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What does “Confession” Really Mean? Development of a Protean Notion

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Today, “confession” means a specific thing, usually dealing with either religion or legal proceedings but, in the past, it involved something completely different, something more personal and less public. It was Christianity which turned the whole notion on its head.


What did confession mean in the classical world?

When addressing the notion of confession in the classical world, one thinks about the Latin philosopher Seneca and his 10th letter to his disciple Lucilius, where he urges him to leave the world in order to be on his own to recover his true self.
What the philosopher expects Lucilius to do is to be alone, in his own room for meditation and prayer. He should ask the gods for a sound mind and a good intellectual and physical health. So confession was not something mediated by another human being, but it was a personal and introspective activity.


How did this practice evolve with the advent of Christianity?

Michel Foucault proved how the Roman Catholic Church, after the Fourth Lateran Council, had been able to turn confession completely on its head: it stopped being something to be performed on your own in one’s room. Instead, the religious institutions had now imposed clerical confession: the priest was now supposed to absolve the faithful after listening to their confessions. Thus, the practice was slowly losing its original statute and becoming a religious activity.
The Reformation triggered another revolution. Confession reverted to its original status, being something to be performed on one’s own with Christ as the only mediator between men and God. The Protestant reformers, who were usually humanists, recovered the original and more authentic meaning of confession. Even early modern European literature ended up recording this revolution. Michel De Montaigne rediscovered the ancient function of confession the very moment he founded a new literary genre: the Essay. In the Essay, it is you, the author, who addresses your own self, your own nature, and your own soul. Nobody prevents your wanting to write about you or speak to you in your private room.


Why bring up confession?

In a, online, technological world, time and space to one’s own are essential. It is my opinion this practice should be rediscovered, because people would undoubtedly benefit from it.

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