The self remains a secret for many, if not all of us.
Some of the greatest writers have tried to discover their self, to explore who they are.
We will take here two examples: Saint-Augustin and Michel de Montaigne.
While Saint Augustine aims at showing his self to God, in order to better praise him, Michel de Montaigne addresses his Essays to his relatives and friends, so that they can better understand and know him.
In both cases, the works eventually served all of humanity, and many philosophers who were inspired by their words. The depth of the analyses and the style are indeed remarkable.
Is the self a mystery or a secret? In any case, it is more than the secret garden, where we keep our thoughts and memories, because it is extraordinarily complex and we ourselves do not know all its corners.
We discover ourselves as the years go by, while the self evolves. Thus, to determine the self seems to be an indefinite task, the work of a whole life. However, it is from now on that we must look at ourselves and try to understand ourselves in depth.
Saint Augustine returns first of all to his sins (i.e. his faults, the evil that he has accomplished). The titles of the parts of the book are proof of this: “Disorders of his youth”, “His debaucheries at 16”, “Vices of his education”, “What he had loved in petty theft”, etc.
But it is only to get closer to God.
I want to recall my past impurities, and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but in order to love you, my God.
it is for love of your love that I return on my infamous ways in the bitterness of my memory, to savor your sweetness, oh true Delights, beatitude and Security of delights, which gather in you all the powers of my being dispersed in thousand vanities far from you, my unique center because I burned, since my adolescence, to satiate myself with low voluptuousness; and I was not ashamed to lavish the sap of my life to innumerable and tenebrous loves, and my beauty withered, and I was nothing but rottenness in your eyes, whereas I pleased myself and desired to please the eyes of men.
The Confessions, Saint-Augustin
Michel de Montaigne is himself “the material of [his] book”.
For Michel de Montaigne, taking up Cicero :
“CICERON says that to philosophize is nothing else than to learn to die”, to philosophize is “to learn to die”.
To know ourselves better is to learn about our end. To prepare ourselves for the end of our self.
Since death remains a mystery, it is a quest that once again seems endless, at least until the time of death itself arrives.
Montaigne finds in the painting of the self “It is me that I paint” a way to philosophize and to better apprehend death, and thus life. The self remains secret, and his task is to unveil as much as possible this secret.
“To the Reader
This is a book of good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that I have not proposed any end in it, other than domestic and private: I have had no consideration of your service, nor of my glory: my forces are not capable of such a design. I wanted it for the particular convenience of my relatives and friends: so that having lost me (which they must do very soon) they might find in it some traces of my conditions and moods, and that by this means they might nourish more fully and more vividly the acquaintance they had with me. If it had been to seek the favor of the world, I would have adorned myself with borrowed beauties. I want them to see me in my simple, natural and ordinary way, without study or artifice: for it is me that I paint. My flaws will be seen in full view, my imperfections and my naive form, as much as public reverence has allowed me. If I had been among those nations that are said to still live under the sweet freedom of the first laws of nature, I assure you that I would have willingly painted myself completely naked. Thus, Reader, I am myself the subject of my book: it is not right that you should employ your leisure in a subject so frivolous and so vain. To God, then.
From Montaigne, this 12th of June 1580.”
To the Reader, The Essays I, Michel de Montaigne