The Rise of Modern Philosophy

By Anthony Kenny | Go to book overview
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Montaigne's Scepticism

In the sixteenth century, several factors contributed to make scepticism enjoy a new popularity. The clash between different Christian sects in Europe, and the discovery of peoples across oceans with different cultures and different religions, had as an immediate effect a surge of proselytizing and persecution; but these encounters also caused some reflective thinkers to question the claim of any human system of belief to hold unique possession of the truth. The rediscovery of ancient sceptical works, such as those of Sextus Empiricus, brought to the attention of the learned a battery of arguments against the reliability of human cognitive faculties. The most eloquent presentation of the new scepticism is to be found in Montaigne's Apology for Raimond Sebond.

Montaigne, like Sextus, favoured an extreme form of scepticism, called Pyrrhonian scepticism after its (half-legendary) founder Pyrrho of Elis, who in the time of Alexander the Great had taught that nothing at all could be known. Many of the examples that Montaigne uses to urge the fallibility of the senses and the intellect are drawn from Sextus' works, but the classical quotations that he uses in the course of his argument are taken not from Sextus, but from the great poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a Latin follower of Epicurus, itself another great Renaissance rediscovery.

The two most influential philosophies of the classical Latin period were the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans, Montaigne tells us, maintain that if the senses are not reliable, then there is no such thing as knowledge. The Stoics tell us that if there is any such thing as knowledge it cannot come from the senses, because they are totally unreliable. Montaigne, like Sextus,


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