Ideas of Michel de Montaigne, by Theme

[French, 1533 - 1592, Born and died at Montaigne. Closely associated with the city of Bordeaux, of which he was Mayor.]

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1. Philosophy / A. Wisdom / 2. Wise People
Why can't a wise man doubt everything?
     Full Idea: Why cannot a wise man dare to doubt anything and everything?
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0562)
     A reaction: This question seems to be the start of the Enlightenment Project, of attempting to prove everything. MacIntyre warns of the dangers of this in ethical theory. The story of modern philosophy is the discovery of its impossibility. E.g. Davidson on truth.
1. Philosophy / A. Wisdom / 3. Wisdom Deflated
No wisdom could make us comfortably walk a wide beam if it was high in the air
     Full Idea: Take a beam wide enough to walk along: suspend it between two towers: there is no philosophical wisdom, however firm, which could make us walk along it just as we would if we were on the ground.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0672)
     A reaction: This proposes great scepticism about the practical application of philosophical wisdom, but if we talk in terms of the wise assessment of risk in any undertaking, our caution on the raised beam makes perfectly good sense.
1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 4. Early European Thought
Montaigne was the founding father of liberalism
     Full Idea: The first liberal, the founding father if we have one, is the great sixteenth century French essayist Michel de Montaigne.
     From: report of Michel de Montaigne (On Cruelty [1580]) by Adam Gopnik - A Thousand Small Sanities 1
     A reaction: He says this not on the basis of his politicies or achievements, but his general attitudes and values. It may be another hundred years before we can identify another obvious liberal (Locke?).
3. Truth / A. Truth Problems / 3. Value of Truth
Virtue is the distinctive mark of truth, and its greatest product
     Full Idea: The distinctive mark of the Truth we hold ought to be virtue, which is the most exacting mark of Truth, the closest one to heaven and the most worthy thing that Truth produces.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0493)
     A reaction: A long way from Tarski and minimalist theories of truth! But not so far from pragmatism. Personally I think Montaigne is making an important claim, which virtue theorists should be attempting to incorporate into their theory. Aristotle would sympathise.
7. Existence / D. Theories of Reality / 3. Reality
We lack some sense or other, and hence objects may have hidden features
     Full Idea: We may all lack some sense or other; because of that defect, most of the features of objects may be concealed from us.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0666)
     A reaction: This strikes me as simple, straightforward common sense, and right. I cannot make sense of the claim that reality really is just the way it appears. We do not have a built-in neutrino detector, for example.
13. Knowledge Criteria / D. Scepticism / 1. Scepticism
Sceptics say there is truth, but no means of making or testing lasting judgements
     Full Idea: Pyrrhonians say that truth and falsehood exist; within us we have means of looking for them, but not of making any lasting judgements: we have no touchstone.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0564)
     A reaction: This states the key difference between sceptics and relativists. The latter are more extreme as they say there is no such thing as truth. The former concede truth, and their scepticism is about the abilities of human beings. I am an anti-relativist.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 1. Mind / d. Location of mind
The soul is in the brain, as shown by head injuries
     Full Idea: The seat of the powers of the soul is in the brain, as is clearly shown by the fact that wounds and accidents affecting the head immediately harm the faculties of the soul.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (Apology for Raymond Sebond [1580], p.0614)
     A reaction: At last someone has finally got the facts clear. It seems surprising that the Greeks never clearly grasped this piece of irrefutable evidence - even those Greeks who speculated that the brain was the key. Here we have a fixed fact of philosophy of mind.
22. Metaethics / A. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / g. Moral responsibility
Rules and duties are based on the will, as that is all we control
     Full Idea: Since actions and performances are not wholly in our power and since nothing is really in our power but our will - it is on the will that all the rules and duties of Man are based and established.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (I.7 Our deeds are judged by intention [1580], p.0028)
     A reaction: This is almost Kant's claim that the only truly good thing is a good will (e.g. Idea 3711). Aristotle disagrees, because a virtuous person should also have good desires. We may will to have good desires, but virtue requires actually having them.
22. Metaethics / B. Value / 2. Values / e. Death
Apart from the fear, dying is an easy duty
     Full Idea: If our fears did not lend it weight, dying would be one of our lighter duties.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (III.12 On physiognomy [1580], p.1191)
     A reaction: An Epicurean thought. 'Duties' is nice - presumably death qualifies as a duty, because Nature requires it of us (we each of us 'owe nature a death'). The remark appears to me to be true.
22. Metaethics / C. The Good / 3. Pleasure / c. Value of pleasure
We must fight fiercely to hang on to the few pleasures which survive into old age
     Full Idea: I am training and sharpening my appetite for those pleasures that are left. ...We must cling tooth and claw to the use of the pleasures of this life which the advancing years, one after another, rip from our grasp.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (I.39 On Solitude [1580], p.276)
     A reaction: That may be one of the most inspiring ideas I have read about pleasure.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / c. Motivation for virtue
Virtue inspires Stoics, but I want a good temperament
     Full Idea: What Stoics did from virtue I teach myself to do from temperament.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (III.10 On Restraining your Will [1580], p.1153)
     A reaction: I take this to be an Aristotelian criticism of Stoicism. They venerate virtue above everything, but Aristotle says you must integrate virtue into your very being, so that right actions flow from you, with very little need for premeditation.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / e. Character
There is not much point in only becoming good near the end of your life
     Full Idea: It is almost better never to become a good man at all than to do so tardily, understanding how to live when you have no life left.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (III.10 On Restraining your Will [1580], p.1142)
     A reaction: A very nice perspective, which I don't recall Aristotle mentioning. It does, though, reinforce Aristotle's belief that early training is essential.
25. Social Practice / A. Freedoms / 3. Free speech
Nothing we say can be worse than unsaying it in the face of authority
     Full Idea: Nothing which a gentleman says can seem worse than the shame of his unsaying it under duress from authority.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (III.10 On Restraining your Will [1580], p.1153)
     A reaction: The point is that you have to fight every day for free speech, because no matter what the law says, there are always people in power who want to shut you up.
25. Social Practice / E. Policies / 1. War / c. Combatants
People at home care far more than soldiers risking death about the outcome of wars
     Full Idea: How many soldiers put themselves at risk every day in wars which they care little about, rushing into danger in battles the loss of which will not make them lose a night's sleep. Meanwhile a man at home is more passionate about the war than the soldier.
     From: Michel de Montaigne (III.10 On Restraining your Will [1580], p.1139)
     A reaction: It depends whether you are a mercenary (which the majority probably were in 1680), and what are the implications of defeat.