Montaigne was a modern French philosopher born in 1533 near Bourdeaux, France. He is best known for his writings, the Essais, in which he discusses a variety of philosophical topics including human nature, knowledge, and religious belief. Montaigne believed that everyone experiences the world in their own way, and that knowledge is therefore subjective. He is considered to be the founder of Modern Skepticism, famously exclaiming “What do I know?” He believed true faith was not embracing a particular religious dogma, but rather recognizing that as human beings there are certain things about divine nature that we cannot know. Montaigne was frustrated by the religious fighting going on in Europe at the time, and with the upper classes’ emphasis on the virtues of warfare and public honor. He was also bothered by Europeans’ belief in their superiority to the “natives” of other lands (known as ethnocentrism) as well as to the belief that humans are somehow superior to animals. In his Essais, Montaigne embraces himself as flawed, and portrays what he believes is a true representation of human nature.
Montaigne’s father was wealthy and he was born in a Chateau in the French countryside. He was raised with a humanistic education, and would go on to work in the French parliament as well as serve in the court of Charlex IX. However, at the age of 38, he decided to retire from public life, embracing a life of privacy that was contrary to the status quo. At the time, the European upper class emphasized the importance of public service and honor, and would identify with this or that religious sect which was upheld as right and true. Montaigne didn’t buy into any of this, instead seeing these things as responsible for the cruelties, warfare and hypocrisy going on in Europe at the time. Montaigne believed, rather, that true virtue is that which is done in private. He believed true happiness did not require you to impinge on the rights of others. In his life as well as the Essais, he embraces the virtues of gentleness, humility, and understanding.
Montaigne believed that one of the biggest problems with society is that people believe they have knowledge when they really don’t. In the Essais, he writes, “The only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain.” He points out the difficulty of knowing things for certain, when the world is constantly changing. Also, he makes the point that we don’t even have control of our own thoughts, which come into our heads on their own. He sees people throughout the world having different believes, which he understands as the result of the fact that people the world in different ways. He sees knowledge as coming first and foremost through the senses, and for this reason we only know the appearance of things and not things in and of themselves. Montaigne is writing in the wake of a number of recent discoveries in science, math, and astronomy and is recognizing that knowledge is much harder to come by than people believed in Medieval times. For this reason, he will write in his most famous essay The Apology for Raymond Sebond, “What do I know?”
Montaigne opposed academic philosophy, which emphasized the importance of memorizing the writings of past thinkers and getting caught up in abstractions. Instead, in his Essais, he embraces subjective human experience. He believed that knowledge of oneself is more important than attempting to understand the fundamental nature of reality (i.e. metaphysics). Only God knows the true nature of the world, and as human beings all we can do is have faith. As human beings, what matters to us is the particulars of life. He explains, “Each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays and reveals him just as well as any other.” In his Essais, Montaigne desires to show human beings as human beings. It is because of our flaws that we are authentically human.
Montaigne opposes the belief that humans are somehow superior to other animals. He believes that it is presumptuous and arrogant of man to say that he has a divine nature in contrast to other animals that are looked upon as mere “beasts.” Montaigne, seeing the constant fighting going on around him, does not consider man divine, but more cruel than any beast. He points out that in some ways animals are in fact superior to us, for example, having better senses of smell, sight and hearing Since for Montaigne, knowledge comes through the senses, he therefore finds it absurd that we would consider ourselves to be the best. He brings up the good point that since there are some animals who don’t have one of the five senses we have, perhaps there are senses that other animals have that we don’t have. In this way, Montaigne encourages us to be humble. He writes, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”
Montaigne also opposed the belief that Europeans are superior to the natives of other lands. He explains, “Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.” Montaigne recognized that people do things differently in different places, and that this is completely natural. Europeaners should therefore not view themselves as better, and in fact in some ways they can learn from other cultures. For example, Montaigne points to the Brazilians who live a life of tranquility “unburdened with any tense or unpleasant passion or thought or occupation.” Unlike Europeans, who are caught up in religious fighting, the Brazilians “spent their life in admirable simplicity and ignorance, without letters, without law, without king, and without religion of any kind.” This concept would be developed by later philosophers as the idea of the “noble savage.” Montaigne would also oppose the conquest of the New World, for the suffering it caused to the Native Americans.
For Montaigne, man’s arrogant nature is displayed most by his stubbornness when it comes to matters of religion. He writes, “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known.” For Montaigne, man cannot know the divine. He remarks, “Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozens.” Montaigne’s ultimate frustration is that people will go to war over the slightest of religious disagreements. He explains how the “The clatter of arms drowns the voice of law.” He would act as a peacemaker, gaining the respect of both the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant King Henry IV.
In his Essais, Montaigne seeks to give humanity a true picture of itself. He explains, “Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.” He also wrote that “No man is a hero to his valet.” He points to insights that are obvious, yet often times disregarded. For example, he points out “If you belittle yourself you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.” He saw life as a process leading to death, and the human mind capable of believing anything. By honestly looking at ourselves, we can recognize what our true nature is, instead of pretending to be something that we’re not. Montaigne would go on to influence many Modern philosophers including Pascal, Rousseau, Descartes, Nietzsche and Emerson, and his skeptical approach to knowledge would set the tone for the rest of Modern philosophy.