To speak generally, penitence is a repentance whereby a man rejects and detests the sin he has committed, with the resolution to repair as much as in him lies the offence and injury done to him against whom he has sinned. I comprehend in penitence a purpose to repair the offence, because that repentance does not sufficiently detest the fault which voluntarily permits the principal effect thereof, to wit the offence and injury, to subsist; and it permits it to subsist, so long as, being able in some sort to make reparation, it does not do so.
I omit here the penitence of certain pagans, who, as Tertullian witnesses, had some appearances of it amongst them, but so vain and fruitless that they often had penitence for having done well; for I speak only of virtuous penitence, which according to the different motives whence it proceeds is also of various species. There is one sort purely moral and human, as was that of Alexander the Great, who having slain his dear Clitus determined to starve himself to death, so great, says Cicero, was the force of penitence: or that of Alcibiades, who, being convinced by Socrates that he was not a wise man, began to weep bitterly, being sorrowful and afflicted for not being what he ought to have been, as S. Augustine says. Aristotle also, recognising this sort of penitence, assures us that the intemperate man who of set purpose gives himself over to pleasures is wholly incorrigible, because he cannot repent, and he that is without repentance is incurable.
Certainly, Seneca, Plutarch and the Pythagoreans, who so highly commend the examen of conscience, but especially the first, who speaks so feelingly of the torment which interior remorse excites in the soul, must have understood that there was a repentance; and as for the sage Epictetus, he so well describes the way in which a man should reprehend himself that it could scarcely be better expressed.
There is yet another penitence which is indeed moral, yet religious too, yea in some sort divine, proceeding from the natural knowledge which we have of our offending God by sin. For certainly many philosophers understood that to live virtuously was a thing agreeable to the divinity, and that consequently to live viciously was offensive to him. The good man Epictetus makes the wish to die a true Christian (as it is very probable he did), and amongst other things he says he should be content if dying he could lift up his hands to God and say unto him: For my part I have not dishonoured Thee: and, further, he will have his philosopher to make an admirable oath to God never to be disobedient to his divine Majesty, nor to question or blame anything coming from him, nor in any sort to complain thereof; and in another place he teaches that God and our good angel are present during our actions. You see clearly then, Theotimus, that this philosopher, while yet a pagan, knew that sin offended God, as virtue honoured him, and consequently he willed that it should be repented of, since he even ordained an examen of conscience at night, about which, with Pythagoras, he lays down this maxim
If thou hast ill done, chide thyself bitterly,
If thou hast well done, rest thee contentedly.
Now this kind of repentance joined to the knowledge and love of God which nature can give, was a dependence of moral religion. But as natural reason bestowed more knowledge than love upon the philosophers, who did not glorify God in proportion to the knowledge they had of him, so nature has furnished more light to understand how much God is offended by sin, than heat to excite the repentance necessary for the reparation of the offence.
But although religious penitence may have been in some sort recognized by some of the philosophers, yet this has been so rarely and feebly, that those who were reputed the most virtuous amongst them, to wit the Stoics, maintained that the wise man was never grieved, whereupon they framed a maxim as contrary to reason, as the proposition on which it was grounded was contrary to experience, namely, that the wise man sinned not.
We may therefore well say, Theotimus, that penitence is a virtue wholly Christian, since on the one side it was so little known to the pagans, and, on the other side, it is so well recognized amongst true Christians, that in it consists a great part of the evangelical philosophy, according to which whosoever affirms that he sins not, is senseless, and whosoever expects without penitence to redress his sin is mad; for it is our Saviour's exhortation of exhortations: Do penance. And now let me give a brief description of the progress of this virtue.
We enter into a profound apprehending of the fact that, as far as is in us, we offend God by our sins, despising and dishonouring him, giving way to disobedience and rebellion against him; and he also on his part considers himself as offended, irritated, and despised; for he dislikes, reproves and abominates iniquity. From this true apprehension there spring several motives, which all, or several together, or each one apart, may carry us to this repentance.
For we consider sometimes how God who is offended has established a rigorous punishment in hell for sinners, and how he will deprive them of the paradise prepared for the good. And as the desire of paradise is extremely honourable, so the fear of losing it is an excellent fear; and not only so, but the desire of paradise being very worthy of esteem, the fear of its contrary, which is hell, is good and praiseworthy. Ah! who would not dread so great a loss, so great a torment! And this double fear -- the one servile, the other mercenary -- greatly bears us on towards a repentance for our sins, by which we have incurred them. And to this effect in the Holy Word this fear is a hundred and a hundred times inculcated. At other times we consider the deformity and malice of sin, according as faith teaches us; for example, because by it the likeness and image of God which we have, is defiled and disfigured, the dignity of our soul dishonoured, we are made like brute beasts, we have violated our duty towards the Creator of the world, forfeited the good of the society of the angels, to associate and subject ourselves to the devil, making ourselves slaves of our passions, overturning the order of reason, offending our good angels to whom we have so great obligations.
At other times we are provoked to repentance by the beauty of virtue, which brings as much good with it as sin does evil; further we are often moved to it by the example of the saints; for who could ever have cast his eyes upon the exercises of the incomparable penitence of Magdalen, of Mary of Egypt, or of the penitents of the monastery called Prison, described by S. John Climacus, without being moved to repentance for his sins, since the mere reading of the history incites to it such as are not altogether insensible.