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John Eberts

Michel de Montaigne: Introspection

In France, the first philosophical repercussions of the Renaissance were negative rather than positive, inspiring Michel de Montaigne (1533 — 1592) to a general skeptical attitude. Nevertheless, Montaigne's self-analysis, to which his Essays are admittedly devoted, makes him one of the founders of introspective psychology. He gives us frank analysis of his body, mind, and character which can be applied to man today. The ideas of the Essays became equivalent to symbolic characters. "In the Essays, Montaigne's spirit was the stage; the actors, those ideas at war with another; reason, the strength and dignity of man, pitted against that other "reason" which for Montaigne is man's most subtle vanity and arrogance; death, the end that ought to shape our lives, and that other death, the mere cessation of being, which ought not to determine our lives, and will come when it will come; faith, the one rock-certainty in the world of illusion, and its opponent, faith as the flimsiest counterfeit of certainty. [1] These conflicts between Montaigne's ideas, combined with the civil war of his age, caused Montaigne to turn to self-knowledge as the only certainty which man can rely upon. Man is a complete union of body and mind, each giving and taking from each other, knowing itself from itself from itself "For though we can become learned through another man's knowledge we can never be wise except by our own wisdom." [2]

These thoughts about self-knowledge and man's role on the Universe stem, in part, from his early education. Montaigne's father believed in a liberation system of education where compulsion was replaced by affection. Montaigne's education then was rather romantic and practical in nature. "That good father," Michael tells us, "even from my cradle sent me to be brought up in a poor village of his, where he kept me so long as 1 sucked, and somewhat longer, breeding me after the meanest and simplest common fashion." [3] His father did this to teach Montaigne that life wasn't always successful. Pierre felt that his son should start at the bottom of the ladder so that when he reached the top, he would still have respect for the people below. This early exposure to the facts of fife seemed to have an effect on Montaigne and how he looked at man. "Let a man lay aside his revenue and titles and stand in his shirt. When we consider a King and a peasant, a nobleman and a villain, a rich man and a poor, we are immediately taken up by the disparity between them — though the only difference is the cut of their breeches [4] In other words, Montaigne felt the only differences between men were their external qualities (titles and dress). Man, in his natural state, was one and the same with his fellow man, no better nor worse. Montaigne also received instruction in the classics and attended the College de Guienne. It is after this that he began to express distaste for mere "book education." He felt that the professors were, even with all their knowledge, still very unimpressive. These so-called scholars only contained memories and data taken from other people. Montaigne felt that when it came to real knowledge of their consciences and understanding they were lost. If you ask a man what he knows, he'll run to his desk and fetch his notes; he can't express himself unless he uses someone else's facts. "I love and honor learning as much as those who have it; and in its true use it is man's most noble and powerful acquisition. But in those (and their number is great) who base their fundamental capacity and worth on it, who appeal from there to their memory ... and can do nothing except by books, 1 hate it, if 1 dare say so." [5] These people Eve not in the present but in the past. They have ideas for everything but don't know how to use them. "These professors of ours claim to be useful to society. Yet they do not fashion the material we confide to their care into something better, as do carpenters and masons, they spoil it, and make us pay for it to boot. They are marvelously at home in Galen, but not at all in the disease of the patient; they deafen you with a long rigmarole of legal points, but understand nothing of the case in hand. They have a theory for everything, but somehow always let the other fellow have the trouble of putting it into practice." [6]

