Although widely accepted as a Renaissance philosopher, humanist and sceptic, Michel de Montaigne had little of great import to say about traditional and speculative philosophy, since, he believed, we could not be certain of anything.
Therefore, man’s relationship with God was of less interest to him than the relationships of people to one another.
Saul Frampton’s Guardian article, “Montaigne and the Macaques,” records this commitment to human relationships.
“400 years ago this great French essayist recognised our inbuilt capacity for sympathy depends on our physical proximity to others,” says Frampton.
The article explains how Macaque monkeys instinctively mirror each others’ actions. The mirroring causes a neuron to fire in their brains. Scientists labeled this “the empathy neuron,” claims Frampton.
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Montaigne was no stranger to controversy. For example, he said, “…there are no universal standards for humans to consider themselves superior to other species,” according to Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Thinkers.
Montaigne was exceptional in his achievements, not least for being self-taught and making essential life-choices of independence and good judgement. The great René Descartes later followed his example through self-education and the application of balanced judgement in his thinking.
The Burden of Too Much Knowledge
Michel de Montaigne dedicated his life to the search for knowledge and for truth with an approach that was always open-minded and individualistic. He was born in Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne in France, and he produced, from age 37, three volume of essays, or “Essais” in which “he applied his governing philosophical principles to a huge variety of topics,” says Jeremy Harwood in “Michel de Montaigne.”
While Montaigne’s first love was writing, he was also a great “thinker about thinking” in his lifetime search for the truth.
Therefore, his stance was that of a healthy scepticism, but this was no “lazy man’s philosophy,” a label applied frequently to the original ancient school of the sceptics in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell said, “Scepticism made an appeal to many unphilosophic minds… Scepticism was a lazy man’s consolation, since it showed the ignorant to be as wise as the reputed men of learning.”
This was a very different kind of scepticism from that of Michel de Montaigne. For the sceptics of ancient times, the philosophy of scepticism was, a times, an excuse. For Montaigne, it was a commitment and a way of life and had a full and specific role to play in his thinking.
He believed in balance, and testing one opinion against another to ensure a genuine seeking of truth. Thinking was not a science, in Montaigne’s view, and knowledge did not necessarily help understanding.
Implications of Montaigne’s Scepticism
As stated above, his insistence that humans could not set themselves above other species was central to his thinking. He did, however, make concessions to cultural tendencies. “Notions, such as ‘reason’ and ‘nature’ – could help people to exercise their judgement better,” explains Jeremy Harwood.
“Cultural relativism” is defined as the view that we must understand that an individual person’s beliefs and his or her cultural background define his or her actions.
Of Cannibals and Cultural Relativism
In his essay “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne says that we have no reason to assume that our European culture is any better than any other, or any closer to God or goodness or truth, even though other cultures might appear less advanced.
“I find there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation… excepting that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country,” says Montaigne in “Of Cannibals.”
He tells a story of cannibalism. Two tribes are making war on one another. They go to war naked, with just a bow and a wooden sword apiece. There is much blood, yet no warrior ever runs away. When a tribe takes prisoners, extreme revenge is exacted.
These two extracts below are verbatim from the essay, after describing how, first of all, the opposing tribe treats the prisoner well.
Then the victor “…ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner… he holds the one end himself and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold… in the presence of the assembly, they despatch him with their swords. After that, they roast him, eat him among them, and send some chops to their absent friends.”
Montaigne’s judgement does not regard this behaviour in an unfavourable light compared to European behaviour.
“I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than when he is dead, in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments that is yet in perfect sense, in roasting it by degrees, in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine, as practised by neighbours and fellow citizens under cover of piety and religion, than roast and eat him after he is dead.”
He also mentions the stoics’ belief that there was no immorality in eating a dead carcass.
Jeremy Harwood summarises: “Individuals should think about and then evaluate the customs they lived by, and then, if necessary, challenge them.”
Montaigne’s Gentle Frankness Disarms His Enemy
There is a charming story in the article “Montaigne and the Macaques” by Saul Frampton, telling how Montaigne regarded his house as open to all. Then something dramatic and frightening happened.
“And standing as a solitary sentinel over all this was an ancient porter, whose function, admitted Montaigne, is not so much to defend his door as to offer it with more grace and decorum,” making an attack on it “a cowardly and treacherous business… it is not shut to anyone that knocks.”
However, this concept did not hold true when Montaigne’s neighbour appeared, requesting safety from some soldiers. Naturally they admitted him. Shortly after, four or five more soldiers asked for sanctuary, which was duly granted. Before long there were around twenty people in the house all seeking sanctuary from the fighting. Montaigne knew that his neighbour was setting him up, since his home contained much of value.
He looked directly at his neighbour and soon, the neighbour turned away and left, along with everyone else. Later, he told Montaigne that his expression of frankness had prevented him from carrying out his criminal plan. In other words, the close proximity to his victim and the obvious fear and distress in the expression on his face, had forced the neighbour to sympathise and abandon his ill-conceived course of action.
Michel de Montaigne’s Legacy
This French philosopher, who was never much impressed by philosophy, who started his writing career from nothing, and who relied entirely on his own thinking, proved the inspiration for a number of later philosophers, for example Blaise Pascal and René Descartes.
“Claude Levi-Strauss hailed him as the father of cultural relativism while his approach to philosophy inspired such influential modern sages as Richard Rorty to look for new ways of seeking out knowledge and truth.”