I ask of any book three basic questions:
1.Is it human centered or god-centered?
2.Is it this world-centered or other world-centered?
3.Is it optimistic or pessimistic?
When it passes all the three tests by adopting the former of the pairs, I take the book and read it. One can ask: How can you judge before reading it? It is quite simple. Read the contents and the blurbs…
Michel de Montaigne passed all the three of my tests with flying colors. I took to him. I don’t remember how many times I have gone through his Essays. Maybe a few hundreds of times. I possess more than a dozen copies of the book in all of its translations. (Florio, screech, cotton, Strowski, Hazlitt, Donald Frame, Cohen) in all of its editions. It has always been one of my top ten books.
It is my custom to show my gratitude to my mentors either by speech or writing. I take this opportunity to thank my French master. How much I have learnt from the wisest French man that ever lived, the master who could teach Francis Bacon, Shakespeare and Descartes the basic lessons of life and philosophy, I cannot say.
The American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Montaigne as the true representative of skepticism in his famous essay ‘Montaigne the Skeptic.’ In his personal life, Emerson took the French thinker as his role model and said the Essays of Montaigne was his constant companion and his bedside book. He replaced his Bible with the Essays.
Emerson hailed from a long line of Christian preachers. He himself was a preacher for some years at the beginning of his career, because he was trained for it. But he abandoned it for secular public speaking on non-religious topics such as literature, politics, culture, humanism and finally mysticism which he called transcendental philosophy. In all of these he was imitating Montaigne.
Not only Emerson, in fact all the philosophers such as Descartes, David Hume and Spinoza and writers like Voltaire and Goethe, who came after him, read him with delight. They were much influenced and radically transformed by his skeptical turn of thought. The most famous example was Shakespeare. Through Florio’s translation the English bard imbibed the poison of the Frenchman and adopted his anti-religious views as his philosophy. When the original ideas of skepticism and emphasis upon this worldly life were expressed in marvelous poetic English, it gained him universal acclaim. Along with his philosophical ideas in some of his essays such as ‘Experience’ and ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ Montaigne wrote on such silly things as impotency of men and his urinary bladder stones. And he never mentioned the name of Christ though he showed and posed himself to the external world as a true christian by kissing the foot of the then Pope. Shakespeare did the same in his plays. Occasionally, like the French thinker, he also used vulgar and bawdy scenes and language. Somehow he understood unconsciously that this mixture of sublimity and vulgarity would have a universal appeal since society consisted not only of intellectuals but more of common illiterate laymen. He needed this device more than the French writer. Because unlike Montaigne who was only a writer of essays, Shakespeare was a writer of plays addressing the public directly. Again it was the reason why he mixed tragedy and comedy as against the classical rule of Aristotle’s poetics. The credit for this invention of Shakespeare must go to the French Master from whom the English playwright plagiarized the technique.
Not only Shakespeare but his great contemporary Francis Bacon the empiricist philosopher and the inventor of the experimental method in science owed a lot to the French master.
Long before Soren Kierkegaard found fault with the raising of superficial, grand edifices of philosophical systems such as those of Kant and Hegel and upheld the superiority of stray thoughts and intuitive insights of truth. Montaigne had practiced the method successfully. The Danish Philosopher had only put the hidden idea into words. The credit for this method must go to the French essayist.
Montaigne is usually given an important place in the history of ideas but not in the history of philosophy. Even Bertrand Russell who devoted an entire chapter on the English romantic poet Lord Byron for his ‘Byronic unhappiness’, refused or forgot to mention Montaigne the greater philosopher. In fact one writer names four great poets of the world (i) Plato (ii) Montaigne (iii) Malebranche and (iv) Lord Shaftesbury for their sublime and poetic ideas and their telling expressions though not in poetical form. Montaigne might not have been an academic philosopher but his essays produced many philosophers like Descartes, Bacon, Spinoza and many others. When he was put behind bears in the Bastille, he was released on the same day, on the request of Catherine de Medici who held him in high esteem as the usherer of renaissance movement in France. Factually and historically it was true.
In the history of ideas which shaped the course of western culture, the shift from other worldliness to this worldliness was very important. It was a great leap in the collective unconscious of the people. How did it happen?
