Skepticism Prior to Montaigne

  • Craig B. Brush
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 14)


Within a century’s time, more or less, after Sextus Empiricus, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire; and skepticism virtually disappeared as a school of philosophy, or turned up only in a new context. We need not be concerned with the debates between the patristic apologists and pagan philosophers. Much of the intellectual history of this period is lost simply because the ultimate success of the Christians resulted in the obliteration of pagan works. What is important for our purposes is the fact that from its very inception Christian thought frequently repudiated rationalism and philosophy in order to eulogize the virtues of faith in God and His revelation.


Sixteenth Century Christian Faith Latin Translation Individual Conscience Medieval Philosophy 
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  1. 1.
    Catholic Encyclopedia, article “Fideism.”Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    The definition of fideism adopted here is the conservative Catholic one used by Herman Janssen in his Montaigne fidéiste (Nijmegen and Utrecht: Dekker and van de Vegt and van Leeuwen, 1930). Other authors define the term less precisely : Popkin in the Preface to his History of Scepticism and E. D.James in “Scepticism and Fideism in Bayle’’s Dictionnaire,” French Studies, XVI (1962), 315, merely mention the incapacity of reason to prove any proposition unaided by faith. Most religious encyclopedias or dictionaries of philosophy (e.g., Baldwin, Lalande, Foulquié) are conspicuously silent or distressingly vague on fideism. Lalande’s article in the Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie points out that the word, originally coined by French Protestant theologians, varies in its usage. I have chosen this restricted definition, first because it is precise enough to be useful, and second because it corresponds to several clear declarations of Bayle’s concerning faith and reason. Although some authors would include the immortality of the soul among the dogmas demonstrable by reason alone, I do not give it much consideration because I cannot see how it can be called a preamble of faith. One must remember that the concept of fideism is a modern one, and that many precise philosophical distinctions familiar to the modern world were unknown in the greater part of the sixteenth century. See Lucien Febvre’s Le Problème de l’incroyance au XVIème siècle, la religion de Rabelais, L’Evolution de l’Humanité, no. 53 (Paris: Albin Michel), 385–386.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Montaigne uses this in II : xii, 480a; Bayle quotes it is his Eclaircissement sur les pyrrhoniens in DHC, XVI, 312.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    See Etienne Gilson, The History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1954),Google Scholar
  5. 1a.
    John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, revised edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press for the Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940), pp. 203–215,Google Scholar
  6. 1a.
    Hiram Hayden, The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960) on nominalism.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    Busson regards the Pyrrhonists as a special case of rationalism ; see especially p. 357 of his Le Rationalisme dans la littérature française de la Renaissance (Paris: Vrin, 1957). This is a second edition, considerably revised, of his thesis Les Sources et le développemenl du rationalisme dans la littérature française de la Renaissance (1533–1601) (Paris: Letouzet & Ané, 1922).Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    The relation between skeptical arguments and the controversies of the Reformation is clearly described in Popkin, History of Skepticism, chapter I, on which I have drawn largely. Popkin feels that it is a “historical accident” (p. 16) that Sextus Empiricus was published only at the end of the sixteenth century. The choice of the term “accident” seems unfortunate. As Popkin himself has shown, both translators, Estienne and Hervet, chose to defend their editions on the grounds that they would be useful against misguided religious theories. They were fully aware of the implications of Pyrrhonism in religious controversy. Without the debates inaugurated by the Reformation, they would have been less attracted to Sextus.Google Scholar
