Shakespeare Versus Montaigne

by David P. Gontar (August 2014)

The Philosopher Pyrrho in Stormy Seas by Petrarcameister (Hans Weiditz)  

“There is something unknown in knowing.”   – Richard Eberhart

I.  Introduction

Recent Shakespeare criticism has suggested a positive influence on the English dramatist by the 16th century French essayist. Though the point has been reiterated until well nigh taken for granted, its accuracy and scope may be questioned. For it is hard to imagine two more different authorial voices. Shakespeare created a vast dramatic realm, including larger-than-life heroes embroiled in sturm und drang. We thrive in the passions of these promethean characters. High tension and radical transformation are his meat. Whether one considers the bathetic escapades of the comedies, the unrelenting confrontations of his histories or the explosive self-revelations of the tragedies, all set forth in the most compelling language ever to emerge from the human soul, Shakespeare is the master of life’s affective dimension, the Michelangelo of the mind. His characters’ emotional contortions enlarge and illuminate our own follies and triumphs. We participate in their lives vicariously, learning their lessons without undergoing their trials. Their catharsis is ours too. 

Montaigne, on the other hand, is not a thespian but a thinker. His sere sensibility, forged over a lifetime of study and contemplation, is cool, unruffled and deliberate. His anecdotes are emblematic rather than engrossing. His personal heroes are not wounded giants but rather reserved and resourceful geniuses,  sages who sift the sands of human experience to bring forth kernels of wit and wisdom. Epicurus, Lucretius and Pyrrho, philosophers whose teachings aim at the overcoming of passion and tempestuous struggles in favor of meditation, insight and inner peace, are his models. While it may be that Shakespeare perused these Essays, allowing us to recognize in his oeuvre what seem to be borrowed phrases or themes, such instances are not what most of us mean by “influence.” For over the course of living, everything leaves its mark in one way or another. As Tennyson’s Ulysses famously says, “I am a part of all that I have met.” But most of the traces within us are mere shades which color but do not constitute what we are. Had Montaigne exercised a detectable influence on Shakespeare, we’d have a different corpus today. In addition to such tormented figures as Lear, Coriolanus, Troilus and King Richard II, we would find other, more restrained and refined protagonists, seeking to hold themselves aloof, above the fray, beyond the rough and tumble of the quotidian round. Of course, Shakespeare knew philosophy and made use of it. But his characters simply do not manifest the serene and steady aim of a Montaigne. Cicero has a cameo appearance in Julius Caesar, but Brutus, trained as a Stoic, fails conspicuously to make use of the doctrines in which he was schooled. Cassius tells him so. (IV, ii, 197-198) Apemantus’s bickering with Timon in Act Four of Timon of Athens is a harsh and discordant departure from the wry ripostes he delivers earlier. The fact is that Shakespeare’s restless spirit dwells not at the “still center of the turning world,” but at the margins, the extremities of life, whose roaring tides we must navigate or perish. Shakespearean humanity becomes what it is, and reveals itself as such, through opposition and stress. Over and over, he teaches that we must strive, use our talents, make ourselves reflected in the world and leave a legacy, or we are nothing. (See, e.g., Troilus and Cressida, III, iii, 90-114) Martius strides into the city of the Corioles alone.  (Coriolanus, I, v., 16) Banished from Rome, he embraces his enemies and wars upon his erstwhile countrymen. Yet it is his indomitable ego which more undoes him than the tribunes, the commons and Aufidius. For Shakespeare the dramatist, dull peace is rarely an option; it is barren, idle, of no more significance than “the lascivious pleasing of a lute.” (King Richard III, I, i, 13) On the other hand, unchecked war is a curse. The Stoic philosophers who clustered on their high porches to poke fun at the foibles of mankind would not be in his terms fully present. They are mere observers, not participants. Though arguably proof against despair and anxiety, they could not achieve the pinnacle of human glory or purchase the profound and searching self-knowledge they sought. With the possible exception of Marcus Aurelius, they were unwilling to pay the price of action. Remember that Christianity triumphed over Stoicism precisely because of the passion of Christ. The god of Stoicism has no preferences, no cares. If Montaigne were advising Tennyson’s Ulysses, then, his counsel would be to build a stony tower in Ithaka and stay put. Why tempt fate again, putting oneself in harm’s way? In brief, then, those who would contend that Shakespeare’s art betrays the imprint of Montaigne, though they advance an intriguing hypothesis, bear a heavy burden of persuasion. In the following pages we will inspect their argument and find it wanting.  