His dislike for dogmatism is expressed everywhere within his writings. In fact, because of this, his writings are without a system; he writes as he feels and as his thoughts develop. With all the irrelevant dogmatic, philosophical, and ecclesiastical disputes being waged at this time, Montaigne develops a theory of knowledge which foreshadows that of Locke. 'All knowledge is addressed to by the senses." [7] Montaigne turned to a philosophy which possessed a natural ethic. He felt that morality was not tied to any set of a religious creed. Nature was man and man was nature and man should follow his natural desires whenever he could without harming others or himself. "The weakness of the knowledge we boast of," he goes on, "is that it is based on reason and reason is nothing; it is contradictory and uncertain, changing from man to man, from minute to minute." [8] How could there be a set religious doctrine when everyone had a different opinion on what it was? "It seemed too fantastic that, in recent years, every intelligent man who professed the Catholic faith was accused of hypocrisy. Whatever he might say to the contrary, his opponents held him to be a Protestant at heart. What wretched disease is this which rivets a man so firmly to his own belief that he becomes incapable of conceiving that other men may believe otherwise." [9] He feels this dogmatism and rightness are signs of "being without reason." A man should seek truth and always be ready to go on in one direction, then another, accepting our ignorance if wrong choices are made. "Many abusers are engendered in the world or, to put it more boldly, all the abusers in the world are engendered, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance and our being bound to accept everything that we cannot refute. We talk about everything didactically and dogmatically." [10] Montaigne feels that, no matter how many roads there are to truth, they are still traveled by the same man. Montaigne sees that this truth can only be accomplished within the self and not by any dogmatic system.

France at this time, with all of Europe, demonstrated the danger of dogmatism to Montaigne in its most horrifying form — Religious Civil War. Europe was the scene of dogmatic slaughter based upon religious precepts. It became the stage where two conflicting beliefs, Catholic and Protestant (both felt that they were exclusively true), slaughtered mankind in an attempt to prove one religion superior to the other. "0 Monstrous War! Other wars are directed against outsiders, this against ourselves — destroying us with our own poison." [11] He felt that men took opinion and doctrine of religion for granted, without ever attempting to see if there was any truth in them. These same people would then proclaim their beliefs as absolute truths, kill for them and even die for them, without even knowing their real meaning. 'And now many men have been seen who allowed themselves to be burned and roasted for opinions taken from trust--opinions they could neither give an account of nor understand." [12]

Montaigne sees this corruption of man and morals lying within each individual. The strong and powerful seek their own gain as the weak live by their folly. The religious convictions of the majority of the people and leaders were just means to acquire some personal end. "Let us confess the truth, if you pick out from the army, even the King's own, the men who were fighting out of purely religious convictions ... you wouldn't be able to muster from all of them put together enough to make up a single company." [13] The whole problem, as Montaigne sees it, stems from two notions. First, that man regards his religion just as a once-a-week occurrence and, second, that religious interpretations should not be put into the hands of the layman. Overriding these two notions was the ever-present dogmatism of religion. 'Now, what seems to me (Montaigne) to bring as much disorder into our consciences as anything, in these religious troubles that we are in, is this partial surrender of their beliefs by Catholics." [14] Montaigne sees people repenting, praying and putting on all the outside appearance of religion one minute and the next being corruptible creatures. Praying, he feels, has become a sort of "mumbo jumbo" relating more to superstition and magic than true religion. How can man, who is a defenseless creature, anthropomorphize God? We can't create him; he created us. We can't even handle our own lives, how can we expect to be able to understand God or the universe? "It is the vanity of this same imagination, that he equates himself to God, attributes to himself divine characteristics, picks himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit." [15] Man must look to himself for faith, he can't depend upon religion. Montaigne had long since become skeptical of the doctrine of the church. Although he retained an individual belief in God, he felt that this was incomprehensible to reason. Yet, at the same time, he was against Atheism as "unnatural and monstrous" [16] and rejects agnosticism as another dogmatic" how do we know that we should ever know? [17] He waved aside as pretentious futilities all attempts to define the soul or to explain its relation to the body. [18] Montaigne is willing to accept the immortality of the soul on faith, but finds no evidence for it in experience or reason" [19] and the idea of eternal existence appals him. [20] Montaigne feels that miracles are absurd and only the imagination of men at work. In this respect, he foreshadows Kant who, like Montaigne, is against the precepts of Metaphysics being able to prove God. Both these men maintain that Freedom Immortality of the Soul and God can only exist with faith.

In respect to miracles, Montaigne anticipates Hume when he says "I am sluggish and tend to hold to the solid and probable, avoiding the ancient reproaches: Men put great faith in things they do not understand (author unknown)" [21] He goes even further in his assumption about the church and claims just as Voltaire will later on, that people say Christianity must be divine because it has lasted through all its periods of corruption. Montaigne goes on to say that Christians are described by geographical accident. In Geneva, you're a Calvinist; Germany, a Lutheran; France, either a Catholic or a Huguenot. Yet outside of your specific geographical location, you're a heretic. He feels religion becomes like nationalities (the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Italians, etc.). Montaigne states that humanity is really falling apart and that the only way to save humanity is, to first save yourself (know thyself and reform).