For more than a millennium christian religion had asserted the prime value in life as reaching heaven after death and had taught that life in this world was a trial period only. But during the renaissance, ancient classics in Greek and Latin were printed and circulated. The ancient authors emphasized the beauty and enjoyment of living this human life fully and had shown all the ways to achieve such a noble and happy life through art, music, philosophy and science. But the message did not reach the masses. For they were unable to read the originals. When Montaigne who had mastered Latin and was well versed in the classics of both Greek and Latin wrote in vernacular French and adorned his writings with a lot of quotations with their translations, the public glimpsed the beauty and true wisdom of the ancients through the window of Montaigne and were delighted. Even great minds like Malebranche did not understand this point when he criticized the Essays as a long, boring string of historical anecdotes and classical quotations in poetry. That was wanted by the public and Montaigne provided them with an abundance of such nourishment. The great Shakespeare who ‘knew little Greek and less Latin’ was able to compose great plays taking place in ancient times like ‘Timon of Athens’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ etc. benefited from such translations of the ancient masters. If this was the case with Shakespeare we could imagine the immense pleasure and great expectations of the common people. No wonder, Montaigne’s Essays became the new Bible of the people.
In the twentieth Century, the British and American philosophers accused the continental philosophers particularly the French philosophers that they were not practicing philosophers but writing literature and literary criticism. The accusation had some truth in it. For the French had a long tradition of learning philosophy through literature. This method had its origin in Montaigne’s Essays that was at once great literature and great philosophy of skepticism. Unlike German philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and their likes who wrote their monumental works in technical Jargon and unintelligible prose, the French masters like Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire wrote for the public in clear lucid, beautiful prose. They learnt it from their predecessor Montaigne. Even the German Nietzsche learnt this wisdom of attaining popularity from Montaigne. He is also known for emphasizing the importance of life in this world and wrote in clear poetic but intelligible prose. It was relished by the public and he is today applauded as the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche was only an extension of Montaigne. Skepticism became the fashion and new trend after Montaigne. And its offshoots were the rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz. Descartes developed the extreme form of rationalism in his mathematical reasoning which was later developed by Leibnitz and Newton made it into a new science. And Science became the new God. Its technology became the fabled cow of Kamadhenu that would provide one with all that one wished for.
This was the story of how religion and its emphasis on other worldliness and negating the beauty and enjoyment of this life on earth was replaced by science and technology. Now the whole world is following the west.
So, in a roundabout way, Montaigne initiated this radical transformation of humanity in his easy going and gossipy way of talking to the paper.
The death of one’s children particularly in infancy makes one a skeptic. If there is an all benevolent god, why didn’t he stop this cruelty? That was the question born in one’s unconscious. The answer of Karma of previous births of the child did not arise in them. According to their Christian tradition there is only one birth, this birth on earth. So there was justification in their questioning and consequent frustration and anger.
The famous skeptic Montaigne the French philosopher and essayist had six children. Five of them died in infancy. Only one escaped. Naturally he became a skeptic. This unconscious drive made him an enemy of god. So he connived at various tactics to sidetrack the watchdogs of the oppressive church. He shouted at top pitch that god could be proved by faith alone. At the same time he raised doubt about the limits of reason and human capabilities. And tactically he put all the blames on himself, confessed them as his own mortal weaknesses. But his unconscious directly contacted the unconscious of the readers of his essays. No reader of the essays including the pious Pascal could not help swallowing the poison of skepticism. Only in order to fight off and overthrow this poison of skepticism, Pascal wrote his famous apologetic of christian religion the ‘Pensees’ and ‘Provincial Letters’. But the poison survived his remedy and spread all over Europe over the next four centuries and ended with the war cry of Nietzsche that ‘God is dead’.
The lineage of skepticism, though it started with the French Montaigne continued through the English empiricist philosopher Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Rene Descartes, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, Fauerbach, Karl Marx and Nietzsche and Sartre and other existentialists like Karl Jaspers and even the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud.
Montaigne poisoned the whole of modern philosophy and through it modern culture. Throwing away his Bible along with his career as a christian pastor, Ralph Waldo Emerson of America clutched his Montaigne and kept it at his bedside and heaped praise upon it as his constant companion. Though he claimed that he had, after reading German philosophy of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling and the English poet – philosopher Samuel Coleridge, become a transcendentalist and ideal philosopher with spirituality, he could never erase from his mind the traces of skepticism. His famous essay on Montaigne the skeptic provides ample evidence of it.
Like every organism, even traditions also have birth, growth, decay and death. One tradition may flourish and last for a millennium. After that it starts declining and slowly comes to a halt. This was the case with the christian tradition also. From the fourth century AD, with the Roman emperor Constantine, it steadily climbed to its pinnacle during the middle ages and was represented by saint Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher of it. Its decline was caused by Renaissance in Florence. Erasmus and Bruno were its representatives in Europe.
But the real decline and fall of Christianity was initiated by Michael de Montaigne in France. Montaigne’s blood was half Jewish. Blood speaks they say and Montaigne’s Jewish blood from his mother spoke softly and cunningly and persuasively. Though pretending to be an apologetic for Christianity he sowed the seeds of dissension and skepticism in the minds of his readers.
Modern philosophy and its consequent modern culture are mainly anti-religious particularly anti-christian. This anti-tradition was initiated by Montaigne in his ‘Essays’. It was followed and developed by Rene Descartes, Benedict Spinoza and fulfilled by Voltaire and the philosophers like Denis Diderot and others. It was Voltaire who turned it into a mass movement. With the decline of Christianity, the power and hold on all peoples by other religions also declined.
Back stabbing is the easy way to fight and kill the mighty. Be always by the side of him, earn his trust and confidence and at the right opportune time, stab him from behind. The most famous historical illustration was demonstrated by Brutus against the mighty Julius Caesar. Montaigne followed the same tactics against the mighty church. He wrote his apology for Raymond Sebond in which he was an apologist not only for Raymond Sebond but through him, the Christian religion. Sebond argued that Christianity can be proven by reason alone. One doesn’t need faith. This crowning of the faculty of reason was taken over by Montaigne and emphasized throughout the Essays, though on the surface he made fun of human reason and weaknesses. He equated man with animals and in fact considered them better than humans.
Of all the books written against the Bible and its authority of revelation the most destructive one was the Essays. Though Montaigne visited the pope and kissed his feet, his unconscious was scheming against his authority. The way was shown to him by his late beloved friend Étienne de La Boétie who died in Montaigne’s hands at a very young age. He had written a book called ‘No authority’. It was indelibly impressed upon the mind of Montaigne.
In it La Boétie firmly asserted and argued that no one person had authority over others whether that person happened to be a monarch or Pope. Montaigne kept this book in secret. Somehow it got published anonymously. And Montaigne was forced to publish it with an introduction in which he condemned it as the blabbering of violent passion of an adolescent of sixteen.
But unconsciously his friend and his book had entered into him and totally transformed him. Through Montaigne’s cunningness, prudence and devious ways, it was La Boétie who spoke to the world and transformed it into a secular world. Montaigne said that his love for La Boétie was greater and more sublime than any bondage such as that between lovers or parents and children and so on. It was love at first sight. Why did it happen? ‘Because it was he; because it was I’, explained Montaigne, the best of friends. It was too deep a love for him to accept sex as an alternative. At the end of his life, he tooked into his living and household an adopted daughter. His love was always platonic in character. The ancient Greek tradition of friendship extolled as the highest form of love by Socrates and Plato in his dialogue called symposium had entered into the soul of this modern classicist and remained there until his death.
Montaigne was a man of destiny chosen by the world-spirit, in the words of Hegel. He was sent into this world with a mission. That mission was to transform humanity into a secular society and his life was spared until he completed his mission. No men like Pope or natural causes of diseases like painful urinary bladder stones or political rivals could harm him till the end. As he rightly claimed he charted a path in his life and journeyed steadily on it comfortably and happily. He truly deserves Sainte Beau’s adoration of him: The wisest Frenchman that ever lived. Perhaps Goethe the wisest man of Germany had learnt a lesson or two from this French sage. Even today if anyone wants to lead a wise life and escape from its pitfalls, accidents and dangers and also aims to attain fame, Montaigne could show him the right way. He should give his days and nights to the ‘life and essays of Montaigne’. In his life he opted for wisdom of Socrates and temperance of Aristotle and the stoics, carefully selected the rules and principles of conduct from his thousand books and inscribed them not only on the walls of his ‘Tower’ which housed his thousand friends, priceless eternal Friends always ready to talk to him, but in his blood cells also. He was a wise man in his thought, letters and action. He was a great soul by the definition offered by the universal sage of Tamil wisdom tradition Thiruvalluvar: ‘To speak is easy for anyone. But to act it is rare and very difficult’. Only the truly great walk their talk. And Montaigne did it.
