Montaigne and Human Folly

In the opening note to the reader in Montaigne’s Essays, the author suggests, since the Essays are only about the experiences and ruminations of Michel de Montaigne himself, that it is folly to read further. Montaigne was quite right, of course. The Essays are all about folly, both personal and human, and to read them is to look into a mirror of the absurd.

Montaigne’s ultimate expression of human folly is found in his longest essay, the Apology for Raymond Sebond, which is found in book two of the Essays. This essay is an extensive diatribe against human pretention and ignorance. Influenced by the classical Skeptics and Cynics (or Pyrrhonists), especially Seneca and Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne questions the bases of human thought, and the notion, proved erroneous over and again, that humans are the superior creature on Earth, far above all other animal life, and closest to the spiritual realm, the angels, saints, and God Himself. “The participation we have in the knowledge of truth,” Montaigne claims, “such as it is, is not acquired by our own force; God has sufficiently given us to understand that, by the witnesses he has chosen out of the common people, simple and ignorant men, that he has been pleased to employ to instruct us in his admirable secrets. Our faith is not of our own acquiring; it is purely the gift of another’s bounty; it is not by meditation, or virtue of our own understanding, that we have acquired our religion, but by foreign authority and command; wherein the imbecility of our own judgment does more assist us than any force of it; and our blindness more than our clearness of sight: it is more by the mediation of our ignorance than of our knowledge that we know anything of the divine wisdom.” In support, Montaigne quotes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which the Apostle argues persuasively that human wisdom is nothing compared to God, whose foolishness is greater than anything that humans can conceive.

Montaigne’s Essays are filled with examples of human folly. For example, the perplexing role of personal experience in human experience: can one person represent the whole? If so, why should we study other humans, in the past and present, in thought, society, and emotions, in the social and behavioral sciences and humanities, if self-study is the ultimate form of knowing? An extension of this question is the debate between subjective and objective knowledge: how can I know an other better than my self? And isn’t time, as a result, complete foolishness, to think that we can actually know by means of tracing the sequence of events. As Augustine taught, human time is but an extension of personal time. Or, as Marcus Aurelius taught, how can the duration of time, the duration of life, have meaning if there is no meaning beyond the individual moment? Montaigne constantly juxtaposed the folly of gauging life by the approach of death; his obsession with his illness, the kidney stone, and perception of the nearness of death occupied his thoughts, ruled his fears, and shadowed his life. What is death, anyway, and why is it that humans fear something that is so completely unfamiliar and unknown?

Montaigne’s own time of the 16th century was filled with the debate between piety and faith versus doubt and skepticism. Although great thinkers were lauding human knowledge, Montaigne could not but respond: “The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and rivetted to the worst and deadest part of the universe; . . . and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. It is by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit.“

Credulity battles incredulity among the knowledgeable and ignorant, skeptics and pious, scientists and clergy. The subtle struggles incumbent upon time, the body, ignorance, and sin, lead us to credulity (that all is good and lasting) and periodic incredulity (doubt and skepticism that all is good and lasting); credulity (that we actually know things) and incredulity (doubt springing from real ignorance living in time); credulity (that life will continue no matter what) and incredulity (when we finally die); credulity (that all of our sins make sense and are justified) and incredulity (when afterwards we realize how evil we are and what consequences our sins bring); credulity (believing that God exists) and incredulity (realizing that God exists); credulity (believing that nature is perfect) and incredulity (realizing that in nature’s imperfection is perfection); credulity (believing in God’s will, in providence) and incredulity (realizing that within the scope of human history there is such pattern and continuity that proves the presence of divine goodness and guidance).

Although scholars have long suggested that Montaigne was so much a skeptic and cynic as to disbelieve anything, including God, such an argument is the ultimate folly. Montaigne could even accept the miraculous, when God circumvents his own laws of nature. What is folly to God is overwhelming to us; what is folly to us is God’s truth. Life reeks with the absurd, the senseless, the ridiculous, and yet our experiences lead us to realize that there is an overwhelming, unrecognized truth in life. This is the ultimate truth of life’s folly.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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