Friday, March 23, 2012

Montaigne and the French Wars of Religion: A Faithful Skeptic Engages a Dangerous World


by Josh Hosler
for Dr. Gray
Virginia Theological Seminary
CH-503: Church History
13 March 2012

Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) had every reason to doubt. As Protestantism spread across Europe and the Roman Catholic Church prepared to engage in its own Reformation, seeds of the Enlightenment began to sprout and push through the soil of the Renaissance. Montaigne’s discovery of the ancient works of Pyrrho set the young philosopher to asking the epistemological question, “How do we know what we know?” But this heady question was not enough for Montaigne. He also wondered, “What difference will our knowledge of God, or lack thereof, make in our everyday lives? How ought we to act?” These questions became especially pressing for the young philosopher as his own country of France was plunged into civil war, the monarchy desperately trying to ensure a continued Catholic state even as the specter loomed of a viable Protestant heir apparent, and as violence increased between Catholic loyalists and Protestant Huguenots. During these tumultuous times, Montaigne built a career not only as an author and philosopher but also as a politician and a diplomat, always seeking to ease tension and call passionate souls to reason. As the French Wars of Religion raged around him, Michel Montaigne’s writings and actions espoused a faithful skepticism, challenged his countrymen to balance truth and humility, and envisioned a pluralistic society that understands compassion to be a truer virtue than knowledge.
Richard Popkin writes that “Montaigne’s personal life was a microcosm of his time.”[1] Montaigne was born into the family of a wealthy nobleman whose wife was a Marrano—that is, a Jew whose family had been forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. Marranos were typically viewed with distrust, as if people expected them to revert to Judaism at any moment. Indeed, the Jewish tradition of matrilineality meant that Montaigne himself could be considered a Jew. When the Reformed movement began to take hold in France, two of Montaigne’s siblings converted to Protestantism, so throughout his younger years, Montaigne was given opportunities to see more than one side in debates about religion.
Montaigne remained a Roman Catholic all his life, though he sought out and maintained relationships with Protestant relations and friends. His philosophy led him to an understanding of faith that we might summarize in the statement, “Bloom where you are planted,” or perhaps in the more whimsical phrase, “Ready, fire, aim.” We may understand very little about God and the universe, but that is no reason to insist on having all the relevant data before proceeding. Montaigne’s humble approach to philosophy came at a time when scholasticism, a tradition maintained and developed since the time of Thomas Aquinas, was being called into question, so Montaigne had a number of recent heroes to look up to. One of these heroes, Desiderius Erasmus, had criticized the Roman Catholic Church from the inside, but he had also lived a colorful, effective life. James Miller remarks that Erasmus “argued that the true philosopher is not the scholar in his study but the person who seeks wisdom in practice, by trying to emulate Socrates—or Jesus.”[2] Montaigne was to learn from Erasmus’s example and the examples of contemporaries like him.
An educated gentleman with a flair for reasonability, Montaigne became an ambassador from the Parlement of his home town of Bordeaux to the king’s court in Paris. In 1562, when violence erupted and spread throughout France between the Roman Catholic monarchy and Reformed Protestants, Montaigne found that his mediation skills were called for and were quite valuable. Nevertheless, the fighting would continue on and off for the rest of Montaigne’s life and beyond.
Sometime in the 1560s, Montaigne learned of the recently rediscovered writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho, as preserved by Sextus Empiricus. Pyrrho “taught that a suspension of judgment about the truth or falsity of endlessly questionable core beliefs would produce tranquility of soul,”[3] and his adherents delighted in demonstrating “that a belief of any sort could be counterposed with a conflicting belief of the same sort.”[4] Suspension of belief appealed to Montaigne, but he kept in mind that the Pyrrhonians “always reach the high water mark of doubt.”[5] So Montaigne wondered how one could be intellectually honest and still make day-to-day decisions about living one’s life. What was the best way to proceed? Did a profusion of doubt mean that one should one merely react to stimuli like the lesser organisms, as the Pyrrhonists taught? Or would it be better to live a life of conviction and influence based on beliefs that could not be proven? M. A. Screech writes, “[Montaigne’s] main concern was with ethics. He wanted to find out, by human inquiry, how he should live and how he should die.”[6]
During this time Montaigne met his best friend and soul mate, Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563), another active member of the Parlement of Bordeaux. In his Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, La Boétie wrote passionately against a kind of personal tyranny of which he believed one becomes guilty by remaining passive. More than any other person he knew, La Boétie “turned Montaigne toward ‘philosophy’ understood as a way of life rather than a catalog of doctrines.”[7] While the two friends believed in religious freedom in principle, they also felt that the French crown should control the French Catholic Church, and they warned the king that too much conciliation with the Huguenots would only lead eventually to more bloodshed. In 1563 La Boétie successfully negotiated an end to a Protestant uprising in Agen, but he contracted dysentery there and died. He left his library to Montaigne, who grieved deeply for his friend. Shortly after this, Montaigne consented to a marriage arranged by his father, though we know relatively little about his wife or of their relationship. Also at his father’s request, Montaigne translated Natural Theology, a 15th-century work by Roman Catholic theologian Raymond Sebond, who argued that all the propositions of Christianity can be proved by reason. In 1568 when his father died, Montaigne was plunged into deeper grief. He resigned from Parlement in 1570 and took refuge in solitude, “long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments.”[8]
Married but alone in an inherited library full of books, Montaigne took to writing about himself, not in an especially organized way, but in the form of general reflections about whatever happened to go through his mind. The eventual result was his Essais, published in the 1580s, in which Montaigne bared his soul as honestly as possible. In its preface, he wrote, “I am myself the subject of my book; it is not reasonable to expect you to waste your leisure on a matter so frivolous and empty. Farewell then.”[9] Despite his low expectation for public interest, his writings made him famous. And contrary to the slogan he adopted in the course of writing the Essais—“What do I know?”—Montaigne wrote what he believed he knew about nearly every topic imaginable, from science to parenting to the equality of the sexes to the pain of his chronic kidney stones. Miller writes, “The more Montaigne read, and the more he wrote, the more doubts he had.”[10]
Truth and humility became Montaigne’s two primary virtues. He wrote, “I hail and welcome the truth, in whatever hand I find it; I cheerfully surrender and tender my vanquished sword to her, as soon as I see her approach in the distance.”[11] Among the ancients, his hero was Socrates, lover of truth. Yet Montaigne had to admit that our ability to gain knowledge is limited: “All knowledge is conveyed to us through the senses … knowledge begins through them and resolves itself into them … he who can drive me to confute the senses, has me by the throat.”[12] He also recognized that
Almost all the opinions we hold are taken on authority and trust. There is no harm done; we could not make a worse choice than our own in so feeble an age. The sayings of Socrates, as reflected in the works which his friends [Plato and Xenophon] have handed down to us, gain our approval only out of respect to the universal approval that has been accorded to them, not as the result of our own knowledge.[13]
Truth, then, was to be sought inasmuch as was possible, but humility must inform what one did with one’s truths. Montaigne made this especially clear in his most celebrated essay, Apology for Raymond Sebond, which sprang from the translation he had made at his father’s request and which formed the centerpiece of the Essais. In a manner so subtle as to be opaque, Montaigne “in effect destroyed Sebond’s reasoning in order to save it.”[14] Sebond had insisted that all Christian theology could be proved by reason, while Sebond’s critics had believed Christians needed no proof, but should rely on faith alone. Montaigne felt this objection to Sebond was motivated by “an over-zealous piety, and for that reason it is our duty to try and satisfy, with the more moderation and respect, those who put it forward.”[15] Then, after insisting he did not know the first thing about theology, Montaigne proposed a diplomatic “both/and” solution:
It is Faith alone that vividly and with certainty embraces the sublime mysteries of our religion. But that does not mean that it is not a very fine and very laudable undertaking to employ in the service of our faith also the natural and human implements that God has given us. It is not to be doubted that that is the most honourable use that we can put them to, and that there is no occupation or design more worthy of a Christian than to aim … at embellishing, extending and amplifying the truth of his belief … We must do the like, and accompany our faith with all the reason that is in us; but always with this reservation, that we must not imagine that it depends upon ourselves, nor that our endeavours and arguments will be able to attain to a knowledge so divine and supernatural.[16]
By keeping “this reservation” always in mind, Montaigne was able to set forth the basis of a healthy, faithful skepticism: Have faith, don’t check your brains at the door, retain the humility that befits imperfect creatures, and allow whatever God there is to do for us what we in our weakness cannot do for ourselves. Popkin writes: “In order to excuse the weakness of Sebond’s reasoning, Montaigne set out to show that nobody else’s reasoning is any better, and that no one can achieve any certainty by rational means.”[17]
This period of Montaigne’s life seems to be the time when he experimented most with doing nothing. Because the majority of the Essais come from this period, it may seem to his readers that Montaigne did very little with his life, and indeed, there was no indication that he would do anything other than write after the age of 38. But life abhors a recluse: it has a way of sweeping us back into its rhythms and fortunes, and for Montaigne, the event that reengaged him was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. A failed assassination attempt on Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny led to fear of reprisals, so King Charles IX sent in his army to kill a number of Huguenot leaders preemptively. Other citizens followed the king’s example, killing thousands of Protestants in Paris and beyond in less than two months.
As this new wave of violence spread, Montaigne came out of isolation. Miller writes that contemporary historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) chronicled Montaigne’s time spent as a diplomat during the 1570s, mediating between Catholic League leader Henri de Guise and Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre.[18] Montaigne’s efforts produced positive short-term results, though the overall level of violence did not decrease. Interestingly, it was Henry of Navarre, the Protestant, with whom Montaigne felt the stronger connection. He wanted the Protestants to be able to practice their religion freely without fear of the monarchy clamping down on them. Montaigne also served another stint in the army in these years, and during this time, Montaigne learned that he had been unanimously elected mayor of Bordeaux, due in no small part to his sudden success as an author. Eventually, while serving as an official aide to King Henry III, the mayor Montaigne also became a gentleman-in-ordinary to Henry Navarre, who in 1584 became the Protestant heir apparent.[19] In a few short years Montaigne had gone from grieving alone to holding great responsibility on both sides of the French Wars of Religion.
During this phase of the wars, the Huguenots stumbled upon Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude and began to use its radical anti-tyrannical message to rally citizens to their cause. Malcolm Smith writes, “Radical as his scrutiny of kings was, La Boétie was no subversive.”[20] Rather, he advocated for religious freedom and loyalty to the crown simultaneously. La Boétie’s ability to maintain subtle philosophical distinctions against the rush and noise of war were inspirational to Montaigne, who always favored reason over passion. In fact, he had intended to include La Boétie’s essay among his own Essais for publication as a tribute to his friend, but faced with its misuse and his own loyalty to the crown, he had to back down.
