Montaigne translator and editor M.A. Screech says that this essay gives greater insight into the “austere, rigorist side of Montaigne’s Catholicism.” That’s one way to read it. But it occurs to me that Montaigne might not be writing here about religious faith or Catholicism. What he’s actually writing about is the perfectibility of man and the need for religious people to match their words with deeds.
That theme of words versus deeds recurs frequently in the first volume of Montaigne essays. It’s frustrating to confront Montaigne’s clear disdain for words because, obviously, Montaigne is a writer and he is best known for his words. But when all of these essays are taken together, his point becomes a bit easier to grasp and the purpose of these essays becomes a bit clearer.
Yes, Montaigne is today best known for his words. But having taken the teachings of Socrates and Plato to heart, Montaigne puts little stock in the clever use of words – in rhetoric, artistic tricks or, in this case, mouthing the language of religion while ignoring the meaning.
He gets to this idea via his typical circuitous route, beginning with the thought that God himself gave us a perfectly fine prayer to say – the Lord’s Prayer – therefore we should simply use it whenever possible:
I may be mistaken but, seeing that we have been granted by special grace and favour a set form of prayer prescribed and dictated to us, word by word, by God’s own mouth, it has always seemed to me that we should use it more commonly.
This might be a bit off point, but like Montaigne, I’m a big believer in repurposing good writing, especially business writing. When you’ve gone through 10 layers of edits and reviews and finally agreed upon the phrase that everyone agrees states your mission perfectly, why on earth would you want to revisit it the next time you write a brochure or speech? It’s not just a waste of time, it’s a bad communications strategy, words and phrases need repetition to have impact.
Getting back to The Lord’s Prayer, you could argue that millennia of repetition have actually drained meaning from it, that it’s become a rote repetition of syllables, easy to repeat without thinking. Montaigne would argue that this is a good thing:
This prayer ought to have the prerogative of being on people’s lips at all times, since it is certain that it says everything necessary and that it is always most appropriate on all occasions.
Just like message discipline in political and business communications ensure that everyone speaks the same language consistently, this kind of rote prayer discipline keeps the laity from using their moments of prayer for unsavory means:
God’s power and his justice are inseparable. If we implore him to use his power in a wicked cause it is of no avail. Our soul must be pure, at least for that instant when we make our prayer, free from the weight of vicious passions; otherwise we offer him rods for our own chastisement.
This, in turn, leads to zealots warping the power of prayer, turning it into a source of hatred and violence. Think of Pat Robertson praying that a hurricane miss Virginia Beach – and hit Manhattan instead:
Instead of amending our faults we redouble them by offering God (from whom we ought to be begging forgiveness) emotions full of irreverence and hatred. That is why I do not approve of those whom I see praying to God frequently and regularly if deeds consonant with their prayers do not bear me witness of some reformation and amendment.
It’s with his next point, however, where Montaigne started to come into conflict with the Church, because he’s about to go beyond the value of rote prayer to criticize those who do not have a virtuous life worthy of the Christian faith:
What monstrous a conscience it is that can find rest while nurturing together in so peaceful and harmonious a fellowship both the crime and the judge in the same abode. If a man has his head full of the demands of lechery, judging it to be something most odious in the sight of God, what does he say to God when he tells him of it?
That’s one of the great conflicts of the Christian faith – read the Sermon on the Mount and you understand what Jimmy Carter was saying in his infamous Playboy interview where he confessed to lusting in his heart. Carter in that interview made the point that his impurity of thoughts render him just as guilty in God’s eyes as the lecherous. He wasn’t trying to say that he was “holier than thou,” quite the opposite.
It gets a little hazy at this point whether Montaigne is preaching a “holier than thou” theology. On one hand, he blasts the believers in “reformed” Catholicism for holding arrogant personal beliefs:
What a loathsome malady it is to believe that you are so right that you convince yourself that nobody can think the opposite.
Then on the other hand, he has no tolerance himself for Christians so wedded to the words that they do not pursue virtuous lives:
When people fail to understand everything they read is it only the fault of the words! I would go further. By bringing Scripture that little bit nearer they actually push it further away. Pure ignorance, leaving men totally dependent on others, was much more salutary and more learned than such vain verbal knowledge, that nursery of rashness and presumption.
And that’s why I hold that this essay should be read as a continuation of his thought about language more than as a reflection of his religion. As proof, I offer this paragraph towards the close of the piece, where Montaigne stops talking about Christianity altogether and makes the same point by using Pythagoras and the polytheistic beliefs of Ancient Greece as his example:
That is why the Pythagorians believed that prayer should be public and heard by all, so that God should not be begged for things unseemly or unjust – like the man in this poem: he first exclaims, ‘Apollo!’ loud and clear; then he moves his lips, addressing the goddess of Theft and fearing to be overheard: ‘O fair Laverna: do not let me get found out; let me appear to be just and upright; cloak my sins with night and my lies with a cloud.’