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    “The Holy, (Ecumenical and General Synod of Trent ... perceiving that this truth and this discipline are contained in written books and in written traditions, which were received by the Apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or, by the same Apostles, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were handed on and have come down to us; following the example of the orthodox Fathers, this Synod receives and venerates, with equal pious affection and reverence, all the books both of the New and the Old Testaments, since one God is the author of both, together with the said Traditions, as well those pertaining to faith as those pertaining to morals, as having been given either from the lips of Christ or by the dictation of the Holy Spirit and preserved by unbroken succession in the Catholic Church ...” Bettenson, Documents, p. 367. This pronouncement was made by the fourth session of the Council, April 8, 1546.Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    For the development of Luther’s theories and practices in the matter of religious freedom, see Joseph Lecler, S. J., Tolerance and the Reformation, trans. T. L. Westlow, 2 vols. (New York: Associated Press, and London: Longmans, 1960), Bk. III, chaps i, v, and viii.Google Scholar
  13. 4.
    As early as 1530 Sebastian Franck founded his movement on the “invisible and eternal word of God.” The letters of Caspar Schwenkfeld of 1527 and 1528 maintain that there is a gap between the word of God and its expression in sacred writings. What these groups wished to promote above the letter of Scripture was its spirit, or the Holy Spirit of some mystic or invisible church. Such ideas were to be found throughout Europe from the earliest days of the Reformation and caused the Protestants considerable doctrinal embarrassment and political problems. See Lecler, Tolerance, Bk. III, chaps. ii, iii, and Bk. VII, chaps. i, v.Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    Popkin gives an interesting account of the stands taken by Calvin, Luther, and Erasmus : History of Scepticism, pp. 2–9.Google Scholar
  15. 2.
    Busson would like to build a case for a somewhat greater prevalence of skepticism than is likely. Villey, Strowski, and Popkin all agree than no school or continuous tradition of skepticism can be found, but rather a few isolated examples in particular cases. See Busson, Rationalisme, chap. viii, pp. 233–237, and chap. xiii, pp. 410–411 ; Villey, Les Sources et l’évolution des Essais de Montaigne (Paris: Hachette, 1908), II, 165; Fortunat Strowski, Montaigne, 2nd ed. (Paris: Alcan, 1931), pp. 119–146; and Popkin, History of Scepticism, pp. 17–43.Google Scholar
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    See Strowski, pp. 125–130; Villey, II, 166; Popkin, pp. 19–21; and Louis I. Bredvold, The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden, Ann Arbor Paperbacks AA3 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956), pp. 28–29.Google Scholar
  17. 1.
    Villey II, 166. On Agrippa (1486–1535), see Bayle’s article in DHC; Villey, I, 61–62, II, 175–181; Strowski, pp. 130–133; Hayden, pp. 145–154 and passim; Popkin, pp. 23–25; and John Ferguson, Publications of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, XII (1925), 1–23.Google Scholar
  18. 2.
    De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio invectiva ... first published in 1530 at Antwerp.Google Scholar
  19. 3.
    Villey, II, 177–178.Google Scholar
  20. 1.
    Such ideas, and a letter wrongly assigned to Agrippa (cf. Bayle, Dictionnaire, Agrippa N) gave rise to false accusations that Agrippa was a Protestant. Grenier (Œuvres choisies de Sextus Empiricus, p. 25) and Panos P. Morphos in his critical edition of The Dialogues of Guy de Brués, Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, XXX (1953), p. 77, still consider Agrippa a Protestant. Though Cornelius Agrippa was professedly a Catholic, his books did not fare well in the hands of the Church. Condemned by the Sorbonne in 1541, his entire works were proscribed by the Council of Trent in 1564.Google Scholar
  21. 1.
    One interesting case gives incontrovertible proof that Montaigne’s source could only be Agrippa. In the “Apologie” (p. 477a) the essayist refers to “Valentian, ennemy declaré de la science et des lettres,” making two mistakes. The more usual form for the Roman name is Valentinian, and among the three Roman emperors of that name none seems particularly inimical to letters. However, both the error in fact and the misspelled name appear in the editions of Agrippa’s De incertitudine... (chap. I) though the correct spelling occurs in the Opera. No other work that Villey knows gives this error. See his note vol. IV, 237 in the Municipal Edition.Google Scholar
  22. 2.
    The best summary of this period is to be found in Popkin, History of Scepticism, pp. 25–30, whom I follow here. One of the best known passages relative to skepticism is Rabelais’s chapters 35 and 36 of the Tiers Livre, in which Panurge consults the “philosophe éphectique et pyrrhonien” Trouillogan, who answers all Panurge’s questions evasively. His evasions, however, are not the typical dialectic of classical skepticism. At the close of the scene Gargantua suggests that the most learned philosophers of the day belong to the school of the “pyrrhoniens, aporrhéticques, scepticques et éphectiques” (technical terms probably from Diogenes Laertius). Busson cites this as evidence that skepticism was widespread: Rationalisme, pp. 234–235. Popkin’s view that this comic episode should not be given too much weight as a historical or philosophical document seems more sound: History of Scepticism, pp. 21–22. The whole scene is conceivably based on a similar passage in Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale. Google Scholar
  23. 1.
    On Ramus, see Busson, Rationalisme, chap. IX, pp. 266–273.Google Scholar
  24. 2.
    For de Brués, see Panos P. Morphos’ edition of the Dialogues; Villey, II, 169–173; and Popkin, pp. 31–33.Google Scholar
  25. 3.
    Pp. 88 and 113–114 of the original edition. This pagination is given in Morphos’ text and index.Google Scholar
  26. 1.
    See vol. IV of the Municipal Edition, p. xix.Google Scholar
  27. 2.
    Compare Montaigne pp. 5220, 528–529a, and 542a, with Brués pp. 60–61, 79 and 78, and 94 respectively.Google Scholar
  28. 3.
    Sources et évolution, II, 173.Google Scholar
  29. 4.
    Richard H. Popkin, History of Skepticism, pp. 17–18 discusses the manuscripts and printed editions of the works of Sextus.Google Scholar
  30. 1.
    These Introductions are discussed in Popkin, pp. 34–36, 67–68. A French translation of Estienne’s is available in Grenier and Goron’s Œuvres choisis de Sextus Empiricus, pp. 21–24. Latin excerpts from Hervet’s are in Maturin Dreano’s La Pensée religieuse de Montaigne (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne et ses fils, 1936), pp. 256–257.Google Scholar
  31. 2.
    Henri de Mesmes (Henricus Memmius), 1532–1596, seigneur de Roissy and Malassise, later chancellor of the kingdom of Navarre. His memoirs have been published by E. Leroux, La Vie publique et privée de Henri de Mesmes (Paris: E. Leroux, n.d.). In 1570 Montaigne dedicated Etienne de La Boétie’s translation of Plutarch’s “Rules of Marriage” to him. See infra, pp. 39–40.Google Scholar
  32. 1.
    For treatment of several minor authors of the end of the 16th century who indicate an acquaintance with these works, but who are interested more by their historical than philosophic content, see Popkin, pp. 36–38.Google Scholar
  33. 1.
    Villey, Sources et évolution, I, 209–210, finds no material in the Essais of 1580 that comes from the Quod nihil scitur (to explain such a borrowing it would be necessary to assume Montaigne’s familiarity with a manuscript of the work) and only one possible memory of Sanchez in 1588 (the sentence “Je sçay mieux que c’est qu’homme, que je ne sçay que c’est animal, ou mortel, ou raisonnable,” III: xiii, 1046b). A similar idea could have been found in Agrippa (chap. VII).Google Scholar
  34. 2.
    Francisco Sanchez, Opera philosophica, ed. Joaquim Carvalho (Coimbra, 1955), pp. 1–53, gives a convenient modern edition. Strowski’s lively summary, Montaigne, pp. 133–146, is still the best introduction to the work, conveying as it does the vigorous, personal tone of Sanchez’ style.Google Scholar
  35. 1.
    He signed a letter to Clavius “Carneades Philosophus.” See Opera philosophica, pp. 146–153.Google Scholar
  36. 2.
    Hayden, p. 238. Popkin, p. 42, cites other authorities for this opinion, but wishes to reject it, or at least shift the emphasis from Sanchez’ moderate empiricism to his dogmatic skepticism.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

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  • Craig B. Brush

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