…So Was Montaigne an Atheist or a Christian Sceptic?

In a previous post I mentioned how Montaigne Used Pyrrhonian Scepticism To Undermine Ficino’s Doctrine Of Melancholic Inspiration – I should also have mentioned that he found scepticism a useful weapon to turn against the Protestants. This had nothing to do with his being an “atheist” but, as M. A. Screech points out in Montaigne and Melancholy, everything to do with a defence of Roman Catholic orthodoxy:

Montaigne throve on doubt, on uncertainty, on an endless search for truth. He was not alone in his grasp of scepticism as an intellectual tool; scepticism was in vogue among Roman Catholics as a defence against Protestants who sought to subvert them with arguments they could not answer. In such cases, the only safe reaction was to demolish reason and scholarship entirely – both theirs and yours, while clinging, by faith, to the Church alone. Christian scepticism was Catholic scepticism.”

(Montaigne and Melancholy, p. 3)

The Christianization of scepticism had roots deep in the writings of John of Salisbury, under the influence of Cicero. The recovery of a specifically Pyrrhonian scepticism begins with the reception of Greek texts in the 15th century. Gemistus Plethon, a critic of scepticism may nevertheless have been one of the Greeks who reintroduced an awareness of Pyrrhonism to western Europe. At any rate, between one and three copies of Sextus Empiricus manuscripts were recorded in the Medici library before the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1992 (Richard Brett: The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism, p. 277)

Pyrrhonism was a school of scepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BC. The philosophy of Pyrrhonism is transmitted to us via the works of Sextus Empiricus, who flourished towards the end of the second century AD.

The revival of scepticism during the Renaissance and Reformation can be seen as a response to the radical uncertainties of those times. In his essay, The Rediscovery and Posthumous Influence of Scepticism, Luciano Floridi describes scepticism in this way:

Scepticism’s real essence is the defence of a constantly open, finely balanced, critical stance towards any dogmatic (in the common sense of the word) position. It is not an easy attitude, and the sceptic is usually a negative hero, a Samson who dies with all the Philistines when he makes the temple of certainties collapse. The discomfort of intelligence when confronted by a complex, multifarious, ever-changing world, elusive and scarcely intelligible because radically “other”, is counterbalanced by the awareness of one’s own moral detachment, intellectual integrity and hence superiority with respect to the Dogmatist (the believer), whom the sceptic considers to be philosophically naive.

(The Rediscovery and Posthumous Influence of Scepticism, p. 16)

Floridi also points out that the Domincan friar Savonarola‘s circle, which included Gianfrancesco Pico Della Mirandola (nephew of the more famous Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was also a friend of Savonarola‘s), were influenced by scepticism. Gianfrancesco Pico Della Mirandola drew on the arguments of Sextus Empiricus in his work, Examen Vanitatis, in which he writes that, unlike his eclectic uncle, who sought to reconcile not only the competing schools of Greek philosophy but also Greek philosophy as a whole, the Kabbalah, the Hermetica, and the writings of the Muslim scholar Averroes, with Christian doctrine, he himself would,

find it more consistent and useful to render the philosophers’ opinions uncertain, than to reconcile them as my uncle wished.

(Quoted in Models of the History of Philosophy, vol 1: From its origins in the Renaissance to the “Historia Philosophica” , By Francesco Bottin, p. 42)

Floridi writes:

According to Gianfrancesco, Savonarola had been suggesting to his followers that they read Sextus Empiricus as an introduction to Christian faith.

When Montaigne asks « Que sais-je ? » he is asking within a Christian, Roman Catholic tradition that can be traced back through various Renaissance, Roman and Greek writers, but which also can be found in the writings of Augustine, the letters of Saint Paul in the New Testament and in Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible. Montaigne is working within this tradition when he writes that:

Whatever share in the knowledge of Truth we may have obtained, it has not been acquired by our own powers. God has clearly shown us that: it was out of the common people that he chose simple and ignorant apostles to bear witness of his wondrous secrets; the Christian faith is not something obtained by us: it is, purely and simply, a gift depending on the generosity of Another. Our religion did not come to us through reasoned arguments or from our own intelligence: it came to us from outside authority, by commandments. That being so, weakness of judgement helps us more than strength; blindness, more than clarity of vision. We become learned in God’s wisdom more by ignorance than by knowledge. It is not surprising that our earth-based, natural means cannot conceive knowledge which is heaven-based and supernatural; let us merely bring our submissiveness and obedience: ‘For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the prudence of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath God not made the wisdom of this world like unto the foolishness as of beasts? For seeing that the world, through wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God through the vanity of preaching to save them that believe.’

(II:12, trans. Screech, p. 557)

Here, Montaigne is quoting Saint Paul, I Corinthians, 1: 19-21. The theme of “Christian folly” is fully developed in the rest of I Corinthians, chapter 1. (Incidentally, Screech’s version of the quotation sticks very close to the King James translation of 1611.) Montaigne shares this tradition sceptical fideism with Erasmus (who wrote the famous In Praise of Folly) no less than with Savonarola and Gianfranco Pico Della Mirandola.

It should be noted that although Montaigne is devout in his religion, he is not at all uncritical of his co-religionists, and when he is read without any familiarity of the background of the history of scepticism, or without any understanding of his case against Ficino and the idealization of Greek philosophers (who Montaigne is always eager to point out were not “divine” but fallible human beings), it is easy to run to hasty conclusions as to the true nature of Montaigne’s humanism. So to conclude that “Montaigne was an atheist” because he was a sceptic who cast a critical eye over the behaviour of fellow Catholics while praising the noble savages and animals for their civility, for example, is to misunderstand (or misrepresent) Montaigne’s intention; his attack is aimed at the Platonising magic of the Ficinian tradition on the one hand and the rationalist arguments of the Protestant reformers on the other, not because he is irreligious or a closet atheist, but on the contrary, because he is committed to defending traditional religion and the authority of the Roman Catholic church; and yet – and this can be misleading – as Screech says,

he seems to inhabit a world whose intellectual assumptions are close to our own.

(Montaigne and Melancholy, p. 1)

Reading Course:

1. Doubt’s Boundless Sea – by Don Cameron Allen: Argues that Montaigne was an atheist.

2. Montaigne and Melancholy – by M. A. Screech: An exploration melancholia and Montaigne’s reaction to it, his rejection of “ecstasy” and his defence of “post-Tridentine” orthodoxy.

3. Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays – ed. & trans by M. A. Screech. Simply the best English translation available by the leading authority on Montaigne in the English speaking world.

4. The History of Scepticism – by Richard H. Popkin: For a deeper understanding of the relationship between scepticism and Christianity, this is essential reading.

David Hurley