Philosophy 22 Lecture Notes: Montaigne

Although Pyrrhonian skepticism advocates the suspension of belief in matters that go beyond appearances, it is possible to embrace the skeptics' arguments without adopting their prescription. This is the tactic used by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) in defense of the teachings of the Catholic Church. The idea is simple enough: the skeptical arguments show that the human faculties of sense and reason cannot be used to show the true nature of things. Because of the infirmity of our natural faculties, we should not use them to judge of matters divine. Instead, we should give up the pretense of natural understanding and yield to the authority of the Church, which is supernaturally inspired.

St. Paul had set the tone for the denigration of human reason. A passage from I Corinthians cited by Montaigne is representative of Paul's attitude.

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? For after than in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by this foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
Medieval philosophers such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) had defended the human faculties as giving us knowledge of the natural world, though not of the supernatural. But by the end of the Middle Ages, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?-1536) once again had attacked the use of reason in such writings as Praise of Folly.

One philosopher who had gone so far as to try to base the whole of Christian religion on natural reason was the fifteenth century Spanish theologian Raymond Sebond. His work met with harsh criticism, which Montaigne's book, In Defense of Raymond Sebond, was (on the surface) intended to deflect. Montaigne was not attempting to uphold human reason--far from it. Rather, he claimed to be trying to show how Sebond the person should not be blamed for his errors, since human reason is such a deceptive faculty. This, then, was Montaigne's rationale for an all-out attack on the reliability of the human faculties. His goal was to promote the view that the human being is entirely ignorant and in this state has only faith as a basis for belief.

In the passages selected for this course, the senses bear the brunt of Montaigne's assault. The well-worn arguments that had been compiled by Sextus Empiricus were trotted out once again: the senses yield conflicting appearances, and there is no way to decide the conflict. Who is to judge of the reality of appearances, the sick judge by the feeling of the sick, and the healthy by the feeling of the healthy. Montaigne then rehearsed the problem of the criterion as showing the hopelessness of a resolution.

There is no way out of this dilemma. Since the senses cannot decide our dispute, being full of uncertainty themselves, it must be reasoning. But no reasoning can be established without a prior reasoning, and here we are proceeding backwards without any possible stopping place.
If we try to claim that some appearances given by the senses resemble their objects, we must judge the how well they resemble them, but we have no direct contact with the objects themselves. "We have a parallel situation when one who doesn't know Socrates sees his portrait, and cannot tell whether it resembles him." And we cannot judge simply by appeal to some appearances as more accurate than others, since we have no way to separate the two: "It will be necessary to verify the selected appearance by another, the second by a third, and thus it will never be complete."

After having disparaged the use of the senses to discover the nature of things, Montaigne advances a metaphysical argument to show that it is unknowable. Citing a number of Greek philosophers, he maintains the ceaseless change that exists in the sensible world, so that we cannot say of any sensible thing that it "is." Following the Greek biographer Plutarch, he adds that if there is a God with an eternal existence, "a being really existent by which a single now fills the forever," however, one could say that He, and He alone, "is."

Finally, following the Stoic philosopher Seneca, he concludes that it is only through our belief in God through faith that we can overcome the deficiencies of our natural faculties. "He will rise if God by special grace holds out to him his hand; he will rise, abandoning and renouncing his own means, and letting himself be raised and lifted up by purely divine means." Montaigne could embrace Christian faith on Pyrrhonian grounds. The skeptical prescription was to live life on the basis of the customs in the place one finds one's self. Since the prevailing customary religion in France was Catholicism, one should accept the Catholic doctrines.

The Pyrrhonian skepticism raised by Montaigne proved to be very influential in the debate between the Catholics and Protestants. More importantly for our purposes, the new Pyrrhonism profoundly influenced Descartes. In the reply to the Seventh Objections to the Meditations, Descartes described himself as having given "Arguments by which I, first of all men, upset the doubts of the Sceptics."

[ Previous Lecture Notes: The Skeptical Crisis | Next Lecture Notes: Descartes | Lecture Notes Menu | Philosophy 22 Home Page ]