II.  Skepticism

As the principal link between Montaigne and  Shakespeare is alleged to be the philosophy of skepticism, and as that descended from the ancient Greeks, we should first seek to grasp what it portended for those in whom it had its inception and roots, the philosophers of Athens and their progeny. The Socratic turn brought philosophy down “from heaven to earth,” making the axiological concerns of human life rather than physical and cosmological speculations the center of investigation. Not “What is Nature?” but “What are We?” becomes the issue for Socrates and his students. Out of his dialectical colloquies emerge the great academic philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, which concentrate increasingly on the acquisition and elaboration of knowledge understood as a comprehensive system resting on metaphysical principles. Of at least equal importance, however, is another strain of thought which would eventually send philosophy in a different direction, one consonant with the primary Socratic concern with human affairs. As the hegemonic control of Athens, Sparta and their associated city states began to unravel, many sought to employ philosophy to cope with gathering uncertainties. The nature of happiness (eudaemonia) was an urgent personal agenda before it became a conceptual puzzle. In this connection, a number of thinkers and schools arose offering, in the face of historical setbacks and disasters, philosophies of consolation, including hedonism, Epicureanism, cynicism, stoicism and skepticism. Those outlooks were variations on the theme of civilized life, a cognitively based enterprise which conceived of its proper end as a wisdom which might afford its possessors not merely theoretical insight but, more importantly, those accessible fulfillments and gratifications suitable for giddy creatures such as ourselves. One of these, stoicism, rose to become the dominant standpoint of the ancient world, its name synonymous with philosophy itself.

In the case of skepticism, however, on account of the contemporary application of the term, it is difficult for moderns and “post-moderns” (whatever they may be) to comprehend what it meant to our ancestors. Modern “skepticism” arose in the context of the physical and cosmological ideas and revelations of Copernicus and Galileo, who urged among other things the superiority of the heliocentric hypothesis. After 1609-1610, when the telescope began to be used to survey the heavens, it became apparent that geocentricity could no longer be maintained. This astounding discovery, celebrated as a breakthrough which finally set forth the nature of the cosmos for “homo sapiens,” carried darker and more ominous implications. Soon Blaise Pascal was complaining that “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.” Implicit was the stark fact that our race had been utterly deluded about the nature of things from the beginning of recorded time. To put it bluntly, we were wrong, very wrong. To wake up after a gross delusion of 10-20,000 years and embrace a new and incongruous vision of the world may have been momentarily exhilarating, but on reflection must also have been a humbling and even unsettling  turn of events. What were regarded as fundamental and self-evident truths had to be jettisoned. And it is likely that the full consequences of this sea-change have yet to be assessed. To make matters worse, modern learning could set in place of the traditional weltanschauung no definite image, no fixed concept or idea, but rather an interminable succession of hypotheses and theories. Indeed, the very word “modern” implies a mere “mode” or form of comprehension, to be replaced sooner or later by another. The citadel of truth had been razed by error, and in its place still  loomed a yawning abyss.  

The philosophical response to this predicament was swift and dramatic. In 1641, René Descartes, a close student of Galileo’s physics and astronomy, published in Latin his Meditations on First Philosophy, which lamented the state of human ignorance and sought to employ doubt, not self-evident principles, as the ground of any future knowing. A first-hand witness to the overthrow of ancient cosmology and its bi-polar physics, Descartes wrote that our condition was like that of someone thrown into deep water, who had no way of telling what was up and what was down. A sense of intellectual vertigo became prevalent. All so-called “knowledge” was suspect. Hence, although he is remembered primarily as a “rationalist,” Descartes was in method and heuristic attitude a skeptic who so impugned the adequacy of extant knowledge that none of it survived as such. This was nothing short of a spiritual putsch. And though he attempted to restore the status quo ante on the basis of unimpeachable rational deductions, what emerged from his pen was quickly seized on by other skeptics who demolished Cartesian rationalism’s house of cards. Modern skepticism exudes, then, an atmosphere of incalculable devastation. Its mood is au fond one of defeat and resignation, the waiving and surrendering of any claim to durable and reliable knowledge. This is the central theme in modern philosophy, exhibited by such devices as British empiricism on the one hand and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction on the other. It is the intellectual catastrophe of modern skepticism, then, which leads institutions and journalists to batten a perplexed people on electronic gizmos and vapid images of “exploration” and “conquest” of a “universe” hazily understood at best. “Progress” is the chief dogma of modernity, our sacred cow, a way of keeping doubt at bay. Yet sooner or later the dark must dawn.