Was Montaigne only a man of letters as the academic philosophers like Russell and some of the historians of philosophy like Copleston considered? Like Francis Bacon the English empiricist who wrote essays also along with his philosophic classic ‘Novum Organum’, Montaigne wrote some essays that dealt with pure philosophical speculation. The faulty notion of labeling him as a litterateur only arose from his mistake of mixing the essays on worldly topics along with the philosophic ones in one book, in a fat volume of 1500 Pages. Bacon, who imitated the French man also learnt from the mistake of his predecessor and published his books on literature and philosophy separately.
If Montaigne were to be called a philosopher, what were the philosophic ideas he put forward and analyzed? Let us list out some of them and deal with them one by one.
1. The ever changing human nature, its moods and objects in external nature.
2. All knowledge comes to us only through our senses.
3. Humans are endowed with reason. But it is defective and limited. By reason alone, one cannot understand the omniscient god and the vast universe.
The above three arguments made him into a skeptic.
4. Though man’s mind has some opinions and creates some, they don’t contribute to certain knowledge. For man lacks being, the unity and certainty of all knowledge about oneself.
5. Custom, tradition, law-man’s life is determined and coordinated by these three factors. They form themselves into habits in man.
6. Epicurean-ism is not wrong. In a short span of life, amidst all sorts of dangers, it is better to enjoy sensuous and intellectual objects as far as possible and as long as they don’t harm others and oneself.
7. He upholds a diluted form of stoicism also. Certain events in life like birth disease, old age and death are inevitable. One should accept them courageously and graciously. These natural occurrences are beyond man’s power to tackle. One essay is entitled as to learn ’To philosophize is to learn to die.’
8. Man is less than a brute in his moral conduct. His extra endowment has produced only more harm to himself and other sentient beings than good.
9. Certain knowledge is not possible for man, particularly about god. Those who announce to the world that they have attained certain knowledge about God are dangerous people. They become fundamentalists and impose their ideas on others and oppress and torture them where they don’t agree with them.
10. The standard and criterion of culture and civilization of a society should be estimated from its own time and place and circumstances. It should not be judged from the outside, or from the point of our own modern times and culture.
11. His political philosophy took a strange stance. Since he lived in turbulent times of religious wars, he came to the conclusion that no change in the form of government could produce any better conditions for humanity, since all forms and institutes of government are managed by humans. And all humans are corrupt and depraved by nature through their self -interest. To some extent he sounded like an anarchist, long before anarchism was recognized as a separate school of thought.
12. As for moral imperatives he advises every human, not to endanger one’s life for anything. It is too precious a gift to throw away or sacrifice. Like a stoic, he advises compromise in matters of politics and religion. Follow the local traditions and do not endanger your life by opposing them. Expediency could be a better policy sometimes.
13. ‘What do I know?’ was his motto in his life. He inscribed it on the door of his library where he spent his later life with his precious treasures of friends and composed his classic. Self-knowledge was his aim in life. He considered Socrates as a wise man and took him as his role model. It was Socrates who initiated the movement of self-knowledge in the west as opposed to the scientific attempts to know the laws of external nature by the pre-Socratic philosophers. Montaigne explored the field of self-knowledge more deeply. Self-knowledge was one of the main subjects of Indian religions such as Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta which called it ‘Atma Vidhya’. Both Socrates and Montaigne introduced atma vidhya into philosophy. That was their unique discovery and contribution to western philosophy. Unfortunately this fact was not stressed or expressed tacitly by any later philosopher nor by any historian of philosophy, as far as I know. But some of the philosophers like Descartes and Husserl took the hint from them and formed and developed their own philosophies on that base.
