Saturday, December 04, 2004

True or False?

Montaigne's essay "That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from Our Own Capacities" is a bit bothersome. There are two parts to this short essay. First, Montaigne declares that to condemn "anything whatever as definitely false and quite impossible, you are claiming to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God and the power of Nature our Mother." But to believe everything you hear is an example of ignorance, or worse, an "empty soul." We are, therefore, "Not to believe too rashly: not to disbelieve too easily." This seems like a moderate approach to life. There is much we don't understand and healthy skepticism seems like a good course to take. Montainge is not against science or reason. I think, though he doesn't declare it, that he would accept physical evidence and empirical data as true. He would also agree that it is human hubris to think that we know everything. He believes we need to recognize our own ignorance and weakness and the limits of our understanding. We also need to recognize that "there is a dangerous boldness of great consequence in despising whatever we cannot understand. For as soon as you have established the frontiers of truth and error with that fine brain of yours and then discover that you must of necessity believe some things even stranger than the ones which you reject, you are already forced to abandon these frontiers." Now we get to the second part of the essay. It is this part that is bothersome because after all those words of caution, Montaigne declares, "We must either totally submit to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity or else totally release ourselves from it. It is not for us to decide what degree of obedience we owe to it." One cannot decide that this Church precept is false this one true, that that one is empty and useless and that one is meaningful. There is no picking and choosing allowed because it gives the advantage to those darn Protestants. Yes, Montaigne wrote during the Reformation, there was, as he calls it, a religious war going on. But to so eloquently spend a good portion of an essay arguing for a rational approach to believing what is true and what is false and then to toss it all away by saying except when it comes to the Church is worrisome. I have to question why Montainge added that in. He certainly did carefully question some of the Church doctrine in other published pieces of his, not stridently enough to get in trouble for it but in a way that made the authorities take notice. Is the don't question the Church bit in this essay to avoid trouble? Or did Montaigne really believe what he wrote? The editor's note is strangely silent on this matter so I am left to wonder. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Fortune is Often Found in Reason's Train"