be in Montaigne's eyes. In the chapter 'On liars', he writes of how a 'natural defect' should not be seen as a 'deliberate one' and this 'misfortune' should not create 'malice which is the enemy of my natural humour'. He also personifies 'Nature' later on in the chapter and also in the preface, to emphasise 'her' importance and value in his own mind: (Holyoake, Montaigne Essais (Critical Guide to French Texts), p. 79. ; M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 32.)

“Nature...has strengthened other faculties of mine as this one has grown weaker”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 33.) The reader is made aware very early on therefore; of the importance of following one's own natural form and being content with the life 'Nature has put into our hands' and not 'striving' to be something one is not. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, 'On experience'.)

In 'On repenting', Montaigne uses the word 'Nature' and its derivatives extremely often and has a large section of the chapter centred on this important theme. Montaigne states: “We must judge souls in their native place” and “You cannot extirpate the qualities we are naturally born with”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 913-914).

Once again it is obvious to note Montaigne's beliefs and ideas when it comes to 'Nature' and how the preface leads us, the reader, onto exploring this major theme. Studying the chapter 'On repenting' specifically, the idea of repentance links to the on-running theme of 'Nature' as well and to the way in which Montaigne feels people should act: “Grieving natural frailty.... that should not be called repenting any more than my grieving at not being an angel or Cato. My doings are ruled by what I am and are in harmony with how I was made”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 916)

It is clear that the writer, who 'rarely repents', does not think just because of natural defects one should have to repent and feel bad as if the character flaw, were a 'sin'. This is an example of the preface subtly setting up links to the previously mentioned themes. The reader, throughout the essays and certainly in the two chosen chapters, makes a mental link back to the preface as ideas are aroused once again in the text following 'To the Reader'.

Truth, lies and trust are all related topics, which can be found in the two studied chapters and also elsewhere in the book, the ideas once again introduced in the preface 'To the Reader', emphasising their importance it seems: “You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, 'To the Reader'.)

Montaigne talks directly to the reader and creates trust with them, as he invites them into his personal 'private family' life creating the feeling of privilege and inclusion. Montaigne 'prefers forthright speech' as he believes one therefore cannot hide the truth. This is perhaps the main reason for his style and language to represent that of an 'ordinary' man. His direct, unaffected and natural style of writing was common practice in the sixteenth century as writers wanted to create the impression of effortless work. He states in the preface that he plans to present himself in a 'simple, natural and everyday fashion' without 'artifice'.

He explores this idea more fully in the significant chapter 'On repenting': (Holyoake, Montaigne Essais (Critical Guide to French Texts), p. 37.) ”Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 911.) One can be deceitful and hide their true self. As mentioned in the preface, Montaigne 'wants to be seen... without striving', so clearly is against such 'deliberate' deception and does not agree with the gap between appearance and reality.

In the recently mentioned chapter, 'On repenting' Montaigne expresses his approval of showing your true self 'in your own home', 'there is no striving there, no artifice'. Clearly truth and deceit are major concerns in the chapter aptly named 'On liars'. Montaigne also extends the idea of 'lies' and more fully exploring all areas of this 'accursed vice', the writer links the act of lying with a strong 'memory': “Quintilian had said that a liar had better had a good memory”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 32.)

This claim enhances the reader's trust in Montaigne as he goes on to describe his own 'grotesquely faulty' memory. He also blames a good memory for being the cause of unnecessary 'chatter' as 'it is easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say'.

The use of an extended metaphor of a 'silly horse' is at work to relay Montaigne's point more effectively: (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 33.) “known men... who want to stop their gallop but who do no know how... they amble on like sick men, dragging out trivialities”. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 33.)

Another notable point is that in the preface, as said before, Montaigne compares himself to a 'native' who appears 'wholly naked'. This enhances the put-forward idea of his disclosure and full openness to the reader creating a stronger bond between reader and writer. Therefore, as can be observed, the preface sets up the basis for the exploration of lies and deceit in the direct sense but furthermore evokes a feeling of trust from the reader.

Now we must look at the final and most obvious theme of the Essays, that of 'the Self'. Montaigne's stated reason for writing his Essays was to explore his own being. 'No one in Classical Antiquity had done anything like it'. Aristotle taught Montaigne that 'individual persons... have a specific human soul' that could 'vary in quality but not in nature'. Therefore, in studying himself he was in fact, under the teachings of the great philosopher, studying man's 'nature' in general.

Montaigne clearly states in 'To the reader' that he wishes to explore himself and sets 'no other end' but to write about the single subject of the book, 'himself'. Montaigne did assays “of himself by himself." However, through reading about the experiences of this single man, the reader is invited to find relations between the writer and their own 'natures' and to consider wider issues about 'man' in general.

Aristotle teaches: “Any man or woman who remained human could at least partially understand another, since all possessed a like soul”; “to study one man is in a sense to study them all” (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. xv of the introduction; M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. xvii of the introduction; M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. xv of the introduction).

Many scholars believed, 'You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as to one of richer stuff'. In the earlier chapter of study, the phrase 'experience has often shown me that' exemplifies the idea that in discussing oneself an observation on the general nature of mankind can be made. (M. Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 908)

Digression in later chapters was more common as Montaigne became more confident with detailing his own personal views and opinions. The contrast of the two chapters 'On liars' of Book I and 'On repenting' of Book III concerning the habit of digressing is apparent and supports this idea. 'On liars' is basically strict to the point but does discuss subsidiary themes from this major one such as 'memory'.

However, in the later chapter he does not strictly focus on 'repenting' but drifts off the subject and explores man's 'nature' in general and 'old age'. This digression perhaps signifies the inconclusiveness of such a vast subject, which is not helped by the ever-changing nature of humans. Montaigne states in the opening of 'On repenting', 'I am unable to stabilize my subject'. The human 'portrait' does 'vary' making a conclusion 'impossible' to 'grasp'.

As the years passed the nature of the Essays became increasingly personal. Self-portraiture became more important as can be seen in the difference between the A, B and C passages. C passages, the text of 1592, were much more personal than the earlier A passages, the text of 1580. However, critics believed even in the 1580 passages Montaigne's 'self' shines through. Returning to Montaigne's tendency to digress, in the chapter 'On repenting', one can see in this later chapter the more personal and free-flowing quality of the writing.

As can be seen, the preface, 'To the Reader', sets up expectations for the reader and introduces them to the important themes explored throughout the Essays and more specifically in the chosen chapters of study. In hindsight, one can observe the subtle links the preface makes with what is to follow and therefore adds to our own appreciation of the essays being studied, which conveys the importance of this unusual introduction.

Both of the explored chapters 'On liars' and 'On repenting' concern most of the themes dealt with in the preface, therefore we, the reader, can value the ideas more as we have been introduced to them at an earlier stage. The preface almost acts as a simple guide or outline to the Essays and helps the reader's mind focus on the ideas Montaigne believes are most important.

Montaigne also does not stray from what he promises the reader he will do in the preface about his set wish to explore himself. However, he does obviously digress and discusses related themes and ideas mainly dealing with the nature of man in relation to his own thoughts and 'experiences'. Due to the conversational and trusting style used by Montaigne so early on as in the preface, the reader is more inclined to agree with his own personal beliefs, as the relationship between reader and writer is immediately fairly strong.

After reading the preface therefore, whilst studying the Essays, we refer back to the introduction and perhaps it influences our own appreciation of themes dealt with later on. Are we subconsciously influenced in making up our own minds due to the innocuous style and apparent friendliness of 'To the Reader'?

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