References

Montaigne (1533-1592)
A very brief biography with a nice timeline by Bill Uzgalis.

Classical Skepticism
Superb analysis of the skeptic tradition by Peter Suber. Note Montaigne's role in this tradition.

Montaigne and Skepticism
A concise piece from Tom Nickles.

The Essays
The famous writings that provide a model for the modern essay form. These are short, interesting, and not too difficult to read if you take your time.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
A brief and informative biography.

 

 

Miguel de Montaigne

Arrogance: the human condition

Que  sais-je? (What do I know?)  That is the question that has driven philosophers for millennia.  For many people the idea of questioning one's own knowledge seems silly. Those people  make little distinction between belief and knowledge; so that if they think something is so, there is no point in questioning whether it is so. Perhaps you personally know folks like this. Perhaps some of your own beliefs are held beyond questioning. In such cases, questioning one's own knowledge (hence searching for sources and evidence) is highly unlikely

One quality that philosophers typically share is the urge to question deeply.  Few philosophers remain content to stand on tradition, authority, common opinion, or unquestioning belief.  Some philosophers question more deeply than others.  Miguel de Montaigne is among the philosophers who question most deeply of all: the skeptics.

Perhaps it was Montaigne's experience as a magistrate (judge) that led him to his view that few cases of dispute are ever cut and dry.  He certainly applied this Mussolini: Fascist dictatornotion of ambiguity to philosophical, scientific, and religious theories.  So many great thinkers claim to grasp the inner truth of the world and many people follow them.  Yet over time, even the most celebrated of thinkers and theories lose their strength and are replaced by newer (and no less certain) claims to knowledge.  People will fight, die, and kill for their beliefs. For Montaigne, one need only glance back to the history of abandoned truths to see the arrogance of human conviction.  Yet, in politics, religion, business, and everyday life human beings continue as if we can know it all and that all that we come to know belongs to us by right.  Humans have consistently claimed dominion over all of nature on the basis of a superior capacity for reason.  It is this presumed superiority that Montaigne targets with his sharp arguments.

"Presumption is our natural and original malady. The most calamitous and fragile of all creatures is man, and at the same time the proudest. He sees and feels himself placed here in the mire and dung of the world, attached and fixed in the worst, most lifeless, and most corrupt part of the universe, on the meanest floor of the house and the farthest removed from the vault of heaven, with animals of the worst condition of the three [of those that fly, swim, and live on the ground]; and he goes installing himself in his imagination that he makes himself God's equal, that he ascribes to himself divine attributes, that he winnows himself and separates himself from the mass of other creatures, determines the share allowed the animals, his colleagues of faculties and powers as seem good to him. How does he know, by the effort of intelligence, what inwardly and secret moves the animals? By what comparison of them with ourselves does he deduce the stupidity which he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not making me her pastime more than I make her mine?" [Montaigne. 1592. In Defense of Raymond Sebond. Chapter II, Section 3, Man's superiority over the animals a delusion based on pride.]

If you know cats, you likely understand Montaigne's suspicion.  Still, it is very difficult for any educated person to put aside the fundamental feeling that as a cathumans we are different -- more advanced -- than other animals.  We are the top of the evolutionary chain.  We have language, art, technology, education, and culture.  Animals, both wild and tame, act on instinct. We humans may act upon the elevated powers of reason and free-will.  Such reasonings are the "delusion based on pride" that Montaigne is out to undermine.  He uses a variety of tactics to do so and created a powerful challenge for philosophers who followed him.  Skepticism has been used throughout history as an antidote to dogmatism. Montaigne is the first major skeptic of the modern age.

 

 

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2003