Philosophy of Montaigne




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By Rev. Baden Powell

Philosophy of Montaigne

Some light is thrown on the state both of philosophy and of religious belief about the end of the  sixteenth century, in the instance of one of the most brilliant and enlightened writers of the period, by the essays of Montaigne (1580); who, though professedly a moralist, yet in several places, and especially in his celebrated defence of Sebonde (from which, as Mr. Hallam. observes, that writer is chiefly remembered), wanders far from his professed subject, into an almost unlimited range of observations on topics of natural history, physiology, and physics, according to the views of his day and the philosophies of the ancients,  with especial reference to the question of the extent of human knowledge and the powers of human reason, and not without a bearing on the higher question of religious belief. 

Montaigne's physical views are of course in accordance with the yet unformed ideas of his age. Thus, as to the system of the world [I Montaigne's Essays, vol. ii. p. 386. ed. 1793], he remarks that the motion of the heavenly bodies round the earth was believed for ages, till some of the ancient philosophers placed the sun immovable in the centre. Of late Copernicus has revived this theory. "But," he asks, "how do we know that a better may not in its turn be proposed, as one philosophical system has always been superseded by another? " And he elsewhere argues that all physical science is dependent on the senses, which are, after all, continually liable to deception [Ibid. ii. 417]. He was wholly incompetent to appreciate the grand argument of physical analogy, which mainly determined the conclusions of Copernicus. He nevertheless approves of the belief in a plurality of inhabited worlds [Ibid. ii. 417], arguing from the universal influence of the Divine beneficence.   

Yet his remarks on our knowledge, or rather ignorance, of the Deity are of the most just and enlightened kind. He complains [Montaigne's Essays, ii. 311] that human ignorance leads men presumptuously to prescribe to God, and to argue upon his dealings, as if they were those of a man: to call some things miraculous and others natural; to ascribe great events to God [Ibid. ii. 316] as particular interventions, as if smaller events were not so. 

In spite of the reasonableness of these views, we yet observe some singular inconsistencies, the exponents of the mind of the age, rather than of the individual. He mentions [Ibid. i. 233] instances of prodigies from ancient writers, without seeming in the least to discredit them, and dwells in detail upon the ecclesiastical miracles in entire faith, making it wholly a question of testimony and authority, without a thought, or a disposition to entertain one, as to the broad question of the grounds of physical credibility. He appears also to admit the influence of the stars on human affairs, and other omens and predictions [Ibid. ii. 186].

Montaigne has been pointed out as one of the earliest modern examples of philosophical skepticism [See Buckle's "Hist. of Civilization," vol. i. p. 475]. This, however, must refer rather to general principles than to avowed views on any particular points of belief in religion, or in the supernatural generally. The state of physical ideas in his time was not such as to induce any extended question on points of that nature. His scepticism was displayed entirely in subjects of other kinds - in moral, literary, and critical questions. He evinces, indeed, a general distrust of the powers of the human intellect [Montaigne's Essays, iii, 390], and repeatedly enlarges on its weakness, the diversity and uncertainty of all opinions, and the impossibility of arriving at a general consent on any subject. If he allude to some alleged marvels as being merely fortunate coincidences, believed to be miraculous, under the influence of particular circumstances and prepossessions, he yet fully submitted to the dogmas of the Church in all matters of religious belief.  In particular, he regarded with undisguised alarm the innovations of Luther and the reformation, as setting up human reason and private judgment, which, by natural consequence, he conceived, could end in nothing but in a "horrible atheism [Montaigne's Essays, ii. 166]." 

Skeptical Tendencies

Some, indeed, have doubted the sincerity of Montaigne in his professions of belief in all the wonders to which the Church then demanded assent. We have before alluded to the probable existence of much latent scepticism in the middle ages; and it can hardly be questioned that, at all events, the, whole religious system of those times, by no very remote consequences, would have a strong tendency towards encouraging a liberalized kind of belief among the thinking class;--when religious doctrines were inseparably mixed up with so much of the marvelous, and when those who reflected at all on the nature and grounds of their faith would, after all, perceive that the Church by no means demanded a philosophical conviction, in fact, repudiated the very use of reason, and the appeal to evidence, and required only an assent of faith, a profession of obedience to its decrees. 

