Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. If you haven’t come across his Essais, I’d recommend just picking a couple at random and starting from there… It’s how I got hooked!
This two-part post will analyse the influence of Pyrrhonian Scepticism on Montaigne’s writings. This was a school of philosophical scepticism founded by Pyrrho in the fourth century BCE. Its main principle can be expressed by the word “acatalepsia”, which is the ability to withhold agreement with doctrines claiming to tell the truth. It argues that we should creatively and sceptically argue against any statement, where it’s contradiction may be advanced with equal justification. In todays’ global political climate, such attempts at calm, sceptical, rational debate have never been more important.
The influence of Pyrrhonian Scepticism, which Montaigne termed ‘the wisest of the schools of philosophy’ can be traced throughout Montaigne’s writing. It interweaves with all other concerns; philosophy, history, politics and ethics, and crucially the upheavals of sixteenth century France (which was experiencing the French Wars of Religion). This being said, the Essays do not provide the reader with a direct account of philosophical theory, but provide an insight into the mentality of Scepticism taken in its most comprehensive sense. They are firmly located in the interrogative – best expressed as ‘What do I know?’.
Whilst it must be noted that the Essays utilise a vast amount of classical and contemporary historical, literary and philosophical works, Pyrrhonism does form a crucial outlook. As the Essays progress, one can witness a gradual progression from Pyrrhonian Scepticism (which forms the bedrock for Montaigne’s inquisitorial style) to the mature, moderated and more pragmatic epistemology of his later years.
Pyrrhonian Scepticism was effectively unknown throughout the medieval ages. Only two medieval manuscripts have ever been found, and few authors had studied Sexutus Empiricus (one of its best known proponents) before the 1562 publication of Henri Estienne’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism.
Pyrrhonism essentially held that one should remain in a perpetual state of enquiry, withholding judgement (aporia) after seeing that all arguments bear equal force, and through this the individual will eventually gain peace of mind. Montaigne’s Essays represent one of the finest examples of Pyrrhonian Scepticism in practice. The very method of an essay, that ‘loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition’, as Samuel Johnson chose to define it, is extremely closely related to the Pyrrhonian methods themselves.
The Essays utilise the Sceptical approach of presenting numerous wide-ranging illustrations and opinions, eventually resulting in the negation of any universal ‘dogmatic’ assertion. As Montaigne states in one of his final essays; ‘the false and the true are in such close proximity that the wise man should not trust himself to so steep a slope.’
Although Sextus Empiricus and his accounts of the works of Pyrrho were undoubtedly an important influence in the formation of Montaigne’s thinking, it would be wrong to confine such an inquisitive and varied collection within such strict limits. E. Limbrick has argued that Montaigne gradually moves towards ‘the more practical and positive form of scepticism advocated by Socrates.’ Indeed, throughout the Essays Montaigne clearly maintains that the ultimate aim of discussion is still the attempt to ascertain the truth, no matter far away this may be. The final essay, On Experience begins with the resounding declaration that ‘no desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge’ (a variation of Aristotle in Metaphysics, Book I), moving on to inform the reader that ‘truth is so great a matter that we must not disdain any method which leads us to it.’
In essence, the Essays bear witness to Montaigne’s sociological (as opposed to epistemological) stimulus for Sceptical thinking. In the very first chapter, Montaigne states his problem: ‘it is difficult to found a judgement on him [man] which is steady and uniform’. Despite this, the choice of title for his final essay (Of Experience), suggests Montaigne’s acceptance of a more tempered Scepticism – accepting that human experience must ultimately serve as the basis for our actions.
If any single theme can be identified as running through the Essays as a whole, it is the oft quoted Delphic Injunction ‘Know Yourself’, a quest which Montaigne describes as his only profession; ‘I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics’. This ‘commandment paradoxe’ is used expressly in La Vanité as a creed which runs against (para) common estimation (doxa). As with the entirety of Montaigne’s project, his aim of self-knowledge bears witness to a dialectical relationship. ‘Knowing yourself’ has a different meaning for each individual, and it is this identification of relativity (very much in accordance with the Pyrrhonian Scepticism) which stands at the heart of Montaigne’s thought.
The reason Montaigne’s search amounts to more than mere vanity however, is the belief that ‘every man bears the whole form of the human condition’, or put more poetically: ‘it is no spot but a universal stain which soils me.’
The second part of this blog series will be published next week. Please comment and follow this blog for further updates and discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts.