Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Therapeutic Skepticism of Michel De Montaigne

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Therapeutic Skepticism of Michel De Montaigne

Article excerpt

WHEN DISCUSSING MONTAIGNE'S skepticism, scholars understandably tend to turn to his "Apology for Raymond Sebond." (1) The "Apology" is his longest essay, and includes his most explicit and most sustained treatment of Pyrrhonism. And yet it seems clear that the "Apology" does not contain his last word on the subject, and that, as many scholars have pointed out, whatever endorsement he gives there to ancient Pyrrhonism must be qualified in light of the fact that he does seem to maintain beliefs, not only about appearances but also about reality itself. (2) By the end of the Essais, particularly in the last three chapters, it seems that Montaigne has transcended ancient skepticism and developed a skepticism that is, as he would say, "all his own," (3) one that is better described as a therapeutic practice than a theoretical position. In this essay, then, I shall begin by offering a detailed reading of the first of these final three chapters, "Of cripples," in order to identify the basic characteristics of this skepticism. Then I will trace those characteristics through the last two chapters of the Essais--"Of physiognomy" and "Of experience"--to elucidate further the sense in which Montaigne's skepticism is not so much an epistemological principle as it is an ethical practice.

I

After opening the essay with a few remarks on his contemporaries' inability to synchronize the calendar year with the astronomical or seasonal year, Montaigne remarks:

   I was just now musing, as I often do, on how free and vague an
   instrument human reason is. I see ordinarily that men, when facts
   are put before them, are more ready to amuse themselves by
   inquiring into their reasons than by inquiring into their truth.
   They leave aside the cases and amuse themselves treating the
   causes. Comic prattlers! The knowledge of causes belongs only to
   Him who has the guidance of things, not to us who have only the
   enduring of them, and who have the perfectly full use of them
   according to our nature, without penetrating to their origin and
   essence.... Determining and knowing, like giving, appertains to
   rule and mastery; to inferiority, subjection, and apprenticeship
   appertains enjoyment and acceptance. (4)

Of course for Aristotle, whom Montaigne calls "the monarch of modern learning" (5) and "the god of scholastic knowledge," (6) wisdom itself is a matter of knowing the causes of things, and thus by rejecting of our ability to know the causes, Montaigne begins the chapter on a skeptical note, apparently suggesting that we cannot attain wisdom. But even here, in his seemingly skeptical denial of our ability to know the causes of things, Montaigne departs from the principles of Pyrrhonian skepticism, the school of ancient skepticism with which he is most often identified. For according to the Pyrrhonists, to claim that humans cannot know something would be dogmatic; they claim not even to know whether knowledge is possible, and thus they suspend judgment on that and all other questions. Montaigne, on the other hand, is not suspending judgment on our ability to know causes. He seems positively to deny it. Moreover, while the Pyrrhonists refuse to make judgments about that which is unclear or that which lies beyond the appearances, (7) in "Of cripples" Montaigne makes judgments about the truth of certain allegations of witchcraft, arguing that despite certain appearances, he believes that a group of alleged witches are guilty of nothing more than being mentally imbalanced. (8) Finally, Montaigne concludes "Of cripples" by criticizing the ancient skeptics. Summing up the results of the battle between the ancient dogmatists and their skeptical opponents, he writes:

   The pride of those who attributed to the human mind a capacity for
   all things produced in others, through spite and emulation, the
   opinion that it is capable of nothing. These men maintain the same
   extreme in ignorance that the others maintain in knowledge; so that
   it cannot be denied that man is immoderate in all things, and
   cannot be stopped except by necessity and inability to go further. … 
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