14. Test every idea, belief or tenet of philosophy however ancient or famous it is, wrote Montaigne. Verify it by your own experience, reason and judgement. “All universal judgments are treacherous and dangerous”, warned the French free thinker. This was a veiled attack on all traditions such as the Biblical revelations and Aristotleian. This universal doubt and refutation of all traditional faith was the starting point of some later philosophers like Descartes’ doubt and Emerson’s self reliance. J.Krishnamurti, the Indian born spiritual philosopher changed the course of my life with this idea of skepticism.
15. All human beings are equally endowed with the faculty of reason or good sense. It is proved by the very fact that all believe it so.
16. His conception of happiness was solely human. He wrote: It is an absolute perfection, and as it were divine for a man to know how to enjoy his own being loyally. He practiced this idea in his own life fully. He knew he was a solitary genius. He enjoyed reading and thinking and writing. So he entered into his tower on the third floor, his study. He described it as his own kingdom. He was a monarch in his own way. His chair was like an ornamental throne of a king. He enjoyed his being totally in his solitude. He realized his potential in an excellent manner all his own.
17. Ancient giants of Greek philosophy Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wanted to create a moral code for humans without resorting to other worlds of heaven and hell. The reward and punishment method in other words, the carrot and stick method could be useful in training horses. But we are humans endowed with a reasoning faculty; to think for oneself is our special boon. After a long stretch of some twelve centuries of Christian morality of eternal damnation, the thinkers who came after renaissance wanted once again to write a moral code for humans – not with the divine origin or commandments. And it seems, according to past history of five centuries, that they have fairly succeeded in their endeavors. Montaigne was one of the early pioneers of this man-centered movement. He made sure that it reached the masses and practiced by all by writing in the vernacular French and with a simple but beautiful style spiced with a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes from his vast reading of history.
18. He poured out contradictory views on many topics. He explained them away by saying: Everything finally contradicts and ends up in its opposite. Perhaps one finds here the seed of Hegel’s antithesis in his triadic principles of higher logic of dialectics: (i) Thesis (ii) Antithesis (iii) Synthesis. I wonder who could be exempted from the blame of stealing one or two seed ideas from Montaigne’s great fountain of insights.
19. An individual by his own strength of mind and intellect can never attain higher states of consciousness. Except by faith and god’s grace, one can never attain much, he says emphatically in his essay on Apology of Raymond Sebond. In it he argues for and against Raymond Sebond the theologian. Human reason can remove some of man’s ignorance but not all. Sebond’s stand point that reason is sufficient for understanding god and divine wisdom was refuted by Montaigne. He argued for christian suffering and faith in the attainment of salvation. Perhaps he had never come across the teachings and life of the Buddha as Voltaire and Schopenhauer, Kant and Hegel did. Buddha tried to show the world that human intelligence was sufficient to attain the divine state of Nirvana and to attain that end he devised meditations or inner travels like ‘Vipassana’ and a moral code of conduct in eight stages called ‘Eight-fold path’. It was much better in character than the stoic code recommended by Montaigne, but it was austere and world – renouncing like the christian one.
20. One finds developments of Montaigne’s thought in the essays. In some he takes the standpoint of a cynic, in some that of a skeptic, in some that of a stoic and in some that of an optimist. For instance in his essay on the ‘education of children’ he writes: Philosophy is not, or should not be grim and formidable. It should teach us a way to live best, a way to the health and cheerfulness of mind and body. The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness. And he proved his optimism in his life. Pain and death were his constant companions. He saw the deaths of his father and brother and five of his six children died at infancy. The supreme love of his life, his friend La Boetia died very painfully by cholera with severe fever and diarrhea. Montaigne nursed him and saw him die in his hands. And throughout his life he underwent excruciating pain by kidney stones. But he writes about those painful experiences with fun and mockery: with the stones he emitted with his urine one could build a pyramid. His endurance was huge and praiseworthy, his optimism very rare. Perhaps the real cause of his kidney stones was his own bad habit of withholding water for a long time. In one essay he writes, ‘I am proud to announce that I can with hold my water for ten hours at a time and sit on a saddle of a horse and travel without a break.’
