Michel de Montaigne against the ‘infinite interpretation’ of the postmoderns
Sometimes it seems like all of Montaigne’s Essays are digressions. But often the more surprising moments, the digressions amongst the digressions, are the best bits.
This is especially so in the long central ‘Apology of Raymond Sebond’, which is as close as he gets to a more traditionally ordered, or systematic piece. It’s here that Montaigne seemingly ‘outs’ himself as a Pyrrhonian sceptic, and so, a recognised kind of albeit non-dogmatic philosopher. It’s this piece that has led commentators like Pierre Villey to propose that the French essayist experienced a ‘Pyrrhonian crisis’, having discovered the old writings of Sextus Empiricus in the 1570s.
Much of the essay does use recognisable Pyrrhonian modes of argumentation, to challenge the idea that even the wisest philosophers have made any progress in understanding God or the gods, the afterlife, the soul or its relation to the body, or even ourselves.
If man was supposed to be the measure of all things, Montaigne surmises, the joke is on us, who cannot even measure ourselves, let alone fathom anything else.
Anyway, towards the end of this long ‘Apology’, Montaigne has got to musing on the way things reciprocally affect each other, which makes the clear and distinct understanding of particular things or processes tricky. Then, without further ado, he launches into a kind of proto-postmodern musing on a great theme of our times: hermeneutic indeterminacy.
Here is the opening of what he says:
This opinion put me in mind of the experience we have that there is no sense or aspect of anything, whether bitter or sweet, straight or crooked, that the human mind does not find out in the writings it undertakes to tumble over. Into the cleanest, purest, and most perfect words that can possibly be, how many lies and falsities have we suggested [i.e. the Bible, is what M. means — CS]! What heresy has not there found ground and testimony sufficient to make itself embraced and defended!
Montaigne is writing in the context of the ongoing civil wars in France. These were occasioned by the advent of Protestantism, which had challenged the authority of Popes or Councils to interpret the Bible. But if Christians…