The immense multiplication of miracles in the middle ages, or rather the continual appeal to the supernatural implied in the whole religious system then upheld, must naturally have produced the effect of assimilating all such alleged manifestations to each other, and placing them all alike, in general estimation, on the same debased level. Amid innumerable legends all distinction of fact and fiction was lost. No one part could be questioned more than another. And thus, to the apprehension of those at all superior to such indiscriminate credulity, an equally indiscriminate incredulity would be the natural result. The vulgar took all these marvels equally for truth, the more enlightened for fable; and, as being all alike professedly essentials of the faith, the whole belief would be conformed to the same mythical standard. 

Reginald Scot: Rejection of Witchcraft.

The belief in witchcraft, and other kindred superstitions, was almost universal in the sixteenth century.  [Of the fearful excesses to which the belief in witchcraft led in the merciless persecution and execution of innumerable persons accused of it, even down to a much later period, some striking exemplifications are given in Mr. R. Chambers' interesting volumes "The Domestic Annals of Scotland," 1858.  It has been remarked by another writer, Mr. Dockeray (Egeria, 1854) that this zeal In the exposure of witchcraft seems to have supplied in the Protestant Church the place of the miracles in the Romish--as a triumph over the powers of darkness evincing divine aid]. Yet in the minds of a few who could reason, some doubts were beginning to suggest themselves; and though this was perhaps little connected with any advance of physical knowledge, yet it could not but indicate some progress in rational and philosophical ideas of the supremacy of nature. Of this a striking instance is afforded in Reginald Scot, who freely exposed such supernatural pretensions in his "Discovery of Witchcraft," [See Hallam's "Lit. of Europe," ii, 135] 1584, wherein he expressly denied to Satan any power of controlling nature. He even appears to have advanced further, and has been interpreted as disposed to call in question or explain away supernatural interposition altogether. The existence of some degree of scepticism of this kind about the period in question is attested by an allusion of Shakspeare, which is remarkable, considering the general state of opinion and tenor of belief in his day: 

They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. [All's Well," &c., act ii. sc. 3. In this passage nearly all the editions place the comma after "things,"--though the original folio has no stop till the end, --and thus make the sentence contradict itself. The punctuation here adopted, which restores It to sense, was suggested to me by a friend: but I have since found it in an edition published by Stockdale, 1790, 8vo]. 


It has been supposed-by some that this passage is an allusion to R. Scot: but it may rather be asked, was it not more probably the comprehensive and philosophical genius of the great poet which anticipated forms of speculation as yet undeveloped, though possibly floating on the mind of the age ? 

Theories of the World.

The various speculative theories of the world which emanated chiefly from Italian writers in the sixteenth century, as those of Cesalpin, Telesio, And Jordano Bruno, can perhaps hardly come under the description of physical philosophy, though they each embrace a sort of general scheme of the constitution of nature, Their systems were indeed mostly of a very visionary character. That of Bruno (1680) has perhaps attained most celebrity from the cruel persecution to which it exposed him. He seems to have maintained a doctrine differing little from that of Pantheism. In the more properly physical department he boldly asserted the Copernican system, and upheld a plurality of inhabited worlds; in these respects more fully evincing a participation in the progress of a sounder and more substantial philosophy. 

If the instances just cited are not examples of the direct advance of physical science, yet they at least show the light of the age, such as it was, reflected on physical conceptions, and exhibiting both the character of such conceptions and their relations to religious belief, as then entertained. 

We now proceed, however, to a period little advanced in date, but greatly so if measured by scientific progress, --marked by the prophetic declarations of the father of modern inductive philosophy. 

Principles of Bacon

The Order of Nature






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