Michel de Montaigne


Que sçay-je?” – ‘What do I know?’, Michel de Montaigne

On the occasion of Michel de Montaigne’s birthday today, a few gems on his romantic scepticism from one of his most ardent fans, Chet Raymo…

Coming Ashore

  • Among the greatest inventions of the human mind is doubt. Doubt of received truth. Doubt of the infallibility of ancestors. Doubt of the shaman, the prophet, the priest. Doubt of majority opinion. Who was the first person who said ‘Maybe it’s not true what they say’? Who was first, when asked ‘Why?’, replied, "Gee, I don’t know"? Who was the first to question the gods Among the Greek Epicureans and Skeptics doubt was an indispensable philosophical tool. But somehow that principle was lost in Europe with the rise of institutional Christianity. Dogma reigned paramount. At the time Montaigne was writing his Essays people went to the rack or the stake for the expression of doubt. In Montaigne’s France, Catholics and Protestants fought long and barbaric wars over their respective versions of truth. Somehow Montaigne survived it all. He was a nominal Catholic and theist, but (according to Sarah Bakewell) his essays do not indicate much interest in religion or the afterlife. If he had a religion it was this: Pay attention to everything and doubt all claims to certain knowledge. But can we live without certainty, or at least some scaffolding of reliable knowledge? Is all-embracing doubt a practical philosophy of life? Can we live comfortably in a shoreless sea of ambiguity? I would guess not. As it turned out, as Montaigne wrote in his tower, a lad was growing up in Tuscany, Italy, who would marry doubt to reliable knowledge. First, use doubt to clear away received opinion. Then, painstakingly build a new structure of knowledge on the basis of quantitative, reproducible experiment.”


  • “Nearly fifty years ago, as a young prof, I had a short column in the college newspaper called ‘Under a Skeptical Star.’ I took the title from a quote of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: ‘If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." Even then, I suppose, although I didn’t know it, I was a disciple of Montaigne. Skepticism and astonishment. Doubt everything. Marvel at everything. Go through life drop-jawed. Pay attention to things that seem ostensibly insignificant. Run like hell from anyone who wants to sell you the meaning of life. Make no mistake: I’m not selling the meaning of life here. I speak for myself alone. I have my hands full managing my own life without trying to proselytize others. If I thought I knew the meaning of life, I hope I would have the good sense to doubt it.”
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