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MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE (1533-1592)


Montaigne was a French aristocrat, a wealthy country gentleman who lived in a chateau near Bordeaux and took part in public affairs.

Montaigne largely invented the essay as a genre, and his most famous work is three volumes of witty and learned Essais on a wide range of subjects.  Literally, an essay is an attempt, a trying out of some ideas or a point of view.  (In French, essayer means to try, to attempt, to test, or taste.)  His most important essay is the Apology for Raimond Sebond, a study of the roles of reason and faith in an individual's attempt to make sense of the world and his place in it.  (Montaigne had been a careful student of Sebond's writings.)  Above all, this work was the vehicle by which Montaigne spread a particularly corrosive form of ancient skepticism, called Pyrrhonism, through Europe.  The Apology was a response to Montaigne's own personal crisis of doubt.  Reportedly, he carved ancient skeptical slogans into the rafters of his study so that he could contemplate them as he lay in thought (Popkin 1979, 43).

It is fair to say that Montaigne was the most important skeptic of the 16th century, indeed, the first great skeptic of "modern" times.  His motto was, Que sais-je?, What do I know?  (In Spanish this becomes the common expression: ¿Que sé yo?)  As a careful student of the mass of newly recovered materials of ancient Greece and Rome, Montaigne was impressed by how different their ideas and forms of life were from those of the Europe of his day.  He concluded that no one set of institutions or way of life could be shown best, that all things are relative and impermanent.  In particular, this relativism undermined traditional theology and morality and also the sciences.  Briefly stated, relativism is the view that a position cannot be shown to be superior to its leading competitors, which are, in that sense, equaly good, equally justified.

Again, Montaigne was largely responsible for reviving the skeptical writings of the ancients (Sextus Empiricus and the Pyrrhonists).  He followed them in concluding that reason was powerless to really establish anything.  One argument for skepticism is the infinite regress: any rationally justified claim must be backed by reasons, that is, further claims that serve as premises for the first claim as a conclusion.  But then the premises need to be justified in turn, as conclusions of further arguments from other premises; and so on ad infinitum.  So you can never prove anything, really.  You can never reach the bedrock, the rational foundation, necessary to prove anything.

Similarly, you cannot trust your senses.  We know that they are sometimes wrong.  We suffer from mistaken perceptions, illusions, hallucinations; we cannot even tell for sure whether or not we are dreaming.  To tell whether the information from our sense experience is correct or not, we need a criterion, an infallible mark of correctness.  But nothing is just given to us for free as absolutely certain and trustworthy, so we would then need a second criterion to test the first, to see that it was truly reliable; and, of course, a third criterion to check the second; and so on to infinity.  As Montaigne himself formulated the problem in the aforementioned Apology:

To adjudicate [between the true and the false] among the appearances of things we need to have a distinguishing method (un instrument judicatoire); to validate this method we need to have a justifying argument; but to validate this justifying argument we need the very method at issue.  And there we are, going round on the wheel.  (As quoted by Rescher 1977, 17.)
According to Pyrrhonists, the correct response to this massive, rational doubt was not to give up living, however, but simply to follow one's natural inclinations and local customs, without, however, accepting them as correct.

Yet here we find a tension in Montaigne, for in fact he sharply attacked traditions, customs, and all human institutions, including political institutions, pointing out their contradictions and stupidities.  He emphasized human fallibility, our mistake-proneness.  We are not infallible.  We do not have the capacities to ascertain the truth about the world with any assurance.  We are weak, both epistemically (that is, on the side of cognition and knowledge) and morally.  Only faith and God's grace will save us.  This position is one variety of fideism, the view that, at bottom, we must rely on faith rather than reason, on trust rather than on rational evidence.  In fact, knowing that reason is powerless to prove anything, realizing that we are ignorant, makes us better able to receive divine revelation.  Montaigne envied the innocence of the noble savages brought back from America.  Untroubled by the anxieties of European civilization and ignorant of European learning, thought Montaigne, they were as likely as anyone to discover the truths of how to live a good life.  The so-called achievements of human reason have made our world worse, not better.  Ignorance is bliss!

