The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author of Essays, saw in most humans a repentance that was casual and every day without true moral reform. For most, “if repentance were heavier in the scale, it would weigh down sin.” Montaigne was not wont to discuss sin, though when he did, such as in his essay, Of Repentance, he focused less on the dramatic and newsworthy, more on the humble and everyday. It is more difficult not to sin at home with spouse and child, or alone, when the force of habit, of years of private behavior, moment by moment, comes to a head. “No one has been a prophet,” he wrote, echoing the Gospels, “not merely in his own house, but in his own country.” Notwithstanding one’s power and wealth, “both kings and philosophers” defecate, “and ladies too”—naked, we are all the same. To be naked, common, humble, as vulgar and rude as the common peasant, without pretense or art, this is one’s goal. To act properly and justly with family brings no fame, but is nevertheless life’s greatest success.Like all great philosophers—Paul, Augustine, Petrarch, Edwards—Montaigne knew his limitations, was aware of his sin, and implored “God for an entire reformation, and that he will please to pardon my natural infirmity.” One sin was his continued propensity toward lust. Montaigne as a youth shared in the debauchery of the sixteenth-century French aristocracy. Age, marriage, responsibility, infirmity, and indolence rather than the mind and the will reformed him. The actions of youth became the thoughts and yearnings of middle and old age. Montaigne would lie with his wife only for purposes of conception, considering lust and passion for one’s partner in life to be inappropriate. But what is the greater sin, to feel ongoing, lifelong bodily desire for another or to spend a life sleeping alone, one’s repose rarely interrupted by dutiful and perfunctory copulation?
Montaigne sinned as well in the inconsistency of his thought and behavior. He was aware of his inconsistency, wrote on it, even gloried in it. His inconsistency was of the general human sort as a consequence of the disjointed patterns of time, the daily, weekly, and monthly changes in behavior and thinking. Yet Montaigne’s inconsistency derived in part from blatant and astonishing contradictions: for example, his view on war. A good many of Montaigne’s historical examples in the Essays come from early modern, medieval, and ancient warfare. One might assume this focus on war and soldiering was due to the nature of the sources—for of what do most ancient authors write if not of human conflict? Would not war, conflict, taking another’s life, conformity to commanders, and the like violate Montaigne’s professed devotion to free inquiry and to humanitas? On the contrary, Montaigne declared that “the proper, sole, and essential occupation of the French nobility and gentry is the practice of arms.” A man confined at times to his sickbed, Montaigne decided that death in battle is preferable to death in bed, which is “more abject, more languishing and painful.”Montaigne died in bed, which reveals that his great thoughts were often just that, great thoughts. He is a good example of the philosopher who thinks but who does not always act. He considered the savage, natural life (in Of Cannibals) wonderful not from the deck of a ship or the trail in the forest but from within the luxury of his chateau. Montaigne’s ideas in some ways anticipated those of eighteenth-century French revolutionaries: he advocated freedom of inquiry, Stoic brotherhood and equality, and a healthy skepticism of cultural and intellectual pretension. Yet his intellectual nonconformity was at odds with his place in society as a conservative aristocrat, monarchist, and landlord who integrated his life with the Old Regime. Montaigne’s world view seems a better fit for Protestantism, yet he remained staunchly Roman Catholic. He simply did not have the will to act on his beliefs.All this is to say that Montaigne was typically human. Fear and doubt competed with faith and reason. What seemed right competed with habit and convention. Skepticism competed with the general tone of the Essays, which is confident, at times arrogant. Will contradicted thought. A life in time inevitably resulted in ignorance and sin.