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.
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
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 regress||Diagram of reasoning in a circle|
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 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.
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.