The Continental Background
Sometime during the 1570s, at his hilltop château in southwestern France, Michel de Montaigne wrote that ‘Whoever seekes for anything, commeth at last to this conclusion and saith that either he hath found it, that it cannot be found, or that he is still in pursuit after it’ (Florio, 448). When Montaigne’s remarkable book of essays was subsequently published in 1580, few of its readers would have known that this particular idea had been lifted wholesale from the Hellenistic sceptic Sextus Empiricus. Virtually all of them, however, would have seen that Montaigne’s sympathies lay principally with the active seekers, those ‘still in pursuit’. And in John Florio’s Elizabethan translation of the Essays, English readers would have experienced the same response, for Montaigne’s impatience with dogmatic assertion readily transcends linguistic barriers. Thus it was, sixty years after the onset of Reformation debate, that an idiosyncratic Frenchman living in rural retirement initiated a curious and sustained engagement with the scepticism of antiquity — an engagement that not only shaped his life but helped to charge the intellectual atmosphere of Europe during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Yet the story of how Montaigne came to read Sextus, and how England came to read them both, begins much earlier.
KeywordsSixteenth Century Sceptical Argument Christian Doctrine Late Sixteenth Greek Manuscript
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