One thing we know for sure is the historical timeline. Montaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan was Que sçais-je?
Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including “nothing human is foreign to me” and “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”
Some of Montaigne’s life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.
Montaigne leaps from the page as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.
When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
Sarah Bakewell quotes Montaigne, disabusing us of the false image of him “brooding” in his tower. He was a peripatetic, too: “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” So, like Emerson he might have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”
There’s just something irresistibly alluring about the candid and disarming familiarity of his tone, that’s drawn readers to this original essayist for four and a half centuries and obliterates the long interval between him and us. He makes uncertainty fun.
Also today, we’ll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That’s because science is a trial-and-error affair, making “essays” or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.
To answer some of my own DQs today:
Q: Are there any “authorities” (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional…) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically? A: I don’t think so. Whenever I feel a deferential impulse coming on I remind myself of the Emerson line about young men in libraries…
Q: Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it’s the “best explanation”)? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation? A: Hmmm… The sun will probably rise within the hour. I’m mortal. Life evolves. Yes.
Q: Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why? A: Yes, yes, yes, no. Science is a flawed instrument, because the humans who practice it are finite and fallible; but we have nothing to take its place. We shouldn’t be scientistic, to the neglect of all the other tools in our kit (including poetry, literature, history, humor), but we definitely should be as scientific as we can.
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