Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

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Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. And it is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”. 

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”

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