Here is one of the great passages in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne:
Let us have a robust manly life, let us know what we know for certain. What we have, let it be solid, and seasonable, and our own. A world in the hand is worth two in the bush. Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.
This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic, this of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting, doubting even that he doubts, least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good. These are no more his moods, than are those of religion and philosophy. He is the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own foe; that conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other. It is a position taken up for better defense, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained, and it is one of more opportunity and range; as, when we build a house, the rule is, to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.
The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility. The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion A theory of Saint John, and of nonresistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial. We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first, and limber as the second. We want a ship, in these billows we inhabit. An angular dogmatic house would be rent to chips, and splinters, in this storm of many elements. No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea. The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwellinghouse is built. Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature. We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errours, houses founded on the sea.
The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players…
The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own, some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success: that he has evinced the temper, stoutness, and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust. For, the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness. Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers. Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having itself a positive quality, some stark and sufficient man…These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.
Emerson here complicates together a remarkable number of lines of thought. It will take me more than one post to identify some and to follow them out. The line of thought I want to identify and follow out now is the characterization of Montaigne’s skepticism Emerson offers.
What strikes me about what Emerson offers is its modulating from an epistemological, through a moral and finally to an existential register. Montaigne’s life is skeptical, he lives skeptically. But that is not to say of his life that it centers on doubt. Like Kierkegaard’s Climacus, Emerson’s Montaigne mistrusts De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. For a skeptic of Montaigne’s sort, any reconsideration on knowledge is not ultimately so much epistemological, an attempt to determine how much, and exactly what, we know, as axiological, a reconsideration of the value and place of knowledge in our lives. What we need, we might say, is shipshape knowledge, knowledge fit for our billowy life. The point is not whether knowledge is possible, but what value knowledge can have in a properly solid and intelligible way of living. The secrets of life do not yield themselves up to epistemological methods, not even the method of doubt, but instead to a life lived in wise limitation–where that limitation is experienced, either by the person living it or those living lives he touches, as a fullness, a kind of charm–as something to rally to. It is not experienced as mere self-denial, as a disownment of robustness, good temper, stoutness. Quite otherwise. The wise limitations limn the soul of man, allowing it to be taken as the blueprint for a house always already launched on the sea, built and rebuilt afloat. It is with the sea that we need to find sympathy and likeness.
We believe that above the surface of the water, in the sky, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success; we believe that below the surface of the water, in the depths, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success. But a world in the hand–on the surface of the waters–is worth two in the bush, whether we figure the bush as sky or depths. We want to live without having to adapt, despite the fact that adapting is what we do, natural to us. But Montaigne will have us adapt, have us exercise our skills and strive for success. Compared to the bush-worlds, the world Montaigne tells us we are in is a world in which we must be gamesters, must be game. But we can play the odds, so to speak, and build neither too high nor too low. We may not have security but we can defend ourselves. Our seafaring lives can be both stark and sufficient.