But Montaigne was unconsciously a Buddhist in his approach to death. Buddha wanted his monks to go to a graveyard see the dead bodies being burnt, sit there and meditate upon death. Montaigne’s views on death were similar though he didn’t know anything about meditation. He was not a yogi. He was only a philosopher.
Death could attack and kill you at any time. It could come in any guise. Be prepared. The purpose of philosophy is to teach you to confront death courageously and peacefully. He cited the examples of Socrates, Cato and his friend La Boetia. The constant remembering of impending death could help one in using time wisely and living intensely. The romantic poets took this advice of the French thinker very seriously and lived at maximum intensity and died prematurely.
As for reading books most of the voracious readers had come to the same conclusion. Reading too many books is not necessary. It could turn him into a pedant and scholar, but not a wise man. A few essential books are sufficient to train one’s mind and succeed in life. He preferred two: The Greek Plutarch and the Latin Seneca. He constantly perused them and lived them. Read only the basic books of great authors. Learn to think like them. Learn to distinguish between what is essential and the superficial. Digest them thoroughly. Assimilate them. And if possible, try to excel them. But how? Start where they ended. Or attempt a totally new beginning; it could be a travel in the opposite direction as Aristotle did against his master Plato or as Karl Marx did to Hegel.
In my long search and seeking of truth for more than half a century, I have also arrived at the same conclusion. I have read tens of thousands of books on all subjects. And they have given me immense bliss. But only a few helped me to find out my vocation in life: To attain Mukthi, Gnana Siddhi and Divinity.
Mukthi Means liberation from the natural bondage of the cycle of births and deaths. How to do it? By contemplation and self-knowledge; by learning to separate the soul from the body. Not only Montaigne and Buddha but all philosophers aimed at it and stopped with it.
Siddhi means understanding of laws of nature, external and internal and conquering them like a scientist. And in Siddhis there are three varieties: (i) Karma Sidhi (ii) Yoga Siddhi (iii) Gnana Siddhi.
Divinity means understanding the nature and science of god and attain it in the words of Ramalinga Vallalar. In the history of humankind, as far as I know only three philosophers aimed at it: (i) Jesus Christ when he declared boldly and openly ‘I and my Father in Heaven are one and Be ye perfect like your Father in Heaven’. (ii) Sri Aurobindo when he wrote in his classic ‘Life Divine’: The aim of my integral yoga is to attain a divine life in a divine body and finally (iii) Ramalinga Vallalar who wrote and spoke elaborately on the ‘Deathless great Divine Life’ in thousands of songs and 500 pages of prose in his immortal classic ‘Thiru Arutpa’. He developed it into a whole science in all its steps and detail so that all could practice it. He himself walked his talk and attained a divine body of causal light of absolute compassion.
Of all the books I read, I have selected three books for my practical conduct and attaining my aim in life: 1. Thirukkural – for its universal wisdom dealing with problems in all walks of life and offering safest and permanent solutions. The sage Thiruvalluvar was a greater Montaigne. He was and is the best life-Coach ever. 2. ‘Thirumantram’ – It is an encyclopedia of yogas, practical ways and techniques to attain enlightenment of consciousness and immortality of body. 3. ‘Arut Perum Jothi Agaval’ a long poem of 1596 lines. It sums up Vallalar’s masterpiece ‘Thiru Arutpa’. It is a scientific treatise, a sum up of all scientific knowledge present and future. It is also a spiritual autobiography of Vallalar in which he reveals the ultimate secrets of how a human could attain immortality and divinity. This is my personal choice and recommendation. Others might have others.
I sincerely believe that only Vallalar’s message of universal compassion for all sentient beings, not only human beings but all beings like plants, animals, birds can bring peace and happiness upon earth and enable homo sapiens to evolve into higher species by collective mutation like the one that happened four million years ago – an ape turning into a homo sapien. I consider his message timely and scientific in methodology and terminology.
If we want to understand Montaigne’s philosophy properly, we have to understand his background, the times in which the book of Essays was written and particularly the history of skepticism.
