Michel de Montaigne and the Philosophy of the RenaissanceJune 27, 2021
He is one of the most important artists of the Renaissance and French literature. He is considered one of the pioneers of free thinking.
One of the first names that comes to mind when it comes to Renaissance humanism is Montaigne (1533-1592), who is considered to be the representative of skeptical humanism. He was born in the Montaigne castle near Bordeaux, France, and died in the same place. Like all Renaissance humanists, he learned Latin and Greek at an early age. He studied law and worked as a council in the Parliament. He owes his real permanence to the humanist ideas he put forward in his work called Essays, which is accepted as his masterpiece. With this work, he popularized the essay genre and gained a respectable place in world literature. He is known as the “father of modern skepticism” for the quality of his thoughts. He influenced many names such as Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Asimov and Shakespeare.
He begins his essays by asking the famous skeptical question: “What do I know?” In the light of this question, he begins to question the world through his own power of judgment. Meanwhile, he has struck a fine balance between rational knowledge and personal storytelling. These two features have enabled him to communicate easily with the modern reader. In terms of his intellectual development, Montaigne was influenced by Pyrrhon, the first skeptical thinker of antiquity, and by Sextos Empeirikos, the great skeptic of the Hellenistic age. These thinkers of antiquity used the term ‘skepticism’ in a sense different from its modern sense. The term was understood in Montaigne’s time as being in a skeptical state of mind; accordingly, to doubt that anything can be known with certainty is to be in a skeptical state of mind.
According to Montaigne, however, the founder of skepticism in Antiquity, Pyrrhon did not formulate a strict doctrine about what people can and cannot know, or what exists and what does not. Thus, Montaigne found in the attitude of the classical skeptics a recipe for a liberating style of everyday life: the central point of classical skepticism was to be in an investigative mental state accompanied by a desire to live a fully exemplary life. This was also Montaigne’s primary interest. What he was particularly interested in was a lifestyle in which he could constantly discover new meanings and at the same time use all the powers he had as a human being. Meanwhile, Montaigne himself did not put forward hard ideas, he thought that the way of life he wanted would not be possible if he attached himself to some teachings that could raise reasonable objections. Because he felt that many problems did not have a clear solution. For example, “What is the true nature of things?” that constantly troubled pre-Socratic philosophers. Questions such as the question seem to be doomed to remain unanswered. Montaigne discovered that there was a liberating force in these explanations of the skeptics. According to this, no one can make a definite decision about any doctrine, but he can say that he is in a constant research attitude. Attitudes claiming to have attained absolute and unwavering truth only reveal fanaticism and dogmatism.
“What do I know?” Montaigne asked. He sets out with the question and in the light of this question, he attempts to question the world through his own power of judgment.
Following classical skepticism, Montaigne cared to be in an investigative mental state where he could use all his human faculties for exemplary living.
He laments the frightening examples of fanaticism in Montaigne’s time: long-standing religious wars, religious persecution and torture are clear examples of this fanaticism. Again, the general behavior of the period in society becomes evident at the point of inhumanity and betrayal. All these perversions of behavior aimed at instilling horror and fear are the product of fanaticism. The loss of inner peace of the human soul in this period is reflected in the social turmoil. Montaigne clung to skepticism, sincerely believing that a constructive skepticism could prevent such outbursts of cruelty. According to him, in the right skeptical attitude, human energy can be directed towards controllable issues and goals. In this respect, Montaigne advised people to start with their own philosophy of life by thinking about the issues closest to them, instead of dealing with the unknowns about the universe and its destiny. He states that the best starting point for this is to start from one’s own experiences. Because “every person carries a whole human condition within himself.” In this respect he is convinced that anything that proves useful to one person can be seen as useful to another. In keeping with the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne tried to put forward a clear and unambiguous discourse on the natural and normal actions of people, denying the fuzzy and ambiguous technical jargon. However, in this respect, he criticizes Aristotelians such as Ficino and Hebraeus: “When my daily actions are handled by Aristotle, I cannot understand most of them”.