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The Skeptic as Absolutist: Michel de Montaigne

Mises Daily: Thursday, April 22, 2010 by

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[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An audio version of this Mises Daily, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available as a free download.]

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–92)

It is a favorite conceit of modern, 20th-century liberals that skepticism, 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 skeptic, convinced of nothing, will not. But the truth is precisely the opposite: the skeptic 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 skepticism means that the victims of aggression will be rendered defenseless against assault. Furthermore, the skeptic 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 skeptics of the modern world, the widely read and celebrated 16th-century French essayist, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–92).[1] Montaigne was born to a noble family in the PĂ©rigord region of southwestern France, near the city of Bordeaux. He became a judge in the Bordeaux parlement in 1557, at the age of 24, as his father had been before him. He also joined at the parlement an uncle (his father's brother), a first cousin of his mother, and a brother-in-law. Remaining in the parlement for 13 years, and then denied promotion to the upper chamber of that body, Montaigne retired to his rural chateau in 1570 to write his famous Essays. There he remained, except for a four-year stint as mayor of Bordeaux in the early 1580s. 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 practicing Catholic, Montaigne was a thoroughgoing skeptic. 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 absolutist 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."[2]

In particular, Montaigne, though skeptical 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 defense of deceit in a prince with his seemingly paradoxical defense 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.

Michel de Montaigne made a notable and highly influential contribution to mercantilism – the strictly economic aspect of state absolutism – as well. Although he claimed that he knew nothing, on one thing he certainly asserted truth, his much vaunted skepticism suddenly vanishing: in what Ludwig von Mises was later to call the "Montaigne fallacy" he insisted, as in the title of his famous Essay Number 22, that "The Plight of One Man is the Benefit of Another." There is the essence of mercantilist theory, in so far as mercantilism has a theory at all; in contrast to the fundamental truth well known to the scholastics that both parties benefit from an exchange, Montaigne opined that in a trade, one man can only benefit at the expense of another. By analogy, in international trade, one nation must benefit at the expense of another. The implication is that the market is a ravening jungle, so why should not a Frenchman urge the French state to grab as much from others as it can?

Montaigne developed his theme in Essay 22 in a characteristically worldly-wise and cynical manner. He notes that an Athenian once condemned a funeral director

on the charge that he demanded unreasonable profit, and this profit could not accrue to him but by the death of a great number of people. This judgment appears to be ill-grounded, inasmuch as no profit can possibly be made but at the expense of another, and because by the same rule every kind of gain would have to be condemned.

 Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
(2-volume set)

All work is done at the expense of others, and Montaigne correctly notes that the physician could be condemned in the same way. The same charge could be levied at the farmer or retailer for "gaining because of people's hunger." the tailor for "profiting because of someone's need for clothing" and so forth. He concluded broadly that the benefit of any one entity is necessarily "the dissolution and corruption of some other thing."

Unfortunately, of course, he could not see also that these producers did not create such needs, but instead were fulfilling them and thereby removing the want and pain of their customers and adding to their happiness and standard of living. If he had gone that far, he would have realized the nonsense of his dog-eat-dog, or what would now be called his "zero-sum-game" view of the marketplace.

Notes

[1] Pronounced Mon-TAN-ye rather than the usual Mon-TAYN, for he came from an area of southwestern France where langue d'oc (Occitan) was spoken rather than the northern (essentially the area around Paris) langue d'oeil or d'oui (French). The southern regions had only been conquered by France in the course of a savage extirpation of their religion (Albigensian) and culture during the 13th century. The area around Bordeaux, furthermore, had been acquired by England and governed by the English for three centuries, from the mid-12th to the mid-15th. When the French captured Bordeaux and the surrounding region in the 1450s, they proceeded to extirpate the Gascon (which includes Périgord) wing of Occitan as a written language, a language that the English had left alone. Thus, in 1539, a few years after Montaigne's birth, the French outlawed the use of Occitan as an administrative, written language, in the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts. People like Montaigne were thus induced to write in the official French language, and while he was always loyal to the French Crown, Montaigne still considered himself far more of a Gascon than a Frenchman.

[2] Skinner, op. cit., note 2, p. 279.