Skepticism is superstition with the signs reversed. –John Wisdom, Other Minds (p. 190).
Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. I got distracted from that and moved on to other things. But I am going to get back to it now. Look for more posts in the coming days. In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.
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.
To convince someone that what he really sees is sense-data, it won’t do to ply him with arguments while he is doubtful about what he sees. If he questions his own eyes, he will be in no receptive state for your gospel—your good news about a medium of unvarnished news. You can insist; he will blink and rub his eyes. He takes himself to be in a poor position to see something. You do not aid him by insisting that he is a perfect position to see something poor. He wants to move closer, to turn on a light, to visit an optometrist. You want him to listen to argument. To convince him you need him convicted by his sight. He needs to take himself to be in optimal conditions for seeing. He should stare and not blink; rub his head and not his eyes. He should not doubt his eyes; he should doubt sans phrase. He should not feel compelled to move closer, to turn on a light or to visit an optometrist. He should listen to your argument while staring fixedly at whatever he takes himself to see. Sense-data only show themselves to doubt sans phrase. Seeing them requires vision mixed with argument. They hide themselves from someone who simply doubts his eyes.
What should be said about the way Montaigne writes? He writes essays–as he says, if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays, he would make decisions, but his mind is always in apprenticeship and on trial. On apprenticeship and on trial: what Montaigne says of his mind I apply to his words. His words are on apprenticeship and on trial. His words are apprenticed to his subject, they are on trial by their use. The question is: will this word do? Do what it needs to do, stand the test it must stand, carry the burden it must carry. Above all, his words must portray passing, not being. They must be capable of illumining the moment of obligation in experience, where ‘moment’ means both a brief period of time and an important point in a course of development. But they must be able to do so in a way that does not make of the moment of obligation anything that steps free of the experience, that steps free of time. Even the moment of obligation in experience passes. So his words must be chosen in such a way that they do not arrest time or run from it.
One of the deepest peculiarities of Montaigne’s essays is that they too pass in time, in his time and in the reader’s time. Consider the way in which most essays are organized spatially and not temporally, even where on occasion their logico-rhetorical form is temporal. Most essays are written in such a way that the entire essay is to be understood as ultimately present to the reader’s mind all at once, in a timeless present, as it were. The introduction to the essay is not earlier than the body, or the body earlier than the conclusion; no, the introduction is above the body, which in turn is above the conclusion. Although it may take the reader time to work from top to bottom, all the parts of the essay are compresent, and understanding it means coming to hold all its parts together in compresence, in what Augustine might have called the present of the present, available to one contemporary summary observation. But Montaigne’s essays pass. The introduction become the past of the body which becomes the past of the conclusion. Each part jettisons the earlier part, takes its place in the present. The essay is thus not available to observation, but instead to memory, where it is still not present all at once, but rather passes in review.
Now I should say that I am not venturing into the metaphysics of composition or of reading here. Instead I am picturing two different processes and two different understandings of composition and reading. The crucial idea is that the parts of Montaigne’s essays replace each other, they do not exist together with the other parts. That does not mean that the earlier parts do not bear on the later, but rather that they bear on the later parts in a different way. Montaigne changes as he writes the essay. Sometimes he intends to change; sometimes he just does. And the moment of obligation in his experience changes too. So what he writes now may not agree or harmonize with what he wrote earlier. But since what he is presently writing supplants what he wrote earlier, he sees no reason to treat the disagreement as vitiating the essay. The essay may contradict or be in tension with itself but it does not contradict and is not in tension with the truth. The conclusion of his essay concludes the essay but it is not a conclusion in the logical sense. The essay starts and ends but its beginning is not a function of its ending in any argumentative sense, although the beginning and the ending are thematically united, united by subject.
The essay I have been leaning on as I have written this is Montaigne’s “Of Repentance”. I have been leaning particularly on its opening paragraphs. That essay’s title provides a way of focusing what I have been struggling to say. Montaigne’s words are always in apprenticeship and trial. Because of this, Montaigne writes so as not to have to repent for his essays: He does not teach, he tells. He tells us what he sees as he sees it. What Montaigne tells now may contradict what he told earlier, or at any rate may not chime perfectly with it, but what he tells now never contradicts him–he remains always in creative fidelity to himself. He also remains in creative fidelity to the relevant moment of obligation in experience. But he does not worry about remaining in creative fidelity with what he has already told; that is, in an important sense, gone. He did his best with it as he does with what he is telling, but he is no longer responsible to it.
Spending time trying to unify a Montaigne essay wastes time. If an essay is out of agreement with itself, then it is. There is no deeper unity. But that does not mean that each essay is out of agreement with itself. It may be that the later parts of the essay are such that, although they do not follow from the earlier, they follow the earlier, in the sense that they progressively enrich and deepen the creative fidelity of Montaigne’s treatment of himself and of his subject.
Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion–the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing more than a languid motion.
One of the most remarkable paragraphs in Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Montaigne is this, the final paragraph in the section on Montaigne’s religion, his Christianity.
What he retains of Christianity is the vow of ignorance. Why assume hypocrisy in the places where he puts religion above criticism? Religion is valuable in that it saves a place for what is strange and knows our lot is enigmatic. All solutions it gives to the enigma are incompatible with our monstrous condition. As a questioning, it is justified on the condition that it remain answerless. It is one of the modes of our folly, and our folly is essential to us. When we put not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence, we can neither obliterate the dream of an other side of things nor repress the wordless invocation of this beyond. What is certain is that if there is some universal Reason we are not in on its secrets, and are in any case required to guide ourselves by our own lights. ‘In ignorance and negligence I let myself be guided to the general way of the world. I will know it well enough when I perceive it.’ Who would dare to reproach us for making use of this life and world which constitute our horizon?
