"In our day, perhaps the most important lesson Montaigne has to teach is the need to regard all systems, all general ideas, all 'isms' with extreme and comic dubiety." Joseph Epstein, Life Sentences
The Holy House of Loreto
In 1291, a little house appeared in northern Italy, near the Balkans. People were overjoyed.
Then in 1294, the little house disappeared and popped up in eastern Italy, on a field owned by two brothers, who began to argue about the profits they would make off it. The house vanished and the next day was found atop a public road near the town of Loreto, on the Adriatic. The locals erected bricks around it so it wouldn’t fall down. Word got out. Pilgrims started to arrive. In 1469, a large basilica was built over the little house to accommodate the throngs.
The Basilica of the Holy House enshrines the house where Mary conceived Jesus Christ and where the Holy Family lived. It was a pilgrimage site in Nazareth until 1291. It then vanished as the Mamelukes were extinguishing the last-remaining Crusader kingdom at Acre (you can get from Acre to Nazareth today in about 45 minutes along Route 79).
No one knows how the house got to Italy. Tradition says angels simply picked it up and moved it, which by the evidence is the most plausible explanation unless your worldview excludes angels, in which case, you’d probably opt for the theory that the wealthy Angeli family arranged and paid the moving expenses. Over the years, the Angeli family's beneficence blended with divine intervention to give us the angel theory.
Regardless of how it got there, it attracted a ton of attention. In the 1500s, as the Reformation raged, the greatest leaders of the Catholic Reformation made pilgrimages to it: St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Carlo Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales.
And St. Michel de Montaigne.
Alright, that last one isn’t quite accurate. Montaigne was never remotely considered for canonization and he wasn’t a leader of the Catholic Reformation, but he made that pilgrimage to see the Holy House of Loreto in 1581. He spent three days there, went to Mass, listened to pilgrims’ tales of miraculous cures, and left behind three silver figurines (representing his Secular Family) as an ex-votos offering.[i]
It’s a historical and biographical aberration. It would almost be like learning that Hugh Heffner spent three respectful days at an abstinence conference and then made a donation to the cause.
Montaigne, you see, is the godfather of modern skepticism.
He lived from 1533 to 1592, the son of a long line of successful merchants. His father arranged for him to have a unique and impressive early education, which included him speaking Latin exclusively until age six. He studied law and served in local government in Bordeaux, where his father was mayor.
When his father died in 1568, Montaigne became lord over the family estates. In 1570, he retired from public duties and went into a tower to experiment with a new kind of literary format. He became the world’s first essayist, producing some 107 essays (translated: “attempts”), ranging in length from one page to 200 pages, covering a myriad of topics, but revolving around a central theme:
Montaigne’s essays are intensely autobiographical, in their own way.
Indeed, you might say they are exclusively autobiographical.
Because that’s all Montaigne trusted:
What Do I Know?
Montaigne distrusted all dogmas and all systems.
His signature phrase: Que sais-je: What do I know?
His answer: Nothing, only the machinations of my own mind.
For Montaigne, his judgment was the ultimate criterion. He trusted nothing else and he told his readers they should trust nothing else: “There is a plague on man: his opinion that he knows something.”
He didn’t even trust logic because, he quipped, logic provided no consolation for gout.[ii]He ridiculed the Catholic Scholasticism that still largely controlled education but had no truck with Protestant reformers. He detested all systems and would’ve vomited at the parade of logocentric ideas that was modernity.
He apparently accepted fundamental Catholic orthodoxy on simple faith and he believed in God, but that was about all he believed, except for the judgments of his own mind, which he never attempted to impose on anyone else.
Montaigne’s was what might be called a “negative skepticism.”
He didn’t think he knew anything and acted accordingly: he didn’t try to convince anyone of anything; he didn’t devise grand plans. He was Pyrrho of Elis incarnate, picked up and moved like the Holy House of Loreto from BC 4th-century Greece to 16th-century France.
In the words of Etienne Gilson about Montaigne:
[T]he only thing we can learn from him is the art of unlearning. It is very important, and nowhere is it better learned than in the Essays; the trouble with the Essays is that they never teach anything else.[iii]
Descartes: Surely, There Must be Something More?
Montaigne’s Essays were popular immediately and remained popular. Their negative skepticism was the fashionable way of thinking in Europe. The elite had gone from patronizing court magiciansin the 15th century, to suffering the Reformation’s turmoil, to embracing a thorough skepticism that resulted in a practical conservatism: don’t try to mold, change, or create anything grand. Just mind your own business: that’s the only business you have any hope of minding effectively.
It was too much for Renee Descartes, whose groundbreaking Discourse on Method was an “echo” (Gilson) of the Essays.
Descartes couldn’t stand Montaigne’s negative skepticism and the practical conservatism that naturally flowed from it, so he set out to offer something positive.
Montaigne rhetorically asked, “What do I know,” but Descartes asked it in earnest. He found one thing he could know: I think, therefore I am.
After that, he concluded that he could be certain God existed and that He was good and, therefore, He wouldn’t cause Descartes’ senses to be deceived about its observations and, therefore, Descartes could trust empirical evidence, with the further caveat that all conclusions from such evidence are subject to the judgment of one’s subjective beliefs, and so on.
Voila! There was now a system in place that was naturally skeptical of anything outside itself but was sufficiently “positive” that people could logically begin to construct something more than the resignation intrinsic to Montaigne’s negative skepticism.
Montaigne Might Have Been the First Superfluous Man
Montaigne’s negative skepticism has had a long line of adherents over the centuries, from David Hume in the 18th century to Albert Jay Nock in the 20th. After the recent epidemic debacle by “the science” and the public authorities who wielded science like a weapon, it appears negative skepticism is enjoying a swell in popularity. The folks at 4Chan, for instance, seem to be a group of funny young men (probably gamers[iv]) that Montaigne would’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
But that line of negative skepticism has been thin. It’s been an un-influential legacy. By their internal logic, negative skeptics don’t get worked up about much. They loathe public affairs and scoff at politics. As a result, they tend to be superfluous men, like those 19th-century Russian writers who were superfluous to autocratic society and sought inspiration in the private sphere, even to the point of writing largely for their desk drawers.[v]When asked about how he would improve society, Albert Jay Nock said he would improve the only unit he can: himself.
That’s a great echo of Montaigne, but it doesn’t do much to galvanize action. Nock, understandably, has ever since been resented by activists on the right for it[vi]and he, with Montaigne, have exerted virtually no discernible influence on western civilization. Bacon, Descartes, Marx, Nietzsche: all influencers. Montaigne and Co.? Influencer bankruptcy; an Instagram account with a paltry number of non-influencer followers.
It’s too bad. As Gilson noted in the above quote, the “art of unlearning” is very important. Modernity would’ve become a far better place if Montaigne’s negative skepticism had higher visibility.
Instead, Montaigne’s skepticism created a vacuum that startled Descartes into filling it with, literally, ideas. Those ideas apotheosized into the parade of little gods that drove western civilization into virtually every ditch, from Hitler/Stalin/Mao to bureaucratic overreach, from nuclear weapons to drugging kids.
Sure, modern dentistry has been a great blessing, but it’s a small consolation for those who pulverize their teeth at night due to the stress of modern life.
[i]Carlos Eire, Reformations (Yale, 2016), 406.
[ii]Joseph Epstein, “Reading Montaigne,” Commentary Magazine, March 1993.
[iii] The Unity of Philosophical Experience(Ignatius, 1999), 101.
[iv]See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies (Zero Books, 2017).
[v]Robert Crunden, The Superfluous Men (ISI Books, 1999), xvii.
[vi]See Jonah Goldberg’s “Mortal Remains,” National Review, May 4, 2009.