Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Quote of the Day: More Montaigne

So, it is obvious now that I have been perusing some of Michel de Montaigne's collected essays--I have to teach them next year. His essays, by the way, are a series of exercises in intense self-reflection that perhaps exceeds Augustine Confessions. In a post-reformation world, Montaigne remained a devoted adherent of the Latin rite (the earlier name of what was later called the Roman Catholic Church), while also partaking of the ongoing humanist movement. Thus, although he was French, his father set up that his primary mother-tongue would be classical Latin (literally, his entire family and everyone around him only addressed him in Latin when he was a young child). With this in mind, I read the following in his essay, That it is madness to judge the true and the false:

"We ought to judge the infinite power of Nature with more reverence and a greater recognition of our own ignorance and weakness. How many improbable things there are which have been testified to by people worthy of our trust: if we cannot be convinced we should at least remain in suspense. To condemn them as impossible is to be rashly presumptuous, boasting that we know the limits of the possible. If we understood the difference between what is impossible and what is unusual, or between what is against the order of the course of Nature and what is against the common opinion of mankind, then the way to observe that rule laid down by Chilo, Nothing to excess, would be, Not to believe too rashly: not to disbelieve too easily."

Commentary: This seems to be a respectable position: one is not to be too impressionable either way--both believing and disbelieving too easily are to be too impressionable. The things that appear, at first glance, to be completely unbelievable, may not exceed the limits of the possible, and, therefore, one should in such situations "remain in suspense" between belief and disbelief. For to declare something unbelievable is to claim to know the limits of the knowable, something "rashly presumptuous." I particular like the phrasing in the end about trying to discern between what is unusual and what is impossible (for some things that seem impossible, are just unusual possibilities) and between what is against nature and what is against common opinion (perhaps common opinion what what is against Nature, but which may not, in later reflection--perhaps even generations later when knowledge has changed--actually be against Nature). While Nature (with a capital N) became a surrogate religion, a surrogate god, in Enlightenment thought, one must remember that Montaigne was a devout Catholic. When he is speaking about "Nature," he is speaking about the Nature that God put into order. In fact, when one places all of this back into context, it becomes a defense of miracles. But not just any miracle, but those that have been declared such by a reputable authority--perhaps Plutarch, whom Montaigne clearly adores, but mainly the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, this piece that exhorts one to remain thoughtful and not jump to conclusions too rashly seems to give up the effort of thought itself, since, in the end, he declares that one should totally submit to the judgment of the "ecclesiastical polity." Such a reputable authority, in fact, can declare what is against the order of Nature (i.e. "the ordered Nature determined by God") and what is not (namely, the miracles and mysteries of the Church).

In fact, at this point, the reflections on maintaining critical thought that is not jumping to conclusions or being "rashly presumptuous" sounds frighteningly similar to the positions staked by rather conservative evangelical creationists in recent public school science curriculum debates. As Wade has been posting on Evolution of the Mystery, most supporters of "scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" try to get their views of creation to be taught in science classes side-by-side with evolution through the language of demonstrating the strengths of weaknesses of scientific theories (i.e. evolution--as Wade points out, they are probably not going to be discussing the strengths and weakness of atomic theory). They too are relying upon their "reputable authority" (i.e. their interpretation of Gen. 1:1-2:3) to determine the possible and are questioning the scientific community position of evolution (which is not at all controversial in scientific circles) as being "rashly presumptuous" and claiming to know what is knowable and what is not knowable. Again, the end result is again remaining in "suspense"--at the very best, not knowing anything. Not being too impressionable, neither believing nor disbelieving, leaves one without a position at all, allowing another to decide the position for you. The result of all of this thoughtfulness seems to be thoughtlessness, allowing the reputable authority to do your thinking for you. The problem is, who defines "reputable" and how did that "authority" become an "authority" and how did it become "reputable"?

No comments: