Philosophical scepticism and its tradition in Michel de Montaigne’s Essais
Vazquez, Manuel Bermúdez
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Montaigne has widely been regarded as one of the most significant sceptics of the XVI Century. Yet, if we consider his Essais as a whole, he turns out to be more a sceptical thinker like Socrates or Saint Augustine rather than a pyrrhonist like Sextus Empiricus. He is closer to the Academic scepticism rather than to the absolute scepticism of Pyrrhonism. This thesis contends that despite most of modern research, Montaigne’s biggest debt to ancient sources is with Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and Plutarch rather than with Sextus Empiricus. I argue that Montaigne was familiar with the distinction between Academic and Pyrrhonian scepticism and his quest for truth meant that he had more affinity with Socrates and St. Augustine than with Sextus Empiricus or Pyrrho. He did not suspend his judgment more pirronico: on the contrary, he exerted it in every occasion. The Christian tradition left a more important mark than it was initially thought in Montaigne’s Essais. This reconsideration of Montaigne’s scepticism leads to a re-evaluation of different aspects of the sceptical tradition since the ancient times. In this thesis I show that Montaigne’s scepticism was partly shaped by the presence of scepticism in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Old Testament and in St. Paul, Lactantius and St. Augustine. Powerful currents of scepticism permeated different traditions during the Middle Ages and although their existence has been acknowledged, their potential debt to Greco-Roman antiquity and their influence in the recovery and transmission of scepticism in the early modern period still need further investigation. I argue that in the sceptical crisis of the early modern period Sextus’ writings may have fuelled this crisis, but they did not initiate it. I claim that Sextus Empiricus revival was more a result rather than a cause of the sceptical crisis. Considering that scepticism is a fundamental part of the Essais as a whole we can say that Montaigne was an important part of the sceptical crisis but his scepticism was not shaped by Sextus. I present in this thesis Montaigne’s originality and the complexity of his thought, and even though sometimes it is difficult to follow, his vision is utterly harmonious and consistent. Montaigne considered the ideas of many who had gone before him, sometimes following them, sometimes taking his own path. Montaigne believed in the possibility of real knowledge, even if, in the tradition of Socrates and Augustine, he despaired of achieving it in one person’s life. Montaigne was a sceptic who believed in the existence of truth and he sought that truth through the medium of the essay.