27. That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from Our Own Capacities

I have written about Montaigne for many years and have penned more than one version of each of his essays. Consequently, I’ve pledged this go around to write nothing new, to just pull the best parts of what I’ve already created. On this essay, I can’t do that.

My 2011 version made a sincere attempt at tackling the full concept of religious faith. I don’t have a problem with the effort, or even necessarily with the output, but this essay is the wrong place for such an examination, because that’s not really what it’s about. This is another Montaigne essay about his version of skepticism — but also an elaboration of that skepticism that is willing to leave space for things that we should leave unexplained.

The essay 12 years later kind of shook me. I wasn’t surprised that I was feeling what inspired the essay at that time, I was just a little shocked to see it in print and wondered if I might have just come across a first draft that I later edited for broader consumption. The essay embarrassed me, so I’m sending it down a memory hole and hope no one has read it.

Now, Montaigne could argue here that the resurrection of this essay at this moment was a kind of miracle and I shouldn’t judge it, and in fact shouldn’t even claim personal ownership of it, instead I should allow it to have its place in this collection as its own Natural thing, proof of nothing in particular, but the mysterious beauty of the world.

Reason has taught me that, if you condemn in this way anything whatever as definitely false and quite impossible, you are claiming to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God and the power of Nature our Mother; it taught me also that there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities.

But actually, Montaigne probably wouldn’t call it a miracle, he’d chide me for being so hasty to judge the piece in question as something black or white:

How many of the things which constantly come into our purview must be deemed monstrous or miraculous if we apply such terms to anything which outstrips our reason! If we consider that we have to grope through a fog even to understand the very things we hold in our hands, then we will certainly find that it is not knowledge but habit which takes away their strangeness.

At this point, Montaigne walks us through a very thoughtful argument about why habit determines the way we judge things and not knowledge itself. He writes how a river can seem like a vast body of water the first time we come upon it — perhaps to a small child it might even seem like an ocean. But the more times we experience it, the less imposing it becomes, the easier it is for us to put it in scale and context.

His argument is that, as quick as we may be to reject improbable things that confront us, some of the most noble, wise people in history have testified sincerely to experiencing things that seem beyond all reasonable explanation. We owe it to them not necessarily to believe it based on their testimony, but remain in suspense about the possibility. Or has he put it:

Not to believe too rashly; not to disbelieve too easily.

From here, Montaigne goes into an aside about the religious strife in France at the time and what a mistake it is for Catholics to cede issues of ecclesiastical polity as an attempt to cool tensions. I could apply this thought to politics today, but I’m going to leave it as something for Montaigne’s era and for theological discussions beyond my interests.

I want to close this piece by highlighting the second to last paragraph in the essay:

Why cannot we remember all the contradictions which we feel within our own judgement, and how many things which were articles of belief for us yesterday are fables for us today?

And this brings me back to the reason I’m writing a fresh essay today. It’s not so much that I wish to contradict anything that inspired the essay in question some 18 months ago. It just that everything I felt and experienced then seems inconsequential compared to everything that happened afterwards.

On this point, I break cleanly from Montaigne. He hated curiosity because it “forbids us to leave anything unresolved or undecided.” What he doesn’t consider is that sometimes curiosity can propel us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t have done — even if those actions ultimately leave the original question unresolved or undecided. And that energy sometimes makes life worth living.

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