Before I jump into Montaigne’s massive (160 page) chapter about Raymond Sebond, a brief word about this overall project is in order. I’ve endeavored to write one essay a day for 107 days straight about Montaigne’s 107 essays, in order. While I will often read ahead and make notes on upcoming essays, I do not write a word about these pieces before their “due dates.”
I start every day clean with a new project and promise only to complete my contribution by midnight. It takes me back to my younger days of newspaper reporting – the nature of the work allows me to work and think fast and not get mired in the details. Writer’s block in such conditions is nearly impossible.
So as you might expect, this particular chapter is a challenge because it is so much longer than anything else in the Montaigne corpus. There are college courses that take weeks to discuss the Sebond essay and there are numerous interpretations of the text. In his generally awful book “Examined Lives,” James Miller suggests that the entire essay should be interpreted as “ironic at best.” Miller says “from moment to moment, it is unclear whether this apologia is offered in earnest or meant to damn with faith praise.”
The text creates far too many challenges on the merits for me to attempt to referee Montaigne scholars and critics. It’s also far too complicated to assay as a whole; so I’m going to focus my writing today about a specific section of the Sebond essay that deals with the philosophical concept of foundationalism.
Contrary to Miller’s criticism of the “hopelessly wooly and rambling text” that leaves readers wondering “what Montaigne hoped to accomplish by expressing himself in this very peculiar way,” I find this section of the essay to be entirely coherent and consistent with the style and thoughts of his work to this point. I will concede to Miller that long-form prose is not Montaigne’s forte and he probably would have been better served editing this text down significantly and cutting it into smaller pieces.
If Montaigne had excerpted this section of his essay as a stand-alone piece, I think it would have stood as one of his strongest. I particularly like this section because it serves to temper some of the extreme positions suggested in his previous essay in praise of Socrates’ virtue.
I’ll start with the question that was raised often by Socrates and became central to Emerson’s thoughts in the 19th century – how do you know the difference between fact and opinion and how much weight should be given to expert opinion? Montaigne starts off decrying how intellects and scholars take the opinions of ancient sages as fact:
Merely human opinions become accepted when derived from ancient beliefs, and are taken on authority and trust like religion or law! We parrot whatever opinions are commonly held, accepting them as truths, with all the paraphernalia of supporting arguments and proofs, as though they were something firm and solid; nobody tries to shake them; nobody tries to refute them …. Thus the world is pickled in stupidity and brimming over with lies.
Today we call this kind of thinking “conventional wisdom.” Certain widely-held opinions become shared so broadly that groups of people accept them as facts … and doubting these opinions can lead to being ostracized from the insiders. It’s a particular problem inside the Beltway. But it’s an even greater problem when scholars then use these popular opinions as “first principles” that yield broader conclusions:
We do not doubt much, because commonly received notions are assayed by nobody. We never try to find out whether the roots are sound. We argue about the branches. We do not ask whether any statement is true, but what it has been taken to mean. We ask whether Galen said this or said that: we never ask whether he said anything valid.
Montaigne is particularly critical of Aristotle and his followers (for good reason, in my opinion.) It’s a maddening experience to read Aristotle and work through all of the various systems-of-three that he’s devised to explain everything in the universe. Aristotle – or rather, the lecture notes that are the only portions of his philosophy that remain – never gives reasons, just lists. And Montaigne hones in on a particularly weak one:
Aristotle is the god of scholastic science: it is heresy to discuss his commandments (as it once was to discuss those of Lycurgus in Sparta). What Aristotle taught is professed as law – yet like any other doctrine it may be false …. Aristotle based the principles of Nature on three elements: matter, form and privation. Yet what is more silly than actually to make a vacuum into one of the causes of the production of material objects? Privation is a negative: what fanciful humour led Aristotle to make it the original cause of objects which actually exist? Yet, except as an exercise in logic, nobody dares to shake that belief. Nobody debates anything to increase doubt but only to defend the founding author of their school against outside objections; his authority marks the goal; beyond it, no further inquiry is permitted.
From here, Montaigne now makes an argument that I made yesterday against Socrates. I’ll forgive him for not seeing the same fallacious thinking coming from his worshipped sage:
Base yourself on admitted postulates and you can build up any case you like; from the rules which order the original principles the remainder of your construction will follow on easily without self-contradiction …. Before they even begin, our professors (like geometricians with their postulated axioms) establish such a hold over our beliefs that they can subsequently reach any conclusion they want …. Once we accept anyone’s postulates he becomes our professor and our god: for his foundations he will grab territory so ample and so easy that, if he so wishes, he will drag us up to the clouds.