His confrontation with the horrors of death in his early life, the chronic pain caused by his kidney stones which he mistook for and called ‘colicky’ pain, his dissatisfaction with Christianity for its constant sectarian and internal wars, the feeling was amplified by his deep learning in classical authors and his fear of oppression by the church are some of the motives and reasons why and how the controversial book was written.
Certain forms and patterns of circumstances religious, cultural, economic and political cause certain reactions and conditions. In other words, history repeats itself. This happened in the history of skepticism imparting and adding ideas to its stock such as Pyrrho (c.365-270 BCE) of Ellis, who was influenced by Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Zeno, Anaxarchus, Epicurus. Neo-pyrrhonism was started by Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE.
What was the philosophy of Pyrrho and how did he arrive at it? It emphasizes tranquility of mind and freedom from disturbances by external objects and inner passions. In short, happiness is caused by stillness of mind. It was a way of life for him.
The story of how or from whom he learnt this philosophy goes like this: It seems he accompanied Alexander the great in his invasion of India. There he met with aghoris or naked philosophers and yogis. Yoga means suspension of thought and stilling it forever according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Thought comes from all sorts of disturbances in mind, either elation or depression. So equanimity of mind is the first prerequisite to the tranquility (OM shanthi shanthi) of it and peace and happiness. Our happiness does not lie in external objects. To think so is an illusion. So practice detachment (vairagya). Constant practice (abhyasa) of detachment from worldly objects (renunciation) and inner conflicts caused by them will curtail all inner turmoil and stop your thoughts. Once your thoughts are stopped you will have permanent equanimity of mind (stitha pragwa). Now you have become a yogi. Nothing can disturb you. This is pure vedantic and yogic philosophy. Of course, they don’t want you to stop here. Beyond stillness and conquest of mind, lies Atman (SOUL) and Brahman (OVERSOUL). To attain them is their ideal.
But our philosopher doesn’t seem to have gone for such length and lofty ideals of Indian philosophy. He stopped with tranquility and happiness of mind. He did not realize unfortunately that even brutes live like this. They don’t have thoughts no philosophies, no poetry, no disturbances of mind. They live placid and content and peacefully by instinct given to them by nature as Walt Whitman pointed out and commended in his famous poem. This praising of animals for their lack of intellect and sensory, instinctive living was glorified by Montaigne in his essay on ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’. Here Montaigne played a self – defeating game. But for his thinking he couldn’t have written his ‘Essays’ and we wouldn’t be talking about him now after four centuries.
In Greece philosophy was born in the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, the famous mathematician philosopher. For some five centuries until the conquest of Athens by Roman soldiers who destroyed Plato’s Academy and drove away all philosophers from Greece, it grew into a tall tree with lot of its branches. The world never saw such growth of Sophia once again except in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany. There was literally a war of words by Sophists like Protagoras, Isocrates, and philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who opposed Sophists for their commercialism in seeking after Truth, a divine science. In this chaotic situation, no certain knowledge on any subject was arrived at. Only noise was left. The result was the shunning and avoiding of all noise in the name of philosophy and thirsting for peace of mind by Pyrrho with his brand of skepticism.
The same atmosphere in the second century BC produced Sextus Empiricus. He was a medical doctor. He produced Neo-pyrrhonism. He wrote voluminously. In his ‘Outlines of pyrrhonism’ he argues that there was no certain knowledge ever produced in logic, physics and ethics. In his monumental ‘Against Mathematicians’ (i.e. Scientists and philosophers) he argues the same point against rhetoric, linguistics, arithmetic, geometry, astrology and medicine. Only certain sensory impressions are our true guides in life. And they are sufficient to live, he concludes.
Similar circumstances occurred in Montaigne times. Instead of war of words among philosophers, war of swords erupted among sectarians of the same religion, Christianity. Separate groups in it such as Catholics, protestants and Calvinists, each asserted that their own interpretations of god’s word, the Bible was right and other interpretations by rival groups were wrong. Unfortunately this time the war of words did not stop with verbal arguments and debates but turned into real wars of swords and millions of human lives were slaughtered in these religious wars, particularly in France. Montaigne found the root of this mass malady, this collective madness of the religious people in the idea of certainty of knowledge in the idea of certain knowledge of god. And he wanted to cut off the root of the problem and demolish the very idea of certain knowledge about anything. That was the purpose and plan of his skepticism. Hence his attempts at proving that neither sensory knowledge nor intellectual reasoning of man were sufficient instruments with which to arrive at certain knowledge of anything of the worlds of mind, of god.
