Ancient and modern skepticism - redefined

SPRING is here. Bees bumble in the blooms outside my window; a distant lawn mower fills the noontime void. I pull the blinds; I'm skeptical. ``The very air and calm weather have power to change us,'' I read in an essay by Montaigne. During the religious wars of the 16th century in France, Michel de Montaigne retired to the family estate and, following the advice of Socrates to ``know thyself,'' invented the personal essay.

A fine edition, in English, of Montaigne's longest essay, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, has just been published in paperback (Viking Penguin, New York, $5.95). M.A. Screech of All Souls College, Oxford, did the translation and notes (he's doing a complete edition of Montaigne's essays - good news!). It's a sharp and lively presentation of the great skeptic.

Screech explains the peculiar context of the ``Apology.'' Montaigne's defense of a 100-year-old book by a Spanish professor ``reconciles observed nature with revealed truth.'' This requires subverting the idea that mankind is the measure of all things. Montaigne seems to go out of his way to cut the human race down to size. A long section is devoted to comparing it with various animals - the animals come out on top. ``Unaccommodated man'' needs more than the philosophers have to offer. ``What good did their great erudition do for Varro and Aristotle?'' Montaigne asks. ``Did it free them from human ills?''

Skepsis is the Socratic word for inquiry. Socratic skepticism is a way of life devoted to inquiry into the most comprehensive questions about the human situation. So says my copy of Strauss and Cropsey's text, ``History of Political Philosophy.'' If Plato is the father of big ideas, as some skeptics assume, Socrates, on the other hand, knew that he knew nothing - and that's an important bit of information!

The skeptic watches his feelings of self-importance as if they were children playing alone in a garden, not knowing what whim will prevail next. The aim is dispassionate acceptance of life, not icy distance from it. Montaigne rejects the idea that humans can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: ``...[man] will rise by abandoning and disavowing his own means, letting himself be raised and pulled up by purely heavenly ones.''

Modern historians too often explain Montaigne as a conservative, a timeserver in the Counter-Reformation. Still, as David R. Hiley explains in Philosophy in Question (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, $24.95), skepticism can lead and has led to an uncritical acquiescence to custom and tradition.

Hiley shows how prevalent this skeptical accommodation is among contemporary philosophers, even the great ones. If you doubt all knowledge, you will naturally fall back on society's norms. Hiley is concerned that this undermines the tradition of social change in Enlightenment philosophy - the idea that philosophy should improve life for all - and thus philosophy's liberal credentials. He questions a prominent philosopher's belief that for society (including the philosopher), ``loyalty to itself is morality enough.''

While Hiley does scant justice to Montaigne's religious aspect, he does hold him up as a standard of ``duty to mankind.''

For Paul Feyerabend, one of the most iconoclastic philosophers of our time, skepticism is the right way to be true to mankind. As one can see from his newest collection of essays, Farewell to Reason (Verso, New York, $15.95, paper), he is equally at home in ancient and modern physics, mathematics, and astronomy; he became a philosopher in response to his contemporaries, including his teacher Karl Popper, whom he often criticizes now but to whom he clearly owes his image of the philosopher of science with a background in the Greeks.

Feyerabend attacks ``objectivism'' - the belief in universal truth - and champions relativism, albeit a quite refined variety of relativism. He rejects the idea that ``no point of view is more justified than any other.'' He also rejects the idea that Western experts can go into the third world and make life wonderful for the native inhabitants.

Noting that the destruction of ``immune systems'' in the original environments has often resulted, Feyerabend often quotes F.A. von Hayek's great work ``Constitution of Liberty'' against interventionism.

Feyerabend believes that politics is somewhat related to love. ``It respects people, considers their personal wishes, does not `study' them whether by polls or by anthropological field work.... In a word: politics, rightly understood, is firmly `subjective.'''

He is a dramatic writer and thinker; reading him, one has to look up to shake off the feeling that one is reading a dialogue by Plato with the brilliant young sophist holding forth.

At other times he can sound like Montaigne: ``I have little love for the educator or moral reformer who treats his wretched effusions as if they were a new sun brightening the lives of those living in darkness; I despise the so-called teachers who try to whet the appetite of their pupils until, losing all self-respect and self-control, they wallow in truth like pigs in the mud....''

Clearly our knowledge of life needs testing, not by turning inward, not by turning toward like-minded colleagues, but by turning toward others close to home, such as families.

Fair play, give-and-take - what Feyerabend calls ``subjectivism''; tenderness toward members of the opposite sex and children - that's the essence of family life. It encourages humility. It also yields dreams of Utopia (the turtles sleeping atop one another in their tank, the gerbils revolving their wheels, the budgies making melody with bobbing heads).

And peace - always the end of skepticism - seems at least approachable. If our times make skeptics of us, our families can make our skepticism humane.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's books editor.

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