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Michel de Montaigne

Renaissance Skeptic


"Que Sais Je?" What do I know? Was Montaigne’s motto in the 1670s while writing the Apology for Raymond Sebond. The short excerpt from this work which you are reading will introduce you to an important philosophical position—skepticism. Skepticism plays a very important role in the history of philsophy during the entire period we are studying. It is important to understand skepticism, in order to understand the reaction of philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Berkeley who all believe that knowledge is possible.

Michel de Montaigne was an upper class Frenchman who was a member of the Parliament of Bordeaux, and later the Mayor of that city. After the death of his father, Montaigne left public life and retired to his family castle—chateau Montaigne There he came to write his Essays which are regarded as works of great literature. The Essays are filled with sophisticated self reflections which illuminate the human condition.

Montaigne actually introduced the word "essay" into European languages. The primary object of inquiry in the Essays is Montaigne himself. Yet, in studying himself Montaigne is studying mankind. He attempted to weigh or ‘assay’ his nature, habits, his own opinions and those of others. He is searching for truth by reflecting on his readings, his travels as well as his experiences both public and private. The essays roam discursively through a variety of topics in an urbane, light, witty and untechnical way, yet marked by acute intelligence and uncompromising honesty.

At some point in the 1570s Montaigne came under the influence of skepticism. This led him to write the Apology for Raymond Sebond. In this work, which is quite different in this regard from the rest of the Essays, Montaigne became the most articulate spokesman for Renaissance skepticism. To see what led Montaigne to his skeptical crisis we need to consider the background against which he wrote.

The Renaissance, which we discussed in connection with Father de las Casas, was in full flower in France. Montaigne got a humanist education, meaning an education in the works of classical authors such as Cicero, Lucretius, and various other Greek and Lating authors. The Renaissance was also an era in which the indiviual became more prominent.

Martin Luther was a reforming Catholic priest like others during this period. Luther objected to things like the sale of indulgences—paying money to get your time in purgatory reduced. In 1517 he nailed his 99 theses to the door of a church in Germany. What changed Luther from a reforming Catholic priest to the founder of a new religious organization? The answer helps illuminate a point about knowledge which skeptics make.

In defending himself before the Church authorities, Luther rejected 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. Luther rejected this criterion for religious knowledge and replaced it with another—what conscience was compelled to believe on reading Scripture. This was so fundamental a disagreement that it in effect started a new religious body—the Protestant Churchs, distinct from the Catholic church.

Europeans had some knowledge of the skeptical tradition through Cicero and some others, skepticism became a significantly more important force in European intellectual life with the publication of the works of Sextus Empricius beginning in 1562. Sextus Empiricus was a Hellenistic skeptic. He was apparently not very original, but he summarized many of the argument in the skeptical tradition. The publication of these works helped people to understand the Reformation crisis, and thus deepend the religious skeptical crisis.

Skepticism in its univsersal form claims that we only know one thing and that is that knowledge is impossible or that one can know nothing. This was the position of Academic skeptics. Pyrrhonian skeptics questioned even this claim! Skeptics agreed with their dogmatic opponents that reality is determinate, meaning that it is one way rather than another. They also agreed that knowledge is of reality. Reality is thus objective, while appearance is subjective and varies from one person to another.

Skeptics try to show that claims to knowledge cannot be sustained. The basic strategy of skeptical reasoning is to oppose any claim to knowledge with a counterclaim. Since reality is determinate, both claims cannot be true. Skeptics hold that one should decide the truth or falsity of a proposition based on evidence. If the evidence for the truth of one claim is better than the evidence for another, one accepts it as true. So, in producing counter-claims skeptics try to find propositions with as much evidence in their favor as the original claim to knowledge. In such cases, since the evidence is equally balanced, they urge suspension of judgement as to the truth or falsity of the proposition. To do this in regard to all knowledge claims is to find peace of mind.

One way to decide between competing claims to knowledge is to produce a criterion which is a sort of standard for judging. The Catholic Rule of Faith was such a criterion. Skeptics try to show that criteria themselves cannot be defended. They argue that if you question a particular criterion, one must either produce another criterion to justify the first, and so on ad infinitum or one must reason in a circle, thus using the criterion to justify itself. This dilemma about the justification of criteria is often called the problem of the criterion. Thus skeptics seek to block one plausible way of deciding between conflicting knowledge claims.

Since one cannot grasp the nature of reality by either the unaided uses of the senses or reason, only faith remains. The truths of faith are difficult to grasp by reason, so one should allow the truths to be determined by Popes and Church councils.

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.

Montaigne makes the point that his very skepticism has led him to preserve his traditional religious views. In a time of schism, sects, and bloody controversy, he remains a good Catholic.

One characteristic of the Renaissance is the veneration of the learning of Greek and Roman antiquity. For the humanists, these ancient authors were the masters of knowledge. So, for a humanist, if a book was written by an ancient author, then it contained knowledge. But as more and more books from the ancient world were translated and printed, it became apparent that the ancients disagreed with one another. Since both were ancient authors, this left the humanist with no way to decide which author was correct. Thus, in addition to the religious skeptical crisis, there was a humanist skeptical crisis.

During this period we get one of the most significant developments in modern European intellectual history—the rise of modern science. The publication in 1643 of Copernicus’ book in which he proposed that the planets revolve around the sun, rather than the sun revolving about the earth along with the stars, began an astronomical controversy which provided yet more material for the skeptics. Which theory was the correct one? How could you tell? The telescope was yet invented. It was very hard to see how to tell which system was correct. So, a sensible solution was to suspend judgement. Hence, the religious and humanist skeptical crises were augmented by these important developments in astronomy.

The period is also marked by an increasing revolt against the authority of Aristotle and the scholastic philosophers of the middle ages. St. Thomas Aquinas had effectively sythesized Aristotle and Christian theology. Before Thomas, Aristotle was regarded as a dangerous pagan. The Thomistic synthesis was now under attack.

The eight pages of the reading require the same kinds of skills in determining what the parts are and seeing how the parts fit together into a whole which you encountered in the unit on Father de Las Casas.