Monday, 21 March 2011


The sceptic as absolutist: Michel de Montaigne

It is a favourite conceit of modern, twentieth century liberals that scepticism, the attitude that nothing can really be known as the truth, is the best groundwork for individual liberty. The fanatic, convinced of the certainty of his views, will trample on the rights of others; the sceptic, convinced of nothing, will not. But the truth is precisely the opposite: the sceptic has no ground on which to stand to defend his or others' liberty against assault. Since there will always be men willing to aggress against others for the sake of power or pelf, the triumph of scepticism means that the victims of aggression will be rendered defenceless against assault. Furthermore, the sceptic being unable to find any principle for rights or for any social organization, will probably cave in, albeit with a resigned sigh, to any existing regime of tyranny. Faute de mieux, he has little else to say or do.

An excellent case in point is one of the great sceptics of the modern world, the widely read and celebrated sixteenth century French essayist, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). [...] A leading humanist, Montaigne virtually created the essay form in France. He started writing these brief essays in the early 1570s, and published the first two volumes in 1580. The third book of essays was published in 1588, and all three volumes were posthumously published seven years later.

Though a practising Catholic, Montaigne was a thoroughgoing sceptic. Man can know nothing, his reason being insufficient to arrive either at a natural law ethics or a firm theology. As Montaigne put it: 'reason does nothing but go astray in everything, and especially when it meddles with divine things'. And for a while, Montaigne adopted as his official motto the query, 'What do I know?'

If Montaigne knew nothing, he could scarcely know enough to advocate setting one's face against the burgeoning abolutist tyranny of his day. On the contrary, stoic resignation, a submission to the prevailing winds, became the required way of confronting the public world. Skinner sums up Montaigne's political counsel, as holding 'that everyone has a duty to submit himself to the existing order of things, never resisting the prevailing government and where necessary enduring it with fortitude'.

In particular, Montaigne, though sceptical about religion itself, cynically stressed the social importance of everyone outwardly observing the same religious forms. Above all, France must 'submit completely to the authority of our [Catholic] ecclesiastical government' .

Submission to constituted authority was, indeed, the key to Montaigne's political thought. Everyone must remain obedient to the king at all times no matter how he discharges his obligation to rule. Unable to use reason as a guide, Montaigne had to fall back on the status quo, on custom and on tradition. He warned gravely and repeatedly that everyone must 'wholly follow the accepted fashion and forms', for 'it is the rule of rules, and the universal law of laws, that each man should observe those of the place he is in'. Montaigne hailed Plato for wanting to prohibit any citizen from looking 'even into the reason of the civil laws' , for those laws must 'be respected as divine ordinances'. Although we may wish for different rulers, we 'must nevertheless obey those that are here'. The finest achievement of the Christian religion, according to Montaigne, was its insistence on 'obedience to the magistrates and maintenance of the government' .

Considering Montaigne's fundamental outlook, it is no wonder that he warmly embraced the Machiavellian concept of 'reason of state'. (May we say that he held the reason of man to be worthless, but the reason of state to be overriding?) Characteristically, while Montaigne writes that he personally likes to keep out of politics and diplomacy because he prefers to avoid lying and deceit, he also asserts the necessity of 'lawful vice' in the operations of government. Deceit in a ruler may be necessary, and furthermore, such vices are positively needed 'for sewing our society together, as [are] poisons for the preservation of our health'. Montaigne then goes on to integrate his defence of deceit in a prince with his seemingly paradoxical defence of reason of state while having no use for human reason at all. For in following reason of state, the prince has simply 'abandoned his own reason for a more universal and powerful reason', and this mystical super-reason has shown him that an ordinarily evil action needed to be done.

Murray N. Rothbard: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
Volume 1, Page 201


James Higham said...

It is a favourite conceit of modern, twentieth century liberals that scepticism, the attitude that nothing can really be known as the truth, is the best groundwork for individual liberty.

Right from the start, you're right on the money, Trooper.

Trooper Thompson said...

Please don't credit me, but Dr Rothbard!