Montaigne, Religion and Skepticism

Readings for this part of your journey

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


The Apology for Raymond Sebond <\EM>

In this section of the course we are going to explore a brief few pages of Michel de Montaingne's Apology de 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

We have altready 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
Martin Luther nailed his famous 99 theses to the door of the Church. Luther was a Catholic priest at that point and a reformer. There were various abuses in the Papacy. The lifesytle of the Popes was notorious. Alexander VI who was the pope at the time of Columbus and divided up the word 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. Neverthless, many people objected to this practice as well as other abuses in the Church. Erasmus, the great humanist scholar, for example, was a reformer. 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 unassisted by the use of one's own free will. P3 The soul is naturally mortal. P1 was asserted by the Council of Niceas against the monk Arius, and anyone who asserts that God is not three persons in one is a heretic, an adherent of the Arian heresey. Augustine succeeded in having the second proposition declared a heresey by a Church Council - for it denies the need for God's grace. P3 is another heresey - the Socinian heresey. This was a new heresey in the 16th and 17th centuries. It asserted that when we die our souls will only continue in existance 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 existance! Thus there is no Hell. So you see how the rule works. The rule is a criterion for determining what counts or does not count as religious knowledge. This was the rule which Luther denied.

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. Protestanism splintered into many different sects. This is why we have Lutherans and Calvinists and Baptists and Antibaptists and Unitarians, Seventh day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesseses and so on and so forth ad nauseum. Luther had an answer to this which we will take up shortly. But the important question which Luther's replacement of the Rule of Faith with a new criterion of religious knowledge 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 reaon in a circle. This is basically what Luther did.

Diagram of an infinite regressDiagram of reasoning in a circle
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 judgement. Suspending judgement means that you decide that given the evidence, there is no basis for deciding one way or the other. This third alternative, suspending judgement, is the skeptical one.

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. Now if that criterion is called into question, and another criterion is proposed, you then have the problem of the criterion (especially if the second criterion yields the result that God is not a trinity). 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.

The second challenge -- that of justifying the criterion for the truth of particular propositions is a really difficult problem -- and so it is known as the the problem of the criterion. 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 like name calling. This is not a real solution either. Then there is the possibility of really solving the underlying philosophical diffiulty. Sometimes there is no real substitute for philosophy!

People had their attention drawn to the philosophical character of the problem 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 were to give people a philosophical model of the dilemma of the age. They could understand the position in which they found themselves. One of the problems which Sextus laid out was the problem of the criterion

The Expansion of the Skeptical Crisis

The skeptical crisis in religion was expanded by the increased publication of ancient books. The result was that humanists discovered that ancient authors disagreed with one another pretty regularly. So, in addition to the religious crisis, there was a humanist skeptical crisis. Humanists were the scholars who studied the Greek and Roman classics. These ancient authors were considered to be authorities on the subjects about which they wrote. So the criterion for knowledge for a humanist might be this: A claim counts as knowledge if and only if it is stated by some ancient Greek or Roman author. So what happens when the humanist discovers that Plato says X and Aristotle says not X, that Cicero says Y and Marcus Aurelius says not Y? Since both claims (in either case) meet the criterion for being knowledge, there is no way to decide between them. So, one must suspend judgement.

Then there were also some pretty dramatic developments in astronomy. The standard astronomical view in Europe, at least since Thomas Aquinas was the Ptolemaic view. This view held that the earth was at rest at the center of a finite universe, and the moon the planets, the sun and the other stars circled about the earth. Now in 1543, Copernicus published a book in which he suggested that the sun was in the center and the earth revolved about it. It was fairly difficult at the time to determine which of these two theories was the correct one. Then Europeans were discovering the Americas, with the exotic peoples there who lived with very diffeerent customs than Europeans. Europeans wore cloths and were somewhat sexually repressed, at least some of the natives had neither clothes nor inhibitions. Whose customs were right? It might be difficult to find a standard or a criterion by which to judge.

By the late years of the sixteenth century, the 1490s, there were quite articulate defenders of skepticism. Michele de Montaigne is probably this most notable of these. This is the man who gave us the famous Essays. But the early years of the 17th century, it was fashionable amongst French intellectuals to be a skeptic. Now, we often tend to think of skepticism as doubts concerning religion. But in the early seventeenth century it was quite possible to be a skeptic and a Catholic. Basically the line was - you can't figure these things out for yourselves - so accept your local religion - particularly Catholicism. This was, for example, the line which Erasmus took in arguing against Luther. This is sometimes called Fiedism. The idea here is that reason will not get you to the truth, so you must have faith.

Thus, for a while, there was an alliance between skepticism and Catholicism. Luther and Lutherans wanted no part of this, by the way. Luther thought that he had the truth. So he wanted nothing to do with skepticism.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is a great French Renaissance thinker who took himself as the great object of study in his Essays. 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. Montaigne's writing style is light and untechnical.

He 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 during a certain period in the long life of that institution who promoted this doctrine. It came from a particular interpretation of Socrates claim in the Apology that neither he nor the politician who he had examined to see if he were wise knew anything beautiful or good. The second school was called Pyhronians skepticism after the Greek philosopher Pyhro. 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!

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 Pyhronian 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 Pyhronian 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 Lating 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.