In his Essays, Montaigne inquires about limits of human knowledge and self-knowledge. He says time and again that God is not fully knowable nor are we to suppose that we can reach complete self-knowledge. In particular, the thinker compares attempts at apprehending our own being to those at grasping water:
for the more you clutch your hand to squeeze and hold what is in its own nature flowing, so much more you lose of what you would grasp and hold. (book 2, chapter 12)
And though the philosopher’s approach can be termed skeptical fideism (a quest for knowledge and self-knowledge driven by faith but balanced by doubt), he does not reject reason altogether. Rather, he encourages us to test it and see what it is worth. At the same time, Montaigne defines man but negatively when the latter is viewed in the light of God’s perfections:
Thus is it that to God alone glory and honour appertain; and there is nothing so remote from reason as that we should go in quest of it for ourselves; for, being indigent and necessitous within, our essence being imperfect, and having continual need of amelioration, ‘tis to that we ought to employ all our endeavour. We are all hollow and empty (book 4, chapter 16)
Montaigne believes that the only way to locate and manifest one’s own self is self-reflection through introspection. Montaigne’s thought moves in three stages. First, he comes to the conclusion that we cannot really know true reasons of many things, including our own selves. Life is a totality of appearances, or “masks.” Second, Montaigne isolates man’s inner freedom as the sole truly human endowment from everything that affects it from without.
However, it is impossible to overcome this unauthentic reality completely. Yes, man is “hollow and empty”, but there is no other reality for the sake of which all appearances have been negated. The third stage in Montaigne’s reasoning is to integrate the negation of the unauthentic reality with an acceptance of each person’s relatedness to other beings:
there is nevertheless a certain respect, a general duty of humanity, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees, and plants. We owe justice to men, and graciousness and benignity to other creatures that are capable of it. (book 2, chapter 11)
As his thought progresses, Montaigne shows a more favorable attitude toward human nature. We need to consider its wants but, at the same time, we also need to balance this with reason. To trust your own nature is to find a way toward your true self, and this will contribute to its “amelioration.” Man’s goal is not to find an abstract truth but rather to agree to live through everything that his existence involves.