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Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is a wonderful French Renaissance thinker who took himself as the great object of study in his Essays. In studying himself Montaigne was studying mankind. He attempted to weigh or 'assay' his nature, habits, his own opinions and those of others. He was searching for truth by reflecting on his readings, his travels as well as his experiences both public and private. Montaigne's writing style is light and untechnical.

Montaigne's house
in Bordeaux
Montaigne was born in 1533 near Bordeaux on the family estate (named Montaigne) to a wealthy merchant and a mother from a wealthy Spanish-Portuges Jewish family from Toulouse. After six years of being raised by servants who only spoke Latin to him, Montaingne went to the college de Guienne in Bordeaux, a highly reputable school at the time. In 1546 he went on to the University of Toulouse to study law. In 1554 he became a counceller in the Bordeaux parliament. He traveled to Paris frequently and lived a life of excess. (He was fond of both woman and wine.) In 1565 he married Francoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of another Bordeaux parliament member. In 1568 his father, who he was clearly close to, died. In 1569 he published his translation of Raymond Seybond's Theologia naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum -- Natural Theology or the Book of Creatures -- which he had worked on at his father's request. In 1571 he retired to Montaigne to a life of study and contemplation. He received the order of Saint-Michel. In 1576 he writes The Apology for Raymond Seybond.

In 1580 the first two volumes of his Essays were published. He traveled to Paris to present a copy to the king and then sets out for Germany and Italy. These travels are described in his Travel Journal. In 1581 while in Rome, he received word that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux and he returns to France. In 1588 the complete edition of the Essays were published with the addition of the third volume. Michel de Montaigne died at the Chateau de Montaigne on September 13, 1592.

Montaigne the Skeptic

Montaigne, the introspective and reflective essayist was also a striking representative of Renaissance skepticism. Skepticism is the doctrine that knowledge is not possible, either about some particular topic, e.g. religion or the natural world or mathematics -- or in general. In the ancient world there were two schools which proclaimed that knowledge in general was not possible. The first of these were the Academic skeptics. They claimed that there was only one thing that they knew, and that was that they knew nothing. This school was called Academic skepticism because it was the leaders of Plato's Academy -- such as Arceislaus (c. 315 - 240 BCE) during the 3rd century BCE who promoted this doctrine. This Academic skepticism came from a particular interpretation of Socrates' claim in the Apology -- that neither he nor the first politician who he had examined knew anything beautiful or good. Socrates reflected that insofar as he knew that he did not know he was wiser than the man he examined. The Academic skeptics generalized this to the proposition that wisdom is knowing that you know nothing. This is very likely a faulty understaning of Plato, but it hardly matters here. The second school was called Pyrrhonian skepticism after the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. This school claimed that they did not even claim to know that one thing which the Academic skeptics claimed to know -- namely that they know nothing. They were willing to question even this! Cicero's Academica and the works of Sextus Empiricus made the thought of both of these schools of Skepticism available to Renaissance thinkers.

Montaigne's skepticism is largely confined to An Apology for Raymond Sebond which was originally the (very long) twelth chapter of Book II of the Essays but is often published separately. (Unfortunately our electronic text of the Essays does not contain the Apology). Montaigne was a Pyrrhonian skeptic whose motto, carved on a rafter and inscribed on a medal was Que sais je? -- "What do I know?" Yet, Montaigne was a good Catholic. How could he be both a Catholic and a Pyrrhonian skeptic? There are a couple of hypotheses which try to explain this relationship. One of these hypotheses is that Montaigne was a Catholic fiediest. Richard Popkin, in a fine book called The History of Skepticism: From Erasmus to Spinoza defends this view. (Fiedism comes from the Latin fiedes which means faith.) Essentially fiedism is a strategy which uses skepticism in order to clear the ground for the entrance of Catholicism. Since one cannot grasp the nature of reality by either the senses or reason, only faith remains. At lease one scholar, however, does not think that Montaigne was a fiedeist. M.A. Screech, a recent translator of the Apology, argues in his introduction that Montaigne is a sort of Platonist who recognizes a vast difference between the world of becoming and the world of Being, and thinks that the world of Being is accessible to man, though he must be drawn up into it by grace or other divine means and so transformed.

It is important to know that there are competing hypotheses to explain the place of skepticism in Montaigne's philosophy. This is a characteristic phenomenon in the study of the history of philosophy. Still, for our purposes at the moment, which is to come to grips with the nature of skepticism, we can set these two competing hypotheses aside. Either will do for our purposes. Later, we will explore what one must do to try to decide between competing interpretations of a text.

Montaigne seeks to humble man's pride: "...there is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something." This skepticism is connected with the doctrine of Christian 'folly' which says that God's wisdom is to be found in the lowly and the meek, and that the belief that one has knowledge prevents one from accepting the truths of religion. (One can find this tradition in Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus and others as well). Montaigne is famous for arguing that man is not in any way superior to the beasts, in fact, quite the contrary.

The Renaissance was a period of expanding horizons, and one in which there was a vast increase in knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. At the same time Europeans were recovering Latin culture and a much more complete grasp of Greek literature. Science was developing. New horizons made previous truths seem wrong or parochial. These discoveries provided Montaigne and other skeptics with a treasure chest of new facts which they used to increase our sense of relativity of all man's beliefs about himself and the world in which he lives.


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