I made it through the longest portion of the Apology, dear readers! And while it was as depressing and sermonistically strident as the preceding 60 pages, some light popped up at the end of the tunnel!
This segment of the Apology — go back to previous installments of this series (1 and 2) for the background on this part of Montaigne’s essays — is titled by our translator as Man has no knowledge (pages 449-508 in this edition) and examines the failures and inconsistencies of philosophy to explain, um, anything. M. focuses on the Greeks, which makes given the state of philosophy at the time he was writing. He breaks out three schools of “wise men,” since his project is to show that the learning of man is worthless. Or, as he puts it:
To really learned men has happened what happens to ears of wheat: they rise high and lofty, heads erect and proud, as long as they are empty; but when they are full and swollen with grain in their ripeness, they begin to grow humble and lower their horns. Similarly, men who have tried everything and sounded everything, having found in that pile of knowledge and store of so many various things nothing solid and firm, and nothing but vanity, have renounced their presumption and recognized their natural condition.
Back to the three schools. We have:
- “Peripatetics, Epicureans and Stoics . . . [who] established the sciences we have, and treated them as certain knowledge,
- “the Academics . . . [who] despaired of their quest and judged that truth could not be conceived by our powers,
- “[Pyrrhonians and] Skeptics . . . [who] say that they are still in search of the truth . . . [and] judge that those who think they have found it are infinitely mistaken.”
M. starts out by denying skeptics their skepticism, concluding that their radical doubt is too aware of itself to truly be doubt. He also contends that their doubt is purely for argument: “They use their reason to inquire and debate, but not to conclude and choose.” To M., the doubts of the skeptics are about the branches, and not the root.
Throughout the section, the core of his argument remains that the nature of the infinite is so far beyond our senses that our reason can’t hope to grasp it. It’s only our faith that brings us close, while reason’s presumption separates us from that higher self: “All that we undertake without his assistance, all that we see without the lamp of his grace, is only vanity and folly.”
M. contends that, if forced to bestow a material body on the divine, he would have worshiped the sun, since “[besides] its grandeur and beauty, it is the part of this machine that we find farthest from us, and therefore so little known that [its ancient worshipers] were to be pardoned for regarding it with wonder and reverence.” He later remarks that it’s such folly to personify the diving that he’d prefer to worship a god patterned after a serpent, dog, or ox.
This point follows an entertaining segment where M. lists no fewer than 25 philosophers and each one’s view on God and the divine (some of which have multiple views on such). The point, of course, is that these were the greatest minds of their time, and they couldn’t settle on an idea of the divine.
From there, he lambastes them for coming no closer to an understanding of man. If anything, he opines, shouldn’t we have knowledge of ourselves?
It’s a long and exhausting chapter, especially when M. turns his attention to Aristotle. I was inclined to think he wrote that section in a particularly boring style to mimic Aristotle’s notes, but that may’ve just been my own wandering attention. By the time I reached its conclusion, I wondered why he needed to go on at such length, to dismiss so many targets, unless his commission was paying by the word.
* * *
I found myself greatly relieved at the conclusion, not only because It’s Finally Over, but also because it leads into a two-page passage that the translator titles Warning to the Princess (the Apology being written for Princess Margaret of Valois). In this brief segment, it’s as if the mask falls from M. He admits that the Apology is “so long a work contrary to my custom” and proceeds to distill his message:
People are right to give the tightest possible barriers to the human mind. In study, as in everything else, its steps must be counted and regulated for it; the limits of the chase must be artificially determined for it. They bridle and bind it with religions, laws, customs, science, precepts, mortal and immortal punishments and rewards; and still we see that by its whirling and its incohesiveness it escapes all these bonds. It is an empty body, with nothing by which it can be seized and directed; a varying and formless body, which can be neither tied nor grasped.
Indeed there are few souls so orderly, so strong and wellborn, that they can be trusted with their own guidance, and that can sail with moderation and without temerity, in the freedom of their judgments, beyond the common opinions. It is more expedient to place them in tutelage.
The mind is a dangerous blade, even to its possessor, for anyone who does not know how to wield it with order and discretion.
It’s not a sentiment I necessarily agree with, but I’m happy that M. is able to cut it down to a few paragraphs this way. Still, there are another 46 pages ahead comprising five more sections, so I’m afraid it’ll be another week before I can build up some enthusiasm for this project.