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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Michel de Montaigne (the other Frechman)

[C] Yet there is not one single school of philosophy which is not forced to allow its Sage (if he wishes to live) to accept a great many things which he cannot understand, perceive or give his assent to. Say he boards a ship. He carries out his design, not knowing whether it will serve his purpose; he assumes the vessel to be seaworthy, the pilot to be experienced and the weather to be favorable. Such attendant details are, of course, merely probable: he is obliged to let himself be guided by appearances, unless they are expressly contradicted. He has a body. He has a soul. He feels the impulsions of his senses and the promptings of his spirit. He cannot find within himself any sign specifically suggesting that it be appropriate for him to make an act of judgment: he realizes he must not bind his consent to anything, since something false may have every appearance of particular truth. Despite all this, he never fails to do his duty in his life, fully and fittingly.

How many disciplines are there which actually confess to be based on conjecture rather than on knowledge, and which, being unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, merely follow what seems likely? Pyrrhonians say that truth and falsehood exist: within us we have the means of looking for them, but not of making any lasting judgment: we have no touchstone.

We would be better off if we dropped our enquiries and let ourselves be moulded by the natural order of the world. A soul safe from prejudice has made a wondrous advance towards peace of mind. People who judge their judges and keep accounts of what they do fail to show due submissiveness. Among people who are amenable to the legitimate teachings of religion and politics, there are more simple and uninquisitive minds than minds which keep a schoolmasterly eye on causes human and divine.

[A] No system discovered by Man has greater usefulness nor a greater appearance of truth [than Pyrrhonism] which shows us man naked, empty, aware of his natural weaknesses, fit to accept outside help from on high: Man, stripped of all human learning and so all the more able to lodge the divine within him, annihilating his intellect to make room for faith;
[A] And so two out of the three generic schools of Philosophy make an express profession of doubt and ignorance; it is easy to discover that most who belonged to the third school, the Dogmatists, put on an assured face merely because it looks better. They did not really think they had established any certainties , but wanted to show us how far they had advanced in their hunt for Truth, [C] 'quam docti fingunt, magis quam norunt' [which the learned feign rather than know]. When Timaeus had to reveal to Socrates what he knew about the Gods, the world and mankind, he determined to speak of such things as one man to another: it would be enough if the reasons he gave had as much probablility as anyone else's, since precise reasons were neither in his grasp nor in the grasp of any mortal man.
I will unravel things as best I may. What I shall say is neither fixed nor certain: I am no Pythian Apollo; I am a little man seeking the probable through conjecture.
[A] Aristotle is the Prince of the Dogmatists; and yet it is from him we learn that greater knowledge leads to further doubt. You can often find him hiding behind a deliberate obscurity, so deep and impenetrable that you cannot make out what he meant. In practice it is Pyrrhonism cloaked in affirmation.
[C] Just listen to this assertion of Cicero ... Those who want to know what my personal opinions are on each of these subjects are more inquisitive than they ought to be. Up to now it has been a principle of philosophy to argue against anything but to decide nothing. This principle was established by Socrates; Arcesilus repeated it; Carneades strengthened it further. I am one of those who hold that there is, in all truths, an admixture of falsehood so like Truth that there is no way of deciding or determining anything whatever with complete certainty.
[B] Not only Aristotle but most philosophers aim at being hard to understand; why? -- if not to emphasize the vanity of their subject-matter and to give our minds something to do! Philosophy is a hollow bone with no flesh on it: are they providing us with a place to feed in, where we can chew on it?
Plato seems to me to have quite knowingly chosen to treat philosophy in the form of dialogues: he was better able to expound the diversity and variety of his concepts by putting them appropriately into the mouths of diverse speakers. Variety of treatment is as good as consistency. Better in fact: it means being more copious and more useful.
When philosophers find fault with each other, their widest field of action lies in the internal contradictions which entangle them all - either deliberately (so as to show the vacillations of the human mind over any subject whatever) or else quite unintentionally because all matters are shifting and elusive.
[A] We ought not to find it strange that people who despair of the kill should not renounce the pleasure of the hunt: study is, in itself, a delightful occupation, so delightful that, among the forbidden pleasures which need to be held on a tight reign, the Stoics include pleasure arising from exercising the mind. [C] They find intemperance in knowing too much.
[A] One of the Ancients was reproved for not judging philosophy to be of much account yet continuing to profess it; 'that is what being a philosopher means,' he replied.
Michel de Montaigne "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"
[ISBN 0-14-044493-9 p. 73-80]

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