I am in almost complete agreement with this. (My disagreements should show through in what I am about to say.) One of the accomplishments of the paragraph is that it reveals Montaigne’s skepticism finally to be (what I am calling) Church-Man’s skepticism. Merleau-Ponty inscribes into the paragraph Montaigne’s lexicon of Church-Man’s skepticism: ‘ignorance’, ‘strange’, ‘our lot’, ‘enigmatic’, ‘monstrous’, ‘question’, ‘answerless’, ‘folly’, ‘secret’. Montaigne’s skepticism has an epistemic side, and so can avail itself of failures to know of a standard epistemic sort, and subsequently use those failures to humble our pretensions to certain (forms of) knowledge. This is one form of ignorance and one use of it relevant to Church-Man’s skepticism. But Church-Man’s skepticism centers on existential, not epistemological, ignorance: on not-knowing classified best as ‘alienation’ or ‘restlessness’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. This skepticism is not one that construes religion, Christianity, as providing solutions or as yielding a self-satisfied understanding. It construes religion as acknowledging mysteries, acknowledging our monstrous condition. Its questioning is justified, then; as questioning of a mystery, it remains answerless. (Not all answerless questioning need dehort.) This is Christianity’s vow of ignorance. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. A familiar passage; but not often enough reflected upon. It stresses asymmetry: I now see God’s face through a glass, darkly. God now sees my face, face-to-face free of any darkling glass. (A strange one-way mirror that has only one side.) Now I know in part, I know partly. God now knows in total, He knows totally. We long for symmetry. Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.
And of course we will have to guide ourselves by our own lights—but we need remember that not every light we count as ours is one we lit or one we power. No one should dare reproach us for making use of this life and world. What else do we have, here under the sun? As the Church-Man says (in Ecclesiastes 3):
So I became aware that it is best for man to busy himself here to his own content; this and nothing else is his alloted portion; who can show him what the future will bring?
In my days of baffled enquiry, I have seen pious men ruined for all their piety, and evil-doers live long in all their wickedness. Why then, do not set too much store by piety, not play the wise man to excess, if thou wouldst not be bewildered over thy lot. Yet plunge not deep in evil-doing; eschew folly; else thou shalt perish before thy time. To piety thou must needs cling; yet live by that other caution too; fear God, and thou hast left no duty unfulfilled.
We cannot help but to orient ourselves, or to dream of orienting ourselves, on something above the sun, some other side of things to which we make constant wordless appeal. And so fulfillment, surely our own, perhaps not our duty’s, is denied us. What we find here under the sun is not valueless, but it’s value is not full. We live amongst valuable vanities. We are fools in the farce who eschew folly. We are wonders, mysteries, to ourselves.
In Bk III, Montaigne’s skepticism is not something he has, an acquisition; it is something that he is, a state of being. Call it, if you will, a nisus (in F. R. Leavis’ sense of that term), a profound, unwilled set of Montaigne’s whole being. Unwilled: for there is no striving in it, no stretching, in particular no self-assertion or desire to exalt himself; it is ripe with a joyful tranquility. It is a nisus toward the total truth. But there is no hurry, no hurry; hurry would slow him down. He fondly and patiently contemplates himself and his life and life. Each essay is a new elucidation of our human being. He writes out of a prodigious lucidity, exhibiting himself to himself (and so exhibiting us to ourselves) across a living width of aspects.
He writes under the sign of Socrates. Socrates’ labor (think of the Oracle and of his understanding of it) is to dismantle double ignorance: the state of those who think they know but do not know. Simple ignorance, simply not knowing, typically need not be considered vicious. Its remedy is most often obvious and requires only time and application. Double ignorance is vicious; in it, simple ignorance teams with pride. Socrates attacks double ignorance and scorns the consequences of attacking it, drawing wisdom and courage from unknown deeps in himself. His highest hope is to attain to a genuinely humble mind–where the humility is simultaneously and wholly epistemological and moral. He hopes this for his interlocutor as well. Thomas De Quincy writes,
Without hands a man might have feet and could still walk: but, consider it, –without morality, intellect were impossible for him; a thoroughly immoral man could not know a thing at all! To know a thing, what we can call knowlng, a man must first love the thing, sympathize with it: that is, be virtuously related to it. If he have not the justice to put down his own selfishness at every turn, the courage to stand by the dangerous-true at every turn, how shall he know? His virtues, all of them, will lie recorded in his knowledge.
Socrates’ elenchus targets unacknowledged ignorance; to accept aporia is to be humbled both epistemologically and morally. Is accepting aporia enough to qualify as a skeptic? Well, say what you will. I deem there is no reason to refuse that title to someone who accepts aporia. Notice that, like everything else, accepting aporia has its conditions. Crucially, someone who accepts aporia recognizes that he has bottomed out, bottomed out in knowledge, bottomed out in pride, and is now ready to go on. Aporia ends nothing, except perhaps an episode of conversation; in reality, it is a beginning. Its valence is positive, not negative; the sun is rising, not setting. Aporia marks the moment when we come to see that what we are contending with is a mystery, not a problem. —If this be skepticism, what more can be said about it? It is a skepticism that is turned against worldly wisdom, not a skepticism that is a form of worldly wisdom. By the standards of worldly wisdom, Euthyphro knows and is rightly proud of what he knows. By the standards of worldly wisdom, Callicles knows and is rightly proud of what he knows. Socrates will not judge or be judged by those standards.
Montaigne’s Bk III essays are skeptical in this way, this Socratic way. To read the essays is to become Montaigne’s interlocutor. The essays are designed to create aporia in the reader, and to bring about its acceptance. To almost quote John Berryman:
Wif an essay of Montaigne’s in either hand
We are stript down to move on