When students of literature look back at classical skepticism without sufficient care, they may tend to suppose that the limitations and frustrations of our generation were also felt by the ancients. But as suggested above, this view is largely a coarse anachronism. For the original skepticism was not a crisis but a program of edification designed, like its allies, hedonism, cynicism, Epicureanism and stoicism, as a roadmap to contentment. Its ethos was not despair but genial delight. And as we are about to see, much the same misunderstanding occurs when literary critics and philosophers seek to argue that a supposedly subversive skepticism of Michel de Montaigne exercised an  unnerving influence on the art of William Shakespeare. That claim can only be held in ignorance of Montaigne’s skeptical stance and the nature of his philosophical enterprise in general. We will find at all times that Shakespeare and Montaigne stand at the metaphysical antipodes.

III.  Pyrrhonian Skepticism

Classical skepticism is a philosophy of consolation. It was formulated not as a ‘theory of knowledge’ in our sense of the term, but as a cognitive recipe for detachment and inner peace. Contemporary skepticism, on the other hand, is symptomatic of a dilemma. What is termed “epistemology” by writers of the 20th and 21st centuries is a concoction of those who call themselves “professional philosophers,” academics whose business it is to tussle with problems of perception and truth which are the detritus of such sciences as physics and physiology. Hence classical and modern skepticism are not merely different, they are wholly inimical to one another in feeling-tone and meaning. Contemporary philosophers would find absurd the idea of any connection between the “theory” of skepticism and personal satisfaction. On the contrary, the whole thrust of modern philosophy is the refutation of skepticism’s challenge and its supplanting by a robust, if shallow, common sense. Modern skepticism is a Problem; ancient skepticism was a Solution. Unless this contrast is kept firmly in mind, any discussion of “the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare” can only confound and mislead.

It was dissatisfaction with Cyrenaic Hedonism’s identification of happiness with pleasure which led to the development of Epicureanism, which measured satisfaction not by intensity of sensual gratification but by the absence of pain and woe. In fact, for Lucretius, the foremost exponent of Epicureanism, high voltage pleasure is a derangement of the soul akin to torture. The pacification of consciousness yields a state known as “ataraxia.” The Stoics, by a different and more theistic route, denominated the goal as the similar “apatheia.” The teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics were designed to wean people away from crude notions of happiness to something more accurate, practical and productive. And this was the aim also of Pyrrho of Elis, (360 BC – 270 BC) the first known Skeptic, who adapted the concept of “ataraxia” to signify the equilibrium of beliefs and opinions achieved by declining to embrace any of them. Much as Socrates said that the fear of death is a pretended knowledge, so Pyrrho taught that our anxiety in the face of any unknowing is basically delusive and grounded in needless and inappropriate pretensions. To the welter of opinions which compose our discourse the ancient skeptics steadfastly demurred, refusing to choose. If you  argued for “A,” the skeptic would defend “not A,” and vice versa. Seeing the impossibility of any single ideology or argument vanquishing its rivals, the classical skeptic disavowed all positions, withholding assent at every moment. The “cash value” (William James) of this strategy is not the shallow smugness of agnosticism, but a spiritual liberty which attends the recognition that theory always elicits its nemesis. Thus it was that Pyrrho of Elis achieved the same “ataraxia” which Epicurus and Lucretius accomplished with their rejection of unrestricted pleasure. Not libertinism but intellectual fraternity affords true happiness. Instead of intellectual contention which divides us from one another, Pyrrhonian skepticism is consistent with an amity in which colleagues shrug off the burdens of contentious knowledge, and return to the modesties of common sense, not because it is established as veridical, but rather because at the end of the day, none of the fractious ideologies is left standing. As G.E. Moore was to say in defense of our common world: “here is one hand, here is the other.” No rarefied epistemic doubt has the compelling vigor of the simplest article of habitual belief, and when we finally step off the carousel of assertion we find ourselves content. Thus to the catalepsia of the Stoics, a binding principle in which intellectual insight coheres with the data of sense, the Pyrrhonian skeptics opposed their “acatalepsia,” in which more joy is found in noble confusion than in partisan claims which all hound one another.