Montaigne insisted that the “Wars of Religion” were not at all religious, but merely political, and that any religious flavor in them was due to human frailty. He wrote: “Let us confess the truth: should any one pick out of the army, even the average loyalist army, all those who march out of pure zeal and affection for religion … he would be unable to make up a full company of men-at-arms.”[21] Montaigne noted with dismay that Christians are known not by their love, but by their infighting: “Seeing the advantage our religion offers us, we ought to outshine [Mohammedans and pagans] in excellence at an extreme and incomparable distance; and people should be able to say, ‘Are they so just, so charitable, so good? Then they are Christians.’”[22] And in a lengthy passage about the ways of animals, Montaigne wrote: “With regard to war, which is the greatest and most pompous of human activities … [it] seems to have little to recommend it to the animals that have it not.”[23] Montaigne surveyed the carnage engulfing his country and stood apart from it, insisting that it was not worthy of human beings to engage in it. If we are given to know so few truths about our universe, how can we act toward our fellow human beings out of anything other than compassion? As his countrymen endured some of the most horrifying violence of the century, Montaigne called humanity to a higher, more compassionate standard. David Quint writes:
Montaigne responds to the contemporary crisis of a civil war by propounding in the Essais a new ethics to counter the model of heroic virtue that prevailed in his culture and his noble class. Against the hard-liner who never yields, even in the face of death—the constant Stoic, the honor-bound aristocrat, the religious zealot—he offers a pliant goodness that is the product not of heroic effort and philosophical discipline, not even of Christian charity or meekness, but rather of ordinary fellow feeling.[24]
Yet Montaigne also served as a soldier out of a sense of duty to the crown: this was a mark of the submission he felt all people owe to the authorities of their own land. Montaigne’s urge to end the violence depended on a strong reliance on authority, even if that authority was flawed. He tried to describe “an honorable kind of submission that is the result of free individual choice.”[25] This sounds more like Jesus than Socrates; Montaigne’s grounding in the Christian faith helped his philosophy grow beyond mere love of truth. But his faith was not so like that of Jesus that he could bring himself to refute or even ignore established authority.
On one occasion a group of men planned to raid Montaigne’s house, led by a man Montaigne knew and had had no reason to distrust. The man came to Montaigne’s house and asked to be let in, pretending to be chased by an enemy; he had four or five soldiers with him. Montaigne’s suspicions were aroused, but he decided the best course of action was to invite them in. He wrote of the event: “Unless I am forced to do so by overwhelming evidence, I cannot believe in such perverse and unnatural intentions, any more than I believe in prodigies and miracles. And I am, moreover, a man who readily trusts to Fortune and throws himself heedlessly into her arms.”[26] Montaigne’s trusting nature—or naiveté?—surprised the would-be offender and defused the situation; the plot was abandoned.
Quint notes that “Montaigne’s insistence on bowing to the powers placed above one has an authoritarian character. He speaks constantly against innovation, though it should be emphasized that he always refers primarily to Protestantism when he does so.”[27] So Montaigne was able to sympathize with the desire for freedom felt by the Protestants he knew, even while suspecting that their “innovations” were wrong-headed:
Since I am not capable of choosing for myself, I accept the choice of others, and remain in the state wherein God has placed me. Otherwise I could not keep from perpetual rolling. Thus, by the grace of God, I have kept wholly, without being stirred or troubled by conscience, within the ancient tenets of our religion, amidst the many sects and divisions that our times have brought forth.[28]
Miller writes: “In theory … Montaigne was a deep pluralist … Yet in practice—fearful as he was of bloody anarchy, which was a constant possibility—the pluralist was also an absolutist: ready on prudential grounds to submit to the dictates of his Catholic king.”[29]
Would Montaigne have emerged with these views had his life developed differently? What if he had been born a Protestant and a victim of injustice rather than a member of the Catholic majority? Would he so easily have espoused such strident views on moderation, peacekeeping, and submission to authority? Given the choice, Montaigne chose humility and submitted to authority: “I feel much prouder of the victory I gain over myself when, in the very heat of the combat, I make myself give way to the force of my adversary’s argument, than I feel gratified by the victory I gain over him through his own weakness.”[30] Yet Montaigne seemed unaware that his privileged birth and upbringing afforded him more opportunities for choosing his own course than many other people had.
Montaigne continued in his political intermediary role until his death from a throat infection in 1592. By this time, Henry III had been assassinated and Henry of Navarre had indeed become Henry IV. After Montaigne’s death, Henry converted to Roman Catholicism and created the Edict of Nantes, “the first example of a single political entity officially recognizing religious pluralism.”[31] The edict stopped the violence for a while, though more troubles were on the horizon: by the end of the next century, Protestantism would be made illegal in France.
Quint sums up:
There is something perennially cheering and hopeful in [Montaigne’s] faith in humanity, which is as close, I think, as he may come to a profession of religious faith. Montaigne, the real-life negotiator between Catholic and Protestant forces, asserts that it takes more, not less, courage to yield, to seek compromise and dialogue with one’s adversary rather than to dominate or be dominated.[32]
Montaigne’s courage was not the kind of courage his countrymen valued, nor was his faith of the kind the church valued. Had he died an unnatural death at the hands of enemies, he did not have the makings of a principled martyr: his dedication to a truth he could never attain prevented him from taking the kind of strong theological stance that religious adherents could rally behind. Nor could Montaigne bring himself to embrace a full-fledged atheism, as later skeptics like Hume and Voltaire would. Montaigne wrote:
Why do we deny [the heavens] a soul, and life and reason? Have we discovered in them any stubborn, senseless stupidity, we who have no concern with them but to obey them? Shall we say that we have seen no other creature but man in possession of a reasoning mind? … If what we have not seen does not exist, our knowledge is marvelously short-sighted.”[33]
Rather, Montaigne’s love for humanity guided him to a faith he could maintain while simultaneously doubting his very senses—exactly the philosophy he needed to navigate the dangerous world of 16th-century France.



