Rene Descartes and Michel de Montaigne had a lot in common. Both enjoyed learning but hated school. In Discourse on Method Descartes famously called everything he had accepted as true in school into doubt. In his essay “On Educating Children” Montaigne berated teachers for pouring knowledge “down through a funnel.”
Both were born in 16th century France during the Renaissance. Both studied the Greeks and the Romans. Both attended schools that emphasized grammar, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. And though they had no way of knowing it, both played crucial roles in bridging the Renaissance with the Enlightenment.
And yet I have a hard time thinking of two philosophers who differed as much as these two did. Descartes dedicated his life to developing a singular and unified philosophy. He was a top-down thinker, relying on a few axiomatic truths to describe the world.
Montaigne also discussed big philosophical questions but he rarely answered them. Instead he focused on the ordinary aspects of life, such as the nature of friendship or the etiquette of burping and farting. He was a bottom-up thinker, relying on personal experience to describe his world.
Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy. His books are logical and organized, and though he is occasionally autobiographical, his writing is mostly academic and a bit musty. It is from Descartes that we understand ourselves as autonomous individuals who carefully doubt their way to the truth.
Montaigne never wrote a magnum opus, he is not known for a famous maxim, and it’s tough to pinpoint a single intellectual contribution he made to western thought. He is credited with inventing the essay, which he wrote over one hundred. Although most are just a few pages long, each one is lively and erudite. It is from Montaigne, perhaps our first social psychologist, that we understand the benefits of travel, the meaning of friendship, and how to handle loss.
Descartes and Montaigne were deeply interested in the ancients—Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, Ovid, Horace, Plutarch—but whereas Descartes used them to figure out what it means to know, Montaigne relied on them to figure out what it means to live.
I was first alerted to the Montaigne-Descartes distinction years ago when I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb emphasizes, correctly, that, “We surely closed our minds by following Descartes’ model of formal thinking rather than Montaigne’s brand of vague and informed (but critical) judgment.” He cites Stephen Toulmin’s 1990 book Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Toulmin, a British philosopher who passed away in 2009, likewise wondered if the “opening gambit in the chess game of Modern Philosophy had been, not Descartes’ method of systematic doubt, but the skeptical arguments of Montaigne.”
I’ve just discovered another excellent account of Montaigne, Saul Frampton’s When I am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me? Frampton makes an especially erudite point about the etymology of “essay” that I had never considered, and it almost perfectly captures what makes Montaigne a better role model for the modern thinker.
The original French word Montaigne used to describe his writing was ‘essais,’ which most people translate to ‘trials,’ ‘tests’ or ‘attempts.” But to Montaigne’s contemporaries, ‘essais’ could have also meant ‘tastes’ or ‘tasting.” If you squint closely, you’ll notice that the history of the word ‘essay’ is clearly linked to food and wine, as in “take a sip of wine and essay it.”
Montaigne lived most of his live on a vineyard in Bordeaux, so the connection between tasting wine and examining the intricacies and vicissitudes of human experience is not that surprising. As is true of wine and life, objective standards of measurement are usually blurry. We must make the best judgments we can, knowing our intuitions often mislead and obfuscate.
“The idea of taste thus allows Montaigne to explain how we have knowledge of the world,” Frampton writes, “but, like our tastes in wine, it also explains how each of us differ. We think we have comprehensive knowledge of something, but we only have a taste.”
Does knowing the wine is expensive influence how it tastes? Does the experience of drinking wine change when we’re with friends? And what can the aging process of wine teach us about life? These are the sorts of questions Montaigne asked.
Descartes, to be sure, also appreciated the fact that we do not see the world as it is. But whereas he diligently pursued truth and certainty, Montaigne was content to study how our subjectivity swayed us. “Unless some one thing is found of which we are completely certain, we can be certain about nothing,” Montaigne wrote. Years later, Descartes read this passage and reasoned that Montaigne was wrong. The truth is allusive, but to doubt is to confirm one’s existence. That we know for sure.
The irony is today the word essay describes a formal and logical piece of prose, even though Montaigne’s collection, better translated as “the Tastes of Michel de Montaigne,” took the opposite approach. Instead of making a case for one big idea, he sampled different parts of life, hopscotching from one idea to another without worrying about how each paragraph supported a thesis statement.
Descartes-style thinking is indispensable, but how much mental space should it occupy? The answer depends on what we want to value. Descartes famously influenced Isaac Newton, who showed us how the world works. Fewer people know that Montaigne influenced William Shakespeare, our most celebrated playwright, who showed us how we work.
As you contemplate this difference, remember that like wine, introspection never concludes.