Ports of Call



Montaigne, Religion and Skepticism

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

Brief Selection from An Apology for Raymond Sebond
This selection is in your course packet.

The Apology for Raymond Sebond

Michel de Montaigne
In this section of the course we are going to explore a brief few pages of Michel de Montaingne's An Apology for Raymond Sebond. In this work we get the full expression of Renaissance skepticism. Your objective here is to come to understand what skepticism is, and the historical and social background to Renaissance skepticism. This is a movement which is important in understanding the philosophy of Descartes and the history of philosophy, both during the period we are studying and beyond. Skepticism is an important aspect of philosophy in its own right. As part of your general education, it is a useful thing to know what it means to be a skeptic and how one goes about being skeptical.


Renaissance and Reformation

Martin Luther nailing
his 95 theses to the Church door
We have already talked about the Renaissance in the unit on Las Casas. We will continue are discussion here. But first it is well to mention another development of great importance which had a great influence on philosophical thought during this era. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of a German church. Luther was a Catholic priest at that point and a reformer. There were various abuses in the Papacy. The lifestyle of the Popes was notorious. Alexander VI who was the pope at the time of Columbus and divided up the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese was a case in point. There were others. Then there was the selling of indulgences. An indulgence was a papal document which, in effect, said that you would get out of purgatory and into heaven earlier than would otherwise have been expected given your sins. The papacy sold these in order to raise money. The money was regularly used for good purposes.
Nevertheless, many people objected to this practice as well as other abuses in the Church. Erasmus, the great humanist scholar, for example, was a reformer. Erasmus, however, like his English friend Thomas More, never broke with the Catholic Church. What then did Luther do to make himself not a Catholic reformer but something quite new -- a Protestant?

What Luther did was to reject the rule by which the Catholic church determined what was to count as religious knowledge and replaced it with another. This rule of the Catholic church, known as the Rule of Faith, says that if you want to know if a certain religious claim is true, you should see what Popes and Church Councils have said about it. If no Pope or Church Council has declared on the matter, it may be necessary to consult a Pope or convene a Church Council. Take three such claims.

  • P1. God is three persons in one.
  • P2. It is possible to obtain salvation by the use of one's own free will with no other assistance.
  • P3 The soul is naturally mortal.
P1 -- the Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity -- was asserted by the Council of Nicea against the monk Arius. As a result, anyone who asserts that God is not three persons in one is a heretic, an adherent of the Arian heresy. Augustine succeeded in having the second proposition declared a heresy by a Church Council - for it denies the need for God's grace. P3 is another heresy - the Socinian heresy. This was a new heresy in the 16th and 17th centuries. It asserted that when we die our souls will only continue in existence if God performs an act of grace. He will only do this for good people, so bad people when they die simply go out of existence! Thus there is no Hell. So you see how the rule works. The rule is a criterion for determining what counts and what does not count as religious knowledge. This was the rule which Luther denied!

Martin Luther
Luther replaced the Rule of Faith with another rule which says that you determine what religious truth is by what your conscience tells you upon reading the Bible. The defenders of the Church claimed that this would result in many different opinions about what was true, and of course they were right. Protestantism splintered into many different sects based on different reading of the Bible. For philosophers, the most important question which Luther's replacement of the Rule of Faith with a new criterion of religious knowledge raised is this: When you have two competing criteria for knowledge, how do you tell which one of them is right? One answer is that you appeal to another criterion. But this leads to an infinite regress. So bon voyage! On the other hand, one can reason in a circle. This is basically what the Protestants did. As Popkin describes it in The History of Skepticism it goes like this:

The fundamental evidence for the original Calvinists of the truth of their views was inner persuasion. But how can one tell if this inner persuasion is authentic, not just a subjective certainty that might be illusory? The importance of being right is so great that, as Theodore Beza, Calvin's aide-de-camp insisted, we need a sure and infallible sign. This sign is 'ful perswasion, [which] doth separate the chosen children of God from the castaways, and is the proper riches of the Saintes.' But the consequence is a circle: the criterion of inner knowledge is inner persuasion, the guarantee of the authenticity of inner persuasion is that it is caused by God, and this we are assured of by our own inner persuasion. (Popkin, Pg. 10)

So, you can be a skeptic on several levels. First there is the level of particular statements -- like P1 for example. You can hold that you know that God is a trinity or you can deny that God is a trinity. Or you can decide that there is no way to tell and suspend judgment. Suspending judgment means that you decide that given the evidence, there is no basis for deciding one way or the other. This third possibility, suspending judgment, is the one which skeptics prefer. So, there is the level of particular statements. Then there is the level of the standards by which the particular statements are judged to be true or false. This is the level of the criterion.

If you claim that God is a trinity, you might be asked on what basis you hold this to be true. If you are a Catholic you might appeal to the rule of faith. The rule of faith is a criterion (from the Greek meaning a means of judging) or standard for determining what is true of false in regard to religious knowledge. Now if that criterion is called into question, perhaps the skeptic proposes another competing criterion (a criterion which would decide that "God is not a trinity." is true), you then have a serious problem. How are you going to justify the criterion you are using to make particular judgements? This is the second level of the skeptical problem. The first level is that of particular propositions, the second is the criterion which we use to decide if particular propositions are true. Skeptics operate happily on both levels, challenging both claims to knowledge of particular truths and the criteria which apply to many truths.

The second challenge -- that of justifying the criterion for the truth of particular propositions is an expecially difficult problem -- and so it is known as the the problem of the criterion. As noted above, skeptics claimed that there are two alternatives here. Either you justify the criterion with another and so end up in an infinite regress. Or you reason in a circle, ultimately using the criterion you seek to justify to justify itself. Often, rather than struggle with this philosophical problem, people resorted to simpler means, like killing the people who disagreed with them! Thus one result of the Reformation was a series of nasty religious and civil wars between Protestants and Catholics which continued through most of the period we are studying and had a profound influence on all of it. Short of killing or driving out the people who disagree with you, there are gentler strategies for dealing with them. Skepticism itself was a strategy.

Hellenistic Skepticism and Christianity

People had their attention drawn to the philosophical character of the problem posed by Protestantism by the publication in the 1560s of the works of a Hellenistic skeptic named Sextus Empiricus. Sextus was not, as far as we can tell a particularly original philosopher, but he came at then end of a long tradition of Greek and Hellenistic skepticism and provided a good summary of skeptical arguments. What the works of Sextus Empiricus did for people in the second half of the sixteenth century was to provide them with a philosophical model of the dilemma of the age. They could then understand the position in which they found themselves. One of the problems which Sextus laid out was the problem of the criterion.

There was also a skeptical strand of Christian thinking which could be easily combined with Greek skepticism. Erasmus, for example, while a humanist scholar, had a general anti-intellectualist attitude towards theological discussions which comes out clearly both in his In Praise of Folly and in his attacks on Luther. In In Praise of Folly he remarks: "Human affairs are so obscure and various that nothing can be known. This was the sound conclusion of the Academics [The Academic Skeptics] who were the least surly of philosophers." (quoted in Popkin, Pg. 5) Popkin remarks: "This contempt for intellectual endavour, was coupled with his advocay of a simple, non-theological Christian piety." This skeptical defence of the faith was to dominate the French Counter Reformation.


  1 of 5   NEXT