Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a philosopher living at the time of the French Renaissance. He was the man who, infamously, made significant advancements with the essay writing format. These were composed of short works that covered a wide range of interests which somewhat resemble the academic essay we see today. He is most known for his treatment of the ancient skeptics. This paper will focus on his most renowned work, Apology for Raymond Sebond. In it, he emphasizes skepticism, the emptiness and weakness of man’s reasoning ability, and his need for faith in God. I intend to show that, for Montaigne, reason, although not able to arrive at incontrovertible knowledge, is still useful in acquiring Socratic self-knowledge and that this is reason’s purpose.

Montaigne’s Skepticism

Above, I use the term “Socratic self-knowledge” since it has been said of Socrates, although with some liberty taken with the exact translation, that he alone was wise, for he knew that he knew nothing.[1] That is how I intend to use the term. Socratic self-knowledge consists in knowing that you know nothing for certain through your reason alone. Montaigne believes that the proper use of reason is to attain to this specific kind of self-knowledge and he believes that it is through the use of reason, engaged in skepticism, that we reach it. Thus, in order to show how one’s reason arrives at this Socratic self-knowledge, it must first be shown how Montaigne’s skepticism functions. Two relevant sections, sections seven and eight, of Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond, can serve as a short summary of Montaigne’s skepticism.

            The focus of section seven is the inadequacy of the senses.[2] Montaigne is determined that anything we might know, would be known through our senses and that we are, in a sense, captive to them. However, in this section he means to show that the senses cannot be relied upon to report, with certainty, the true way that things are in nature. He makes two arguments to showcase this that I think are particularly potent. The first is that we cannot be sure that we possess all of the senses requisite to have a true grasp of reality. The second is that, with the senses that we do possess, we can never be certain that they give us an accurate representation of things in themselves. He argues that we cannot be sure that we are not missing certain crucial senses because, if we lacked a sense, we would not be able to notice our lack. He uses the example of how a man born blind would be unaware of his lack of sight, so long as no one told him that he lacked sight. Even if someone told him, he may still doubt that there is sight, since after all, he has never experienced it for himself. Such may be the human race, although we do not now know it. We may see in an apple its redness, feel its smoothness, taste its sweetness, but there may be other sensible qualities which we are unable to perceive due to us lacking the correct sense-organ to do such perceiving.[3] As for his second argument, that we cannot be sure about the accuracy of the representations of the senses, he points out that the verification of the senses and their validity rests upon the circular assumption that the senses are accurate. For example if I say “my senses are accurate because when I see a red ball, it really is red”, this begs the question and assumes that the senses are correct, when it is the senses that are being questioned. Thus Montaigne says “we no longer know what things are in truth; for nothing comes to us except as falsified and altered by our senses. Where the compass, the square, and the rule are crooked,…all buildings erected by their measure are also necessarily defective.”[4]

            Another side of Montaigne’s skepticism is found in section eight, where he considers that human beings, as well as nature, are in a constant state of change. This consideration has tremendous skeptical value. The reason why this is such a powerful attack on knowledge is because our knowledge itself assumes that what we have observed about things in the past will stay uniform or the same into the future. And this is exactly what is being attacked. Montaigne is saying that as soon as you pin something down as having such and such a quality or abides by such and such laws of nature or physics, you are merely examining how you perceived it to be in the past.[5] But knowledge of the way a flower was at some time is not knowledge of what that flower is now or will be. Likewise, this skeptical tool attacks the laws of nature to which we have become so accustomed to in our time just as in Montaigne’s. We cannot guarantee, for example, that the nature of gravity will remain the same as we have observed it in the past. There is no reason why gravity could not, tomorrow, act differently than it did the day before. There is no reason to assume that the earth beneath my feet would not, at some point, cease to have the nature that holds me up today and swallow me tomorrow. This is because we assume that these “laws” will stay uniform, just as we do everything else, because we think that its characteristics which we observed in the past will hold and not change going into the future or up to the present moment. Thus we cannot have certain knowledge, since all of our understanding of things is taken from past examples which we expect will resemble those of the future. And moreover, as soon as you pin down something down with its characteristics and say “this is how it is now”, now has passed and time has brought change to it, either somewhat insignificantly or drastically.

            It might be said that one could still have a priori knowledge or a knowledge that stems from a person’s purely rational faculty. But Montaigne has a skeptical attack even against this. He says that we have no other way to verify if our reason is full-proof or not. For, any means that we could use to attempt to validate the testimony of our a priori reason would either rely on the senses or the reason which we have already called into question. Who can verify the validity of a subject’s testimony, but a Judge independent of the subject in question and of higher authority? This is the issue which Montaigne raises against reason a priori: what will validate the claim that our reason is not deceitful or that it contains no deformity, putting shadows in the place of real things? To say “because according to my reason it makes sense” is a violation of nemo iudex in casua sua[6].  What is needed is a higher Judge above reason which can give an unbiased account of its credibility[7], and it does not seem correct that reason should award itself its own credibility.


With these skeptical doubts in mind, the question turns to reason’s purpose. If all of these skeptical doubts Montaigne raises keep reason from acquiring incontrovertible knowledge, if they keep us from being able to affirm matters of fact without any doubt, then what becomes of reason’s use? Does then the use of reason become futile? The answer depends on whether or not reason is used properly, that is, with the right goal in mind. If reason is used with the goal in mind being to reach certain knowledge, then the skeptical observations above will be a stumbling block and reason will be futile as it is incapable of arriving at certain knowledge. However, Montaigne holds that the use of reason, with the proper goal in mind, is not futile. This proper goal with respect to the use of reason is skepticism and if reason is used for this purpose, it is useful. It is useful because skepticism leads us to the realization of our own self-ignorance, Socratic self-ignorance. Through its use, we become aware of the various different perspectives and the doubts which undermine all of them. We become aware of our own inability to reach certainty because of these skeptical doubts. In this, man ceases to be the enlightened being as preached by various other thinkers, capable of arriving, all by his own powers and by due diligence, at true justice, morality or any other matter of fact. What man becomes is a lost child in the dark forest guided only by what lies within his heart, be it light or dark. It puts everything in the right perspective as Montaigne says: “It presents man naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weakness”[8].  This is the beating heart of Socratic self-knowledge.


Montaigne’s Socratic self-knowledge does not mean, however, that there is no truth, nor does it mean that people should not have opinions. Just because we are unable to be philosophically certain about any opinion, does not make the opinion in question false. What it does mean is that any opinion that is held, true or false, is held by belief, not reason. For, if a person truly has Socratic self-knowledge, which is acquired through the skepticism above, that person will know that any opinion he holds is not incontrovertible. We have been shown, not only by the considerations above, but by the whole history of philosophy as well, that any opinion available for us to hold can be doubted by reason. Therefore, we do not hold an opinion “because it makes the most sense”, because we know that each opinion is equipollent in being dubitable. Thus it is not the soundness of one’s reason that holds opinions, but it is one’s belief, against doubts, that holds the opinions for whatever one’s passion may crave. Belief holds opinions not reason. Everything and every opinion, must be believed, for there is nothing so incontrovertibly proven according to reason that belief is not needed in order to hold it. This Socratic self-knowledge, then, makes us realize the dependence of our opinions on belief, not reason. And this ultimately leads to an all-embracing fideism, where not only God must be believed in Faith, but the whole of one’s experience must be believed. It must be believed that the laws of gravity and physics will hold such that the earth will not swallow you whole or will not crash into the sun. It must be believed that bread, which nourished you in the past, will continue to nourish you and not poison and kill you[9]. It must be believed that other people whom you see walking through the world are actually human beings with a certain inherent worth which should keep you from being unjust toward them. Everything must be believed.

 Montaigne thinks that the consequent realization of our dependence, not upon our smarts or our reason, but belief in the things of this world will make us prepared for the knowledge of God. I will continue a quote of his which I used earlier but cut short for its use at this specific moment. “It [Skepticism] presents man naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weakness, fit to receive from above some outside power; stripped of human knowledge, and all the more apt to lodge divine knowledge in himself, annihilating his judgment to make more room for faith… He is a blank tablet prepared to take from the finger of God such forms as he shall be pleased to engrave on it.[10] The gist of this is that man would be more willing to at least hear the seemingly ludicrous doctrines of Christianity since even the everyday common beliefs, under skepticism, seem just as ludicrous as them. It levels the playing field in a sense. It empties out a person’s prejudice against religious beliefs and leaves him more open-minded. That is how Socratic self-knowledge can “open one up” for faith in God.


Montaigne’s purpose for reason is certainly not traditional. The notion that reason’s purpose is not for obtaining knowledge is something very foreign to other thinkers and to them would make reason a joke due to its futility. This is the response that I take a thinker like Thomas Aquinas would have. For Aquinas, and other thinkers like him, the purpose of reason is to examine the world and from those examinations understand what is just or how we are to live and the decisions we are to make. Aquinas has a specific method for how this is done. That is, our reason (what he calls the intellect) illumines the world of the sense perceptions which we receive from outside of us.[11] It makes the world actually intelligible by generalizing into universal forms, things that exist in particular subjects[12]. Thus we can look at two quadrupeds and notice that they are similar in many respects, however not identical, so we place them into the category of, say, Dog or Cat. We notice that objects are forced to the ground when left unsupported and we call this effect gravity and place it in the category of natural forces. We notice similarities in our experiences and we categorize them. And from this categorization of the world, we are able to perceive things which are common to all within the category and arrive at some general knowledge of all within the category (i.e., the universal nature of x). This is how knowledge is obtained and the more we experiment with the world, the more precise our science becomes and the more we know about the world around us. As we learn more about the world, we can even reach a point at which it can be proven that there must be a creator of the world, God. Thus, the reason which God gave to human beings is capable of such knowledge as discovering the existence of God. This point is used to indicate what a great gift reason is to humanity, that God did not leave humans in darkness, but granted them the faculty necessary to perceive such important truths.

            This is what Aquinas and others like him thought about the purpose of reason. And from this it can be seen, that one of the worries Aquinas would have concerning Montaigne’s view is that reason seems to be futile and it seems as though God adorned the crown of His creation with a reason which was ineffectual to such a noble goal as previously described. It would appear as though God left humans ill equipped and in darkness. His argument would be that it would not make sense for God to give us our reason, only for us to be unable to rely on it due to its inability to reach certainty. These are the theological objections that I wish to focus on, as I believe it points out an interesting matter which must be considered when discussing Montaigne’s purpose of reason. The matter is, why would God give us a reason as Montaigne describes it and not as Aquinas did? Why would God give us this seemingly ineffectual reason[13] and have us rely on blind belief or faith?


For Aquinas, it could be said that reason was given to humans so that they might figure out how to act in a God-pleasing way, as well as for the reasons mentioned above. For Montaigne, there must be different purposes or reasons for God giving the specific type of reason that he outlines. From two principles, I believe an answer can be explained. First, God seeks our dependence on Him, not ourselves. And second, God wishes us to be humble, not prideful. These are certainly core principles of Christianity.

            The fact that God seeks for us to rely on Him and not ourselves would explain why we would come into possession of a reason that is not capable of certainty. For if it were capable of certainty and knowledge of all things, humans would be self-sufficient in their knowledge, without the need for belief in God. There would be no need for mankind’s dependence on believing that God will provide the conditions necessary for humans to prosper, for we would know it ourselves and of ourselves. No need for belief that God would uphold certain laws of nature such that plants will produce fruit or that rain will fall at the appropriate time. No need to have faith in God against reason’s skeptical power. Man would cease to depend on God through faith, but would worship the competency of his own reason and his own powers, all while ignoring those of God. Man would lose his child-like dependence on God which is so characteristic of Christianity.

            The second, that God wishes us to be humble, is similar to the first and ties directly back into Socratic self-knowledge. The reason which man possesses serves to make him humble in a way that a reason capable of certainty could not. The constant failure of reason’s attempt to, with certainty, understand, serves to put man in his proper place in the order of things. I know of one quote from J.G. Hamann which encapsulates this sentiment in a way that I, perhaps, cannot: “Reason is not given to you in order that you may become wise, but that you may know your folly and ignorance; just as the Mosaic law was not given to the Jews to make them righteous, but to make their sins more sinful to them”[14]. If man were to possess that reason which Aquinas describes, man would merely worship in disgusting pride the powers of his own reason. But, through the use of this reason, man realizes his proper place in creation. That he is a creature of “folly and ignorance” whose needs are to rely upon both on belief in the world and faith in God. For without belief, he will be trapped in Socratic ignorance and the despair of doubt with no opinion to hold and comfort him.


Aquinas, T. D., & Regan, R. J. (2003). A summary of philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Hamann, J. G., & O’Flaherty, J. C. (1967). Hamann’s Socratic memorabilia: A translation and commentary. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Hamann, J. G., & Smith, R. G. (1960). J.G. Hamann 1730-1788: A study in Christian existence, with selections from his writings. London: Collins.

Hume, D. (1993). An enquiry concerning human understanding.: A letter from a gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh u.a. Indianapolis u.a.: Hackett.

Khalidi, M. A. (2005). Medieval islamic: Philosophical writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langer, U. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Montaigne, M. (2003). Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond (R. Ariew & M. Grene, Trans.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.

[1] Hamann & O’Flaherty, Hamann’s Socratic memorabilia: a translation and commentary 1967, 163.

[2] Montaigne, Ariew, & Grene, Apology for Raymond Sebond 2003. This particular publisher divides the work into sections.

[3] Ibid, 6

[4] Montaigne, Ariew, & Grene, Apology for Raymond Sebond 2003. This particular publisher divides the work into sections., 12

[5] Ibid, 13-14

[6] “No-one should be a judge in his own cause”

[7] (Khalidi, 2005), 62. The language of a “higher judge” I borrow from Ghazali (1058-1111). His idea concerning the need for the verification f reason itself certainly precedes Montaigne’s same notion.

[8] (Langer, 2009), 187

[9] (Hume, 1993), 21

[10] (Langer, 2009), 202

[11] (Aquinas, 2003), 78. “the human soul has a power derived from a higher intellect that enables the soul to illumine sense images.”

[12] Ibid. “we abstract universal forms from conditions of particularity, that is, make things actually intelligible.”

[13] I say “seemingly” ineffectual, again, because Montaigne’s reason is capable of achieving Socratic self-knowledge and is not useless, but rather serves a good purpose.

[14] (Hamann & Smith, 1960), 50

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