Pyrrho of Elis appears in a well-known picture by Petrarca-Meister (aka Hans Weiditz), “The Philosopher Pyrrho in Stormy Seas.” In the middle of a foundering ship he is seated calmly, his back to the mast, his head shrouded in a blue wide-brimmed hat. One leg rests calmly athwart a rolling canon. Sailors and passengers are in pandemonium. Pyrrho points to a pig mindlessly grubbing about the rolling deck. We know this tale: he admonishes the frightened crew that a mere pig, a most ignorant brute, has no fear of pelting rain and churning sea. Why should those denominated “homo sapiens” exhibit less self-possession than a lowly beast? Do we know that this storm is a manifest evil for us? No. That would be presumptuous. Suppose we go to watery graves. Might we not thereby be spared far greater horrors? Pyrrho teaches by the example of his own insularity. Of course das Narrenschiff is a metaphor for the clash of opinions, including the debate about the fate of the soul after death. The Pyrrhonian view is that there is more to fear in that interminable disputation than in death itself.

It is interesting to note that a philosophy identical to Pyrrho’s arose in ancient China. Its originator and foremost exponent was Chuangtse. Pyrrho and Chuangtse both died c. 270 BC. How these two creative thinkers could have developed identical metaphysical views at the same historical moment in different languages on opposite sides of the planet is an intriguing puzzle. [To sample Chuangtse’s presentation of Pyrrhonian skepticism, See The Wisdom of Laotse, by Lin Yutang, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, 2009, Book one, pp. 013 ff.]

IV.  Montaigne’s Skepticism

It is thus fairly clear that it is not enough to speak casually of Montaigne’s skepticism in general. Just what sort of skepticism did this 16th century thinker advance? As he died prior to (1) the use of the telescope in astronomy (1609-1610), (2) the physics and astronomy of Galileo, (3) Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, and (4) the appropriation of Cartesian principles by the English-speaking empiricists beginning with John Locke (1632-1704), we can say with confidence that the Essays of Michel de Montaigne preceded the epistemological problematic by at least half a century. As a writer of the later Renaissance, his philosophizing emerged out of a broadly based humanistic ethos which can be traced back to 15th century Italian thought which itself derived from the Socratic turn in ancient Greece. As might be expected, then, in an author as well versed as he was in the literature of antiquity, Montaigne’s skepticism owed much to the philosophies of consolation mentioned above, most particularly to the original skepticism of Pyrrho of Elis.

We’ll first consult the authoritative Introduction to The Complete Essays of Montaigne, by editor M.A. Screech.

i.         By any standards the publication in 1562 by Henri-Estienne of the first edition of the original Greek text of Sextus’ account of Pyrrho’s scepticism was a major event. Montaigne probably relied chiefly on his Latin translation — also found in the second edition of 1567, but quotations from the original Greek enlivened his library. (xxxiv)

ii.        Opinion is not knowledge. Pyrrhonist sceptics reveled in that fact. Sextus Empiricus systematized that contention into a powerful engine of doubt which helped a wise man to suspend his judgement and so to attain tranquility of mind. (xxxiv, emphasis added)

Where is the tranquility of mind in Cartesian skepticism? There is none. In fact, in a moment of literary paranoia, Descartes in his Meditations conjures up the prospect of a malignant genie who might exercise his powers to instill in the poor philosopher’s mind ideas, apprehensions and notions all misleading and delusive. This leads Descartes to consternation and dejection. Certainly the revelation that the human understanding of heaven and earth is, as perceived, scarcely better than a mirage is a thorn in his side until he has set up a proof that our perceptions of the world are reliable and indicative of the nature of things. The skeptical moment for Descartes or any other modern epistemologist is one of concern and dismay.

For Pyrrho and his disciple, Montaigne, on the other hand, doubt itself is the desideratum, for intellectual equilibrium yields equanimity, the solace of incredulity.

Montaigne writes:

[T]he professed aim of Pyrrhonians is to shake all convictions, to hold nothing as certain, to vouch for nothing. Of the three functions attributed to the soul (cogitation, appetite and assent) the Sceptics admit the first two but keep their assent in a state of ambiguity, inclining neither way, giving not even the slightest approbation to one side or the other. (Montaigne, 560)

Now the Pyrrhonians make their faculty of judgment so unbending and upright that it registers everything but bestows its assent on nothing. This leads to their well-known ataraxia: that is a calm, stable rule of life, free from disturbances (caused by the impress of opinions, or of such knowledge of reality as we think we have) which give birth to fear, acquisitiveness, envy, immoderate desires, ambition, pride, superstition, love of novelty, rebellion, disobedience, obstinacy and the greater part of our bodily ills. In this way, they even free themselves from passionate sectarianism, for their disputes are mild affairs and they are never afraid of the other side. (Montaigne, 560)

If it is a child who makes the judgment, he does not know enough about the subject: if it is a