Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French aristocrat, was neither saint, priest, nor monk, rather a worldly man who lived in a secular time of conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Montaigne was a landowner, a government official, and soldier. He was as well a Catholic layman who struggled with his faith in light of the Protestant challenge and the sometimes violent Catholic response. He struggled with the new ideas of the Renaissance, such as humanism, which placed humans as equals to the divine. He struggled as well with the new scientific ideas of Copernicus, which seemed to challenge Biblical authority. Montaigne was a thinker who penetrated self in search of answers for his faith, his heritage, and his relationship with God. His response, the Essays, has been variously interpreted as the work of a humanist, a skeptic, perhaps an atheist. Rarely are Montaigne’s Essays considered for what they are in fact, the ruminations of a Catholic layman searching for answers that are in response to his understanding of the Son of Man.
In Montaigne’s third essay, “That Our Affections Carry Themselves Beyond Us,” he shows tremendous awareness of humans and time. The future is unknown. “Fear, desire, and hope, are still pushing us on towards the future, depriving us, in the meantime, of the sense and consideration of that which is, to amuse us with the thought of what shall be, even when we shall be no more.” He wishes to focus on the present, what he is now and what is proper for him now. If we always focus on the future, then it becomes a panacea for an unclear, uncomfortable present. The future is the means by which the imagination reaches out for what might be, rather than focusing on what is, and in the process fantasies of delight and misery overwhelm our minds, taking us from what is happening now, in the present.
But Montaigne’s present is always informed by his past. It is by means of the records and memories of the past that we can find the anchor to still our wayward present voyage into the unknown. The past, of humans in general, of the self in particular, is the one thing we can know to help us with the momentary present and the journey into the unknown future.