Yet Montaigne's skepticism did not make him anti-rational in the way that some writers were.  He was not irrationalist.  He did not embrace faith with the religious fervor of the later Pascal (who regarded Montaigne as a cold fish, basically an atheist).  Montaigne did not reject reason and observation as totally useless.  Rather, he used reason as a weapon, a machine de guerre (war machine), in his critique of cultural institutions and human habits.  The sharp edge of reason served very well to destroy, deconstruct, or dismantle the world of supposed givens.  It unmasked the incoherencies, the contradictions, the rationally unjustified dogmatisms and ingrained habits, the foolishness that characterized human behavior and society.  Unfortunately, it did not seem to Montaigne that reason provided a positive basis on which to create a new social, political, and cultural structure.  Reason was destructive rather than constructive.  It could not create a new world.

Montaigne pointed out how religion was used by those in power to keep the people subservient (though he was not so cynical about religion as Machiavelli had been).  Similarly, he pointed out how the origin and status of laws had been (as he thought) deliberately mystified by those in power -- as if the laws were the direct commandments of God, written in stone, rather than just the rules invented by those in power for their own convenience and to further their own interests.  Even conscience itself is not innate, not built into us by God; rather, it is the product of social custom, he said (contrary to Luther).  And those in power are well aware that internalized customs and traditions are a far more effective guide to keep people in their places, than is an elaborate framework of "external" laws.  The trick was to make them believe that this inner guidance and conscience were placed there by God and reflect the real nature of things rather than human historical contingency and the interests of the rulers (Dollimore 1984).

In short, Montaigne used reason in an attempt to demystify (as Marxists like to say) the socio-politico-religious structure and the whole hierarchy of nature and society that governed modern life.  He used reason as a tool to challenge that hierarchy, just as Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and others were challenging the old, hierarchical view of the natural world.

In his critique of traditional religion, Montaigne attacked the anthropomorphic view that God is analogous to a human being, only superior, that God literally made man in his own image.  We cannot suppose that God experiences our silly human passions -- our joys, desires, anger, anxiety -- or even that he cares about every little thing that happens to us.  (Praying to God to help us win a football game is ludicrous.)  God is far removed from our world and is not the loving, kind, providential figure that many Christians supposed.  About the particular affairs of individuals, God could care less, as far as we can know.  Moreover, we must quit the pretense of theologians that we really do know God's nature.  He is largely inscrutable to us.  Here was a strong resemblance between the views of Montaigne and Protestants such as Calvin (Elton, 1966, Ch. 1).

In all of this, Montaigne was partial to Epicurean philosophy, which was enjoying a great revival during the later 16th century.  According to Epicurus, pleasure is the good; but, contrary to popular opinion, Epicurus did not advocate a life of sensual pleasure.  On the contrary.  Such pleasures of the moment almost always caused us grief later and so, in the end, produced more pain than pleasure.  The best life was a life free of worry and pain, and that is a simple, disciplined life.  Since superstition (fear of the gods) was a major source of worry, the Epicureans held that the gods were really quite remote from us and did not care about us.  Thus, Epicureans rejected the idea of a world governed by Providence, but neither was the universe inherently evil.  For the most part, it was pretty meaningless -- atoms bounding in the void -- although there were some natural regularities that governed the entire cosmos, including human and animal life.  (See the later sections on law, Hobbes, and Locke for the doctrine of natural law.)

Although Montaigne's skepticism and social criticism had radical implications, he was himself conservative by later standards.  Montaigne was not a radical reformer.  Despite his attack on the existing order, he warned against major social change.  Although his unmasking the workings of society could have been intended to warn the elite about their shaky basis, for a wider audience it had the effect of undermining all established authority.)  He thought monarchy was the best, most stable and peaceful form of government.  Nor was he a democrat: he was aristocratic through and through.  His emphasis on human fallibility as something inescapable did lead him, however, to advocate toleration in religious and intellectual affairs.

Shakespeare in England, Descartes in France, and everyone else wrestled with Montaigne's skepticism.  Indeed, this skepticism spread rapidly in intellectual circles and was an especially powerful movement in France, where it provoked a skeptical crisis.  Indeed, thanks largely to Montaigne and the later Descartes, rational skepticism is stamped on the French intellect to this day.  Descartes, however, would later claim that he had found the magic key that enables to escape from total skepticism.  He thought he had found the secret to the positive, constructive use of reason.  Descartes thought he had solved the riddle of skpeticism and found the magic wand that would use reason as a positive force to create a wonderful new world, the world of continual progress that later thinkers would label "the Enlightenment."
 

Secondary Sources Used or Recommended

Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago, 1984).
William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, CA, 1966).
"Montaigne" article in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York 1967).
Richard Popkin, A History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley 1979).
Nicholas Rescher, Methodological Pragmatism (Oxford, 1977).
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis (Chicago, 1990).
 

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