Works Cited

Gray, Jonathan (2012, February 2). Confessionalization, Conflict, and Pluralism: lecture for
Church History 503, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA.
Martinich, A.P., ed. Early Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Malden,
MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Miller, James. Examined Lives. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley, California:
University of California Press, 1979.
Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Schneewind, J. B., ed. Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. New York, NY: Cambridge
University Press, 2003.
Screech, M. A. Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. London, U.K.:
Duckworth, 1983.
Smith, Malcolm C. Montaigne and Religious Freedom: The Dawn of Pluralism. Geneva,
Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 1991.
Trechmann, E.J., trans. The Essays of Montaigne. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.



[1] Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1979), 42.
[2] James Miller, Examined Lives (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 177.
[3] Miller, 177.
[4] J. B. Schneewind, ed., Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 14.
[5] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in E. J. Trechmann, trans., The Essays of Montaigne (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), ii: 34.
[6] M. A. Screech, Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays (London: Duckworth, 1983), 4-5.
[7] Miller, 176.
[8] Miller, 179.
[9] “To the Reader,” in Trechmann, i: B.
[10] Miller, 180.
[11] “Of the Art of Conversing,” in Trechmann, ii: 386.
[12] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in Trechmann, ii: 35.
[13] “Of Physiognomy,” in Trechmann, ii: 509.
[14] A. P. Martinich, ed., Early Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 25.
[15] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in Trechmann, i: 431.
[16] Ibid. (italics mine)
[17] Popkin, 45.
[18] Miller, 181-182.
[19] Miller, 190.
[20] Malcolm C. Smith, Montaigne and Religious Freedom: The Dawn of Pluralism (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1991), 54.
[21] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in Trechmann, i: 434.
[22] Ibid., i: 432.
[23] Ibid., i: 466-467.
[24] David Quint, Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), ix.
[25] Quint, 107.
[26] “Of Physiognomy,” in Trechmann, 536-537.
[27] Quint, 104.
[28] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in Trechmann, ii: 14.
[29] Miller, 187.
[30] “Of the Art of Conversing,” in Trechmann, ii: 387.
[31] Jonathan Gray (2012, February 2). Confessionalization, Conflict, and Pluralism: lecture for Church History 503, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA.
[32] Quint, xiv-xv.
[33] “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in Trechmann, i: 443.

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