This two-part blog series analyses the influence of Pyrrhonian Scepticism on Montaigne’s writings. For the first part of this article, take a look at my previous blog.
In order to comprehend Montaigne’s use of Pyrrhonism, the Apology for Raymond Sebond (the longest and most debated individual essay), provides a fascinating insight into the implicit epistemological underpinnings of the Essays and Montaigne’s ‘Metaphysics and physics’ as a whole. It is based (highly unusually for the Essays) on a discernible logical argument, which can be outlined in the following way:
- First Principles (basic assumptions) are open to question.
- However, our rational faculties depend on these assumptions.
- Therefore man is incapable of ascertaining the truth solely through his own reason; ‘belief is grasped only by faith and by private inspiration from God’s grace.’
Montaigne’s sceptical outlook served a practical as well as an epistemological function, providing a new ‘bridle’ for human judgement and action. This was especially useful in relation to the religious dogmatism and factionalism of sixteenth century France which was undergoing its own wars of religion. The experience of war filled the whole of Montaigne’s adult life and throughout the Essays the ‘present debauchery of our wretched commonwealth’ is frequently alluded to. Military and administrative topics are especially prevalent in the first book, and Montaigne’s recognition of the insufficiency of human reason must surely relate to the overwrought contemporary atmosphere.
In opposition to the Greek philosophers’ attempts to elevate humanity, Montaigne tries to show our essentially animal and visceral form: ‘is man not a wretched creature?’ This is not to recommend that we treat each another as brutes, but to promote a consideration grounded on our shared weaknesses: ‘there is a kind of respect and a duty in man as a genus… We owe justice to men: and to the other creatures who are able to receive them we owe gentleness and kindness.’
Montaigne’s political and practical response to the ‘unbelievable examples of this vice of cruelty’ was a deep distrust of novelty corresponding with a preparedness to obey existing customs and commandments. This attitude is entirely connected with the Pyrrhonist distrust of human rationality, which forms a crucial qualification for Montaigne’s political opinions; laws are to be respected qua laws, they ‘remain respected not because they are just but because they are laws’. With notable overtones of Stoicism, Montaigne informs his reader that: ‘We may wish for different magistrates, but we must nevertheless obey those that are here. And perhaps there is more merit in obeying the bad than the good.’
It is only Montaigne’s own remarkable lucidity and manoeuvrability which enable him to escape the Sceptical trap that such reliance on custom begets a dogmatism just as unmoving as any Stoic: ‘Our main talent lies in knowing how to adapt ourselves to a variety of customs… Souls are most beautiful when the show most variety and flexibility’. Montaigne did not directly pursue the Sceptical aim of imperturbability; instead he accentuated and amiably admitted his ‘motion and inconstancy’.
In opposition to this, God is portrayed as ‘the only thing that is, has been and will be’ and Montaigne follows St. Paul and Augustine in the line of argument that any human constituent would make Him imperfect. Nothing is more thoroughly linked to Montaigne’s Pyrrhonism than his piousness; ‘we who are never-endingly confused by our own internal delusions, should not go looking for unknown external ones… I am of St. Augustine’s opinion, that in matters difficult to verify and perilous to believe, it is better to incline towards doubt than certainty’. If man is to ascertain any knowledge at all, it is only through God that this can be realised. For Montaigne the appalling results of the human mind’s attempt to exceed its own confines were only too evident in the horrors of contemporary France.
As a final thought, ‘Skeptesthai’ in Greek means ‘to consider or to observe’ and through this enterprise Montaigne’s Essays provide a full consideration of Scepticism in its broadest sense. As Anne Hartle has eloquently recognised (in Montaigne and Skepticism), Montaigne’s dialectic divulges ‘the strange in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary’, with understanding eventually returned through faith and investigation. It is in this crucial sense that one can see the progression of Montaigne’s thought, starting from extreme Pyrrhonian doubt and ending with the more tempered experience of his later years. Through Montaigne’s unceasing curiosity and open-mindedness, the Essays provide the reader with an equally unceasing source of enjoyment and illumination. Such an achievement is entirely in-line with the overall motivations of Pyrrhonism – which aimed to empower the individual to live a good and unperturbed life. Bravo to Montaigne, the thoroughly modern sceptic!
Do you have any thoughts on Montaigne’s scepticism and its applications for our contemporary society? Join the debate.