The devious way of the skeptics like Montaigne and later, Descartes was to demolish the movement, the base of christian medieval philosophy such as those laid by Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Pascal. Their strategy was this. Even if I as a rationalist, were to lose two eyes, the enemy must lose at least one eye. They had realized the motive and wisdom of the scholastic philosophers starting from Saint Origen, Clemens and saint Augustine that the only way to defend Christianity against the onslaught of Greek philosophy was to use the weapon of the enemy against himself: Reason. To prove the truth of divine revelations in the Bible, they had to resort to reason and philosophy. And they did it sufficiently and successfully nearly for a millennium. At last after the introduction of renaissance belief and faith in authority lost ground, particularly after the great and historical oration on ‘The Dignity of Man’ by Petrarch the Italian humanist poet. And Montaigne talked only about man, if not about the grandeur of man as Petrarch did but made it a point never to talk about the grandeur of god or god-man Christ. He consciously but in a hideous way, shifted the focus from god to man. He used his almost cunningness to escape the wrath of the church. He put all the blames and weaknesses of man upon himself. He often quoted Saint Augustine to show to the world and churchmen that he was taking his model the confessions of Saint Augustine a classic autobiography of all times. This was the real reason for him to choose as the subject of his monumental 1500 page book, himself, Michal de Montaigne ‘the man wants and all.’ By degrading himself, by making himself the laughing stock of his society, he achieved his aim. To change the attention and focus of the people from the Bible and to read his own vulgar book. He wanted to give to the world a secular Bible and he gave one. To this day, it enjoys such a high status, if not a divine one. His Essays is a great book of humanity, of great philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, literature and what not.
And what is its relevance today? The same as it had some four hundred years ago. Since the problems remain the same and that too in a more dangerous and apocalyptic degree, the solution offered by Montaigne is the only one needed today: Skepticism of all knowledge whether it be religious revelation, scientific knowledge or political ideology. Because every one of us echoes in his or her unconscious what Montaigne openly cried in his book of confession: “My trade and art is to live. Now we have come to the level of survival, the level of single law. This time the enemy is not any wild animal, but man himself or rather the gods in him, religious or ideological. The time for talking about enlightenment is past, perhaps beyond recollection let alone redemption. Every school boy must be prescribed ‘Essays’ by the secular would-be-savior. Bertrand Russell says that the stance of modern science is skepticism: Our knowledge of anything is relative, not certain. We are moving inch by inch towards certainty. Any moment anybody could prove Einstein’s relativity or Newton’s gravitation theories wrong, we are ready to accept it. We have no convictions nor certainties of anything. Hence, there arises no question of killing any Bruno anymore. Montaigne’s point of view is validated now. His skeptical philosophy is once more, the need of the hour.
Suspension of judgement was the basic technique and solution to all problems in philosophy. All the skeptics – ancient and modern advocated this policy for two reasons: First, it will not lead to brutish violence as we find in religious wars. Second, one is allowed to keep an open mind and welcome new ideas of creativity. Later came two more reasons for with holding judgement. First it came from Jesus Christ: Judge not; lest ye be judged. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton might have framed his famous law of motion from this golden saying of Christ. Second J.Krishnamurti, the New Age Guru, warned against judging one’s own ideas in the mind. Just watch your ideas. But do not judge them. If you accept or reject, it will cause a chain reaction and go on creating more and more number of chain reactions. But the aim is to empty the consciousness and still the mind. Because, he says in the light of silence, all problems are solved. He was a mystic and all of his insights were born out of his personal experience. That was the reason why Osho said ‘whatever J.Krishnamurti says is authentic’. Some four centuries ago, Montaigne asked humanity not to rely on any certainty of knowledge for it will lead to dogmatism which in turn will lead to all sorts of conflicts and feuds. Now the world is back to square one: Montaigne’s skepticism. It alone can save humanity from fundamentalism and its offshoot terrorism.