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“ A sceptic in religion is one that hangs in the balance with all sorts of opinions; whereof not one but stirs him, and none sways him. A man guiltier of credulity than he is taken to be; for it is out of his belief of every thing that he believes nothing. Each religion scares him from its contrary ; none persuades him to itself. He would be wholly a Christian, but that he is something of an Atheist ; and wholly an Atheist, but that he is partly a Christian ; and a perfect Heretic, but that there are so many to distract him. He finds reason in all opinions, truth in none; indeed, the least reason perplexes him, and the best will not satisfy him. He finds doubts and scruples better than resolves them, and is always too hard for himself."* If this portrait had been presented to Montaigne, I have little doubt that he would have had the candor to acknowledge, that he recognised in it some of the most prominent and characteristical features of his own mind.
The most elaborate, and seemingly the most serious, of all Montaigne's essays, is his long and somewhat tedious Apology for Raimond de Sebonde, contained in the twelfth chapter of his second book. This author appears, from Montaigne's account, to have been a Spaniard, who professed physic at Thoulouse, towards the end of the fourteenth century; and who published a treatise, entitled Theologia Naturalis, which was put into the hands of Montaigne's father by a friend, as a useful antidote against the innovations with which Luther was then beginning to disturb the ancient faith. That, in this particular instance, the book answered the intended purpose, may be presumed from the request of old Montaigne to his son,
• Mico-cosmography, or a Piece of the World Discovered, in Essays and Characters. For a short notice of the author of this very curious book, (Bishop Earle,) see Letters from the Bodleian Library, vol. I. p. 141. I understand it has been lately reprinted in London, but have only seen one of the old editions (the seventh), printed in 1638. The chapter from which I have transcribed the above passage is entitled A Skeptic in Religion; and it has plainly suggested to Lord Clarendon some of the ideas, and even expressions, which occur in his account of Chillingworth.
† “ The writings of the best authors among the ancients,” Montaigne tells us on one occasion, “being full and solid, tempt and carry me which way almost they will. He that I am reading seems always to have the most force; and I find that every one in turn has reason, though they contradict one another.” Book ii. chap. 12.
a few days before his death, to translate it into French from the Spanish original. His request was accordingly complied with ; and the translation is referred to by Montaigne in the first edition of his Essays, printed at Bourdeaux in 1580; but the execution of this filial duty seems to have produced on Montaigne's own mind very different effects from what his father had anticipated.*
The principle aim of Sebonde's book, according to Montaigne, is to show that “ Christians are in the wrong to make human reasoning the basis of their belief, since the object of it is only conceived by faith, and by a special inspiration of the divine grace.” To this doctrine Montaigne professes to yield an implicit assent; and, under the shelter of it, contrives to give free vent to all the extravagancies of scepticism. The essential distinction between the reason of man, and the instincts of the lower animals, is at great length, and with no inconsiderable ingenuity, disputed; the powers of the human understanding, in all inquiries, whether physical or moral, are held up to ridicule; an universal Pyrrhonism is recommended ; and we are again and again reminded, that “the senses are the beginning and the end of all our knowledge.” Whoever has the patience to peruse this chapter with attention, will be surprised to find in it the rudiments of a great part of the licentious philosophy of the eighteenth century; nor can he fail to remark the address with which the author avails himself of the language afterwards adopted by Bayle, Helvetius, and Hume :-" That, to be a philosophical sceptic, is the first step towards becoming a sound believing Christian.” + It is a melancholy fact in ecclesiastical history, that this insidious maxim should have been sanctioned, in our times, by some theologians of no common pretensions to orthodoxy; who, in direct contradiction to the words of Scripture, have ventured to assert, that “he who comes to God must first believe that he is not.” Is it necessary
* The very few particulars known with respect to Sebonde have been collected by Bayle. See his Dictionary, Art. Sebonde.
† This expression is Mr. Hume's; but the same proposition, in substance, is frequently repeated by the two other writers, and is very fully enlarged upon by Bayle in the Illustration upon the Sceptics, annexed to his Dictionary. VOL. VI.
to remind these grave retailers of Bayle's sly and ironical sophistry, that every argument for Christianity, drawn from its internal evidence, tacitly recognises the authority of human reason ; and assumes, as the ultimate criteria of truth and of falsehood, of right and of wrong, certain fundamental articles of belief, discoverable by the light of Nature ?*
Charron is well known as the chosen friend of Montaigne's latter years, and as the confidential depositary of his philosophical sentiments. Endowed with talents far inferior in force and originality to those of his master, he possessed, nevertheless, a much sounder and more regulated judgment; and as his reputation, notwithstanding the liberality of some of his peculiar tenets, was high among the most respectable and conscientious divines of his own church, it is far from improbable, that Montaigne committed to him the guardianship of his posthumous fame, from motives similar to those which influenced Pope, in selecting Warburton as his literary executor. The discharge of this trust, however, seems to have done less good to Montaigne than harm to Charron ; for, while the unlimited scepticism, and the indecent levities of the former, were viewed by the zealots of those days with a smile of tenderness and indulgence, the slighter heresies of the latter were marked with a severity the more rigorous and unrelenting, that, in points of essential impor
*“ I once asked Adrian Turnebus,” says Montaigne, “what he thought of Sebonde's treatise ? The answer he made to me was, That he believed it to be some extract from Thomas Aquinas, for that none but a genius like his was capable of such ideas."
I must not, however, omit to mention, that a very learned Protestant, Hugo Gro. tius, has expressed himself to his friend Bignon not unfavorably of Sebonde's intentions, although the terms in which he speaks of him are somewhat equivocal, and imply but little satisfaction with the execution of his design.. “Non ignoras quantum excoluerint istam materiam (argumentum scil. pro Religione Christiano) philosophicâ subtilitate Raimundus Sebundus, dialogorum varietate Ludovicus Vives, maximâ autem tum eruditione tum facundiâ vestras Philippus Mornæus.” The authors of the Nouveau Dictionnaire Historique (Lyons, 1804,) have entered much more completely into the spirit and dıift of Sebonde’s reasoning, when they observe, “ Ce livre offre des singularités hardies, qui plurent dans le temps aux philosophes de ce siècle, et qui ne déplairoient pas à ceux du notre.”
It is proper to add, that I am acquainted with Sebonde only through the medium of Montaigne's version, which does not lay claim to the merit of strict fidelity ; the translator himself having acknowledged, that he had given to the Spanish philosopher“ un accoutrement à la Françoise, et qu'il l'a dévêtu de son port farouche et maintien barbaresque, de manière qu'il a mes-hui assez de façon pour se présenter en toute bonne compagnio.',
tance, they deviated so very little from the standard of the Catholic faith. It is not easy to guess the motives of this inconsistency; but such we find from the fact to have been the temper of religious bigotry, or, to speak more correctly, of political religionism, in all ages of the world.*
As an example of Charron's solicitude to provide an antidote against the more pernicious errors of his friend, I shall only mention his ingenious and philosophical attempt to reconcile, with the moral constitution of human nature, the apparent discordancy in the judgments of different nations concerning right and wrong. His argument on this point is in substance the very same with that so well urged by Beattie, in opposition to Locke's reasonings against the existence of innate practical principles. It is difficult to say, whether, in this instance, the coincidence between Montaigne and Locke, or that between Charron and Beattie, be the more remarkable.t
Although Charron has affected to give to bis work a systematical form, by dividing and subdividing it into books and chapters, it is in reality little more than an unconnected series of essays on various topics, more or less distantly related to the science of Ethics. On the powers of the understanding he has touched but slightly; nor has he imitated Montaigne, in anatomizing, for the edification of the world, the peculiarities of his own moral character. It has probably been owing to the desultory and popular style of composition common to both, that
*“Mortaigne, cet auteur charmant,
Tour-à-tour profond et frivole,
Voltaire, Epitre au Président Hénault. † See Beattie's Essay on Fable and Romance; and Charron de la Sagesse, Liv. ii. c. 8. It may amuse the curious reader also to compare the theoretical reasonings of Charron with a memoir in the Phil. Trans. for 1773 (by Sir Roger Curtis,) containing some particulars with respect to the country of Labradore.
so little attention has been paid to either by those who have treated of the history of French philosophy. To Montaigne's merits, indeed, as a lively and amusing essayist, ample justice has been done ; but his influence on the subsequent habits of thinking among his countrymen remains still to be illustrated. He has done more, perhaps, than any other author (I am inclined to think with the most honest intentions,) to introduce into men's houses (if I may borrow an expression of Cicero) what is now called the new philosophy,-a philosophy certainly very different from that of Socrates. In the fashionable world, he has, for more than two centuries, maintained his place as the first of moralists; a circumstance easily accounted for, when we attend to the singular combination, exhibited in his writings, of a semblance of erudition, with what Malebranche happily calls his air du monde, and air cavalier. * As for the graver and less attractive Charron, his name would probably before now have sunk into oblivion, had it not been so closely associated, by the accidental events of his life, with the more celebrated name of Montaigne.t
The preceding remarks lead me, by a natural connexion of ideas (to which I am here much more inclined to attend than to the order of dates,) to another writer of the seventeenth century, whose influence over the literary and philosophical taste of France has been far greater than seems to be commonly imagined. I allude to the Duke of La Rochefoucauld, author of the Maxims and Moral Reflections.
* " Ah l’aimable homme, qu'il est de bonne compagnie ! C'est mon ancien ami; mais à force d'être ancien, il m'est nouveau.” Madame de Sévigné.
† Montaigne himself seems, from the general strain of his writings, to have had but little expectation of the posthumous fame which he has so long continued to enjoy. One of his reflections on this head is so characteristical of the author as a man; and, at the same time, affords so fine a specimen of the graphical powers of his now antiquated style, that I am tempted to transcribe it in his own words : “ j'écris mon livre à peu d'hommes et à peu d'années; s'il c'eût été une matière de durée, il l'eût fallu commettre à un language plus ferme. Selon la variation continuelle qui a suivi le nôtre jusqu'à cette heure, qui peut espérer que sa forme présente soit en usage d'ici à cinquante ans ? il écoule tous les irs de nos mains, et depuis que je vis, s'est altéré de moitié. Nous disons qu'il est à cette heure parfait: Autant en dit du sien chaque siècle. C'est aur bons et utiles écrits de le clouer à eux, et ira sa fortune selon le crédit de notre état."
How completely have both the predictions in the last sentence been verified by the subsequent history of the French language !