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Montaigne: he takes a view that became popular in the Enlightenment—he looks at the different religions with Olympian neutrality (which conceals disdain). So he says, for example, that the Hindoos, the Christians, the Mohammedans, and the (then just discovered) Red Indians all say different things—so how can we say who has the truth? Montaigne throws up his hands, in a way that seems wise, and says “but they all say different things, what do?”. This view was taken up by men like Voltaire and, indeed, Nietzsche and has become an almost standard view today.

The problem with it is that for people to make different claims doesn’t mean the answer is just to say “they all say different things, what can I do?”. If you had, for example, a plumber, an electrician, a builder, and an architect in your house and they all told you to do different things about a decaying overhang under your bathroom that doesn’t mean that the correct response is to say “well, they all say different things, so how can I know?”. After all, one man might be right and the others all wrong, or three of the men somewhat right and the rest wrong—or they all may be slightly correct, from different angles.

Sure, when people disagree on a topic it does complicate the situation—when Protestants and Catholics say different, sometimes opposite, things and when they put forward systems that claim to be “the truth” that is a problem. But it’s no solution to shrug and say “who can tell?”. This Pyrrhonism (scepticism about even scepticism) or scepticism or agnosticism can easily lead to a smug superiority—and I think you find it on display among contemporary progressives to a great extent. When they say “whatever, I don’t know—nobody does” you hear this faint, oh so faint, echo of Montaigne taking his wise position of neutrality (he was a lawyer and judge after all—always striking a balance).

Yes, Montaigne lived during the wars of religion and, just like we are so far into the Ukraine War, at a certain point he became sick of the violence, the torture, and, above all, the ridiculous lies (on all sides). It’s such a situation that leads a man to retreat to his tower and say, “Damned if I know who tells the truth here, and you’re all so bitter about it and so mendacious in your lies that I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and say ‘who knows?’—after all, the men of the Indies seem to eat each other with alacrity, and I’m not so sure we wouldn’t look so odd to them…”

However, after long enough, this position can itself become smugness—if your position is that it is impossible to achieve any truth in religion because everyone says different things you have effectively given up on religion. But that is a position about the nature of man—his endless mendacity and foolishness—it’s not about the truth at all, you’ve given up on that (worse, you feel rather content about that fact and think you’re better than everyone else because you’re shrugging your shoulders).

Yes, no doubt it’s a difficult topic—it’s not as cut and dried as science (or even law), and men tend to lie about it. However, bad behaviour around a topic doesn’t make it less true or less real. All you’ve done, in Montaigne’s case, is to avoid the whole topic because it happens to be difficult—but what if in return for “peace in your tower” you’ve given up something vital?

It’s why the Enlightenment philosophes are so smug, “Of course, the Hebrews forbid man to touch pigs—but for the Toch’ai tribe in Polynesia the pig is a sacred animal, nothing more exalted; and to touch it is lucky. Such is the folly and vanity of man in religion…” Yet both could be true—perhaps for one tribe an animal is a positive totem and for another it is a curse. The philosophe just says “people have strange quaint customs, all must be wrong”—but that customs are different doesn’t entail they are incorrect.

It’s similar to cultural relativism. The left says that cultures differ in morals, therefore there is no morality—and conservatives then condemn this “relativism”. But for cultures to differ doesn’t negate their moral codes—perhaps one code is appropriate for this tribe, and another code for that tribe.

Actually, the left’s “cultural relativism”, so-called by conservatives, is universal—it says “there must be one moral code, or none”; and yet there can be many moral codes that are objectively correct for each tribe. Conservatives and liberals squabble over which universal moral code should prevail—the post-Christian or the Christian, both being from a common root.

Unfortunately, over time, people have become extraordinarily proud of themselves, smug even, for taking “Montaigne’s view”—even though they have no grounds to, all they’ve done is given up on religion altogether (in an irrational way). There are many such memes that have a long life—Burke noted that Rousseau abandoned his children to orphanages, and people repeat that meme down to this day. It’s not that it’s wrong—but it shows the power of a meme, and it interests that it’s taken up without thought, so that people repeat Burke’s words down to this day (and feel smug about it).

It’s the same deal with Montaigne, people repeat his words and feel very judicious—very proud not to be judgemental; and yet they don’t reflect on whether their supposed “judicious” and “sagacious” scepticism might not be, in fact, fallacious and irrational—it refutes nothing, just says that it is hard to know the truth in religion so we shouldn’t try. This is then presented as “deep wisdom”. As noted, it’s a difficult area to navigate but to be difficult doesn’t mean there’s no truth to it at all. It’s not wisdom to just give up—popular disagreement doesn’t nullify truth.


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