In Montaigne's Essays, one reader claims that he mentions Christ only once. [22] Yet even with this, he remained a Catholic, although he was no longer what one could call "Christian" in the 16th century. "At most, we may say the Christian Montaigne was a humanist who gave prudential lip service to the cause and, with a more or less conscious subterfuge, assured himself a relative peace; he was a Pagan rationalist with a veneer of Christianity. [23] Montaigne, though he could be called a Pagan Christian, still turned to the church and the Pope from time to time. Even in his skepticism, he felt that religion was necessary (a national religion), but not the type where the doctrines could only be decided in war and bloodshed. This religion was a necessity because man had to have something more to look forward to than death. He felt that man could develop a system which could establish peace within religion. "Simple minds, less curious, less wellinstructed, are made good Christians, and through reverence and obedience held their simple beliefs and abided by the laws. If intellectuals of moderate vigor and capacity are engendered the error of opinion ... the best, most settled, clearest-seeing spirits make another sort of wellbelievers who by long and religious investigation, penetrate to a more profound and abstract meaning in the Scriptures and discover the mysterious and divine secrets of our ecclesiastical palpate ... the simple peasants are honest folks, and so are the Philosophers." [24] Underneath all the scriptural and ritual garb, religions are all the same. So religion, like governments, should remain the religion and government of the time and one shouldn't try to change them, Montaigne finally contends.

With this notion of religion, he then goes on to give his reasons why the layman should not become involved in interpretations of scriptures. First of all, there should be a law that would limit the writing on religious matters to only the Doctors of Divinity. A man should go one way or the other; either accept ecclesiastical law totally, or reject it totally. Montaigne said that problems only develop when someone comes up with new religious principles. "I have observed in Germany that Luther has left as many divisions and altercations over the uncertainty of his opinions, and more, as he raised about the Holy Scriptures." [25] People like Luther, who wanted to make the scriptures available to the public, were making a terrible mistake. These writings were too involved and serious for just anyone to try and consume them. A person needs to be in a special frame of mind, and this task is fit only for those dedicated to God. People without this calling just become worse by trying to read the scriptures; in fact, they begin to question what they already believe. Montaigne indicates that if it weren't for the external instruments of the church (crucifixes, ceremonies, incense, and chants) and religion was left only to the new meditative and immaterial rituals (Protestants), religion would simply vanish. Men thought first with their senses and, therefore, religion needs sensory and ceremonial effects. Man could never really understand true religious meaning alone; the church at least gave him some type of emotional stimulus.

Montaigne looked at the heretics with a sense of amusement. How could one raise such a fuss over interpretation of comparative mythology? He felt that it was intolerable that they should be burned for their stupidity. 'After all, it is setting a high value on our opinions to roast people alive on account of them." [26] With this sterile dogmatism, half-hearted religion, and everyone defining religion in new terms, Montaigne turned to nature as his guiding force.

"Nature is a gentle guide, yet not more gentle than prudent and just. 1 (Montaigne) quest after her track; we confounded her with artificial traces." [27] He comes to feel that philosophers were right in saying that no one could understand nature; that nature was what allowed man his freedom, and it was from her that we derive our wisdom. Man should love life and be pleased with what nature has given him. It is a foolish thing to try and explain the universe and what is the essence of nature. Man can only guess what things-in-themselves are; he can never give proof "With this there is a resolute devaluation of the Copernican theory as simply one more bungling attempt to understand what is forever beyond our reach." [28] Yet Montaigne prefers the Copernican system to the Ptolemaic theory, but feels that neither can be justified.

In the final phase of the Essays, Montaigne remains constant with his earlier views. Man, he feels, can not impose laws and systems upon nature because nature is organic and always changing. Just as man grows, so nature evolves, and it is a useless gesture on man's part to set operations on things which are in constant flux. Man in his natural state, without dogmatic rules, is both a better and happier individual. Nature is not a state of lawlessness like the one presented by Hobbes in the 17th century, but one which has laws that are more efficient than the abstract laws man creates. Nature has a more powerful and wider range of wisdom than man can ever hope to achieve. "Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves." [29] Man's role in this Universe, then, should be one of an actor who plays his role according to the script written by nature.

Man then becomes the fragile Being he really is, dependent upon the forces of nature. Religion for Montaigne becomes a type of Pantheism. He felt that the idea of God includes nature, but adds that God surpasses and embraces more than nature. Man can never know nature and, therefore, can not know God. Knowing is an act of faith combined with obeying the laws of nature which man should follow. Man should not concern himself with anything but his present life and how to live it rightly. Montaigne wants man to be what he is: himself. Only by knowing himself can he come close to being in harmony with nature. Nature rules man's fife and man has no choice but to obey its laws. Montaigne, on reconciling his fife to himself, states life as follows: 'I have little regret for anything over and done, no matter what. 1 rarely repent: my conscience is satisfied with itself; not because it is the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man. 1 contend myself with believing that things happen as they must: they are parts of the march of the Universe, a link in the chain of cause. Neither your notions nor your wishes can budge them, unless the whole order were to be reversed and the past become the future." [30] Man was designed to live by the human pattern contained in nature and could only search for the selfrevealed truths nature offered. To go beyond these self-revealed truths was to paint nature with a false reality and to live in ignorance.

Montaigne has had far-reaching effects with his theory on man and nature. He influenced Bacon, and helped lead Descartes to his Universal doubt. He affected Pascal, Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire. Montaigne was an irrationalist who led to rationalism, and it can be stated that, with Montaigne, the "Age of Reason" was to begin in France.


Reference Material

1. Serge Hughes, The Essential Montaigne (New York: American Library, 1970.) p. 16

2. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne (New York: Vintage Books, 1935.) p. 182

3. Montaigne, Essays, Vol. 3 (Everyman's Library) p. 365

4. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne (New York: Vintage Books, 1935) p. 10

5. Donald M. Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p. 707

6. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne (New York: Vintage Books, 1935.) p. 183

7. Montaigne, Essays, Vol. 2, Chapter 12 (Everyman's Library) p. 306

8. John Florio and Walter Kaiser, Selected Essays of Montaigne (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1964.) p. LI

9. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne (New York: Vintage Books, 1935.) p.202

10. Donald M. Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p.788

11. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne. (New York: Vintage Books, 1935.) p. 21.7

12. Ibid. p. 218

13. Ibid. p. 227

14. Donald M. Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p. 134

15. Ibid. p. 331

16. Montaigne, Essays, Vol. 2, Chapter 12 (Everyman's Library)

17. Ibid. p. 204

18. Ibid. p. 251

19. Ibid. p. 225-266

20. Ibid. Vol. 1, Chapter 19, p. 90

21. Donald M. Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p. 789

22. Sainte-Beuve, Port-Royal, 5 Volumes Volume 2 (Paris, 1867.) p. 428

23. Serge Hughes, The Essential Montaigne (New York: American Library, 1970.) p. 35

24. Arthur Tilley, Studies in the Renaissance (Cambridge: University Press, 1922.) p. 280

25. Donald M. Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p. 818

26. Ibid. p. 790

27. Andre Gide, Montaigne (New York: MeGraw-Hill, 1964.) p. 160

28. Serge Hughes, The Essential Montaigne (New York: American Library, 1970.) p. 41 29.

Donald M. Frame,

The Complete Essays of Montaigne (California: Stanford University Press, 1948.) p. 816

30. Marvin Lowenthal, The Autobiography of Michael de Montaigne (New York: Vintage Books, 1935) p. 276


Secondary Source Material

1. Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis Princeton University Press, 1953.

2. Brown, Freida S. Religious and Political Conservatism in the Essays of Montaigne Geneva: Droz,1963.

3. Buffum, Imbrie. Studies in the Baroque — From Montaigne to Rotrow New Haven, 1957.

4. Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne Bern, 1949.

5. Poulet, G. Studies in Human Time John Hopkins Press, 1956.