Now we get to the heart of his argument – there’s a tyranny to reason, one that elevates the opinions of experts, who merely steal the best opinions of other experts, no one daring to question each other’s authority. Because we never challenge those first principles, it’s not surprising what outcomes we reach. (Or, as Thomas Pynchon wrote in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” if they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers:)
So, for the meaning of words the logician turns to the grammarian; for the matter of his arguments the rhetorician borrows from the logician; the poet takes his rhythms from the musician; the geometer takes his propositions from the arithmetician; the metaphysicians make their foundations out of the conjectures of physics …. If you come up against the barrier behind which their error of principle is sheltering, they have an axiom ready on their lips: Never argue with those who deny first principles. But there can be no first principles unless God has revealed them; all the rest – beginning, middle and end – is dream and vapour.
Ah, so now God has entered the discussion and things become far more complicated. Montaigne throughout the Sebond essay is defending the importance of Roman Catholic theology, without which all forms of knowledge lack a foundation. I doubt that even the Pope would take such a dogmatic stand today, but abandonment of the positive aspect of Montaigne’s argument doesn’t fully refute the negative side of this theory. I would contend that, much like 20th century philosophers, Montaigne makes a compelling case for Dostoyevsky’s maxim from “The Brothers Karamazov:” if there is no God, everything is permitted.
Montaigne starts by discussing how reason without supernatural grounding must work … it requires a belief in weighing ideas and opinions:
For any human assumption, any rhetorical proposition, has just as much authority as any other, unless a difference can be established by reason … They must all be weighed in the balance – starting with general principles and any tyrannous ones.
The believers in reason … whoever they were in Montaigne’s time, I do not know, but his thoughts here are a prescient anticipation of Rene Descartes … impose a form of tyranny on our minds:
They themselves have taught us to make judgements about the universe; they themselves have fed us with the notion that human reason is the Comptroller-General of everything within and without the vault of heaven; they themselves say that it can embrace everything, do everything and is the means by which anything is known or understood.
Descartes’ later rationale for the existence of God, based purely on reason, is today widely mocked. But Montaigne anticipated the weakness of this approach. Kierkegaard later wrote about a “leap of faith” necessary to believe in God, one that cannot be bridged through reason, and Montaigne seemed to anticipate that as well. Here, Montaigne argues that using reason to defend the strength of reason is a hopelessly circular argument:
When they have to assay anything, reason is their touchstone. But it is, a most surely, a touchstone full of falsehood, error, defects and feebleness. How better to test that than by reason itself. If we cannot trust reason when talking about itself, it can hardly be a judge of anything outside itself …. Anyone who made an intelligent collection of the asinine stupidities of human Wisdom would have a wondrous tale to tell.
And now Montaigne returns to the question I raised yesterday – what good is philosophy when a person is in deep turmoil? Do any philosophers point the way towards virtue … or are they all merely writing auto biographies to justify their acts? Montaigne argues that philosophy cannot create the foundation we need, that it only helps those who have already learned how to help themselves:
Philosophy has armed Man well against all the other ills which may befall him, teaching him either to bear them or else, if the cost of that is too high, to inflict certain defeat on them by escaping from all sensation. But such methods can only be of service to a vigorous soul in control of herself, a soul capable of reason and decision: they are no use in a disaster such as this, where the soul of a philosopher becomes the soul of a madman, confused, lost and deranged. This can happen from several causes: by some excessive emotion which snatches the mind away; by some strong passion engendered by the soul herself; by a wound in certain parts of the body; by a gastric vapour subjecting the soul to giddiness and confusion.
Given this chaos, philosophy falls back on expert opinions … but these opinions do nothing to console the human soul:
Dissatisfied with his lot, Man has given free run to his opinions, building himself up into something else and propping himself up with his own ingenuity. The soul can never find a sure footing; she is too confused and weak for that. She roams about seeking bases for her hopes and consolations in conditions which are foreign to her nature. She clings to them and puts down roots. These notions which she ingeniously forges for herself may be ever so frivolous and fantastic, but she can find repose in them more surely than in herself, and much more willingly.
And this leads to Montaigne’s conclusion … that we cannot find peace for the human soul without God’s help. Human reason cannot create Nirvana:
Everything we undertake without God’s help, everything we try and see without the lamp of his grace, is vanity and madness.
If you have faith in God, then you can build on that faith with reason and can find a certain peace. Absent that God, we’re left in the hopeless, trapped place that David Foster Wallace described in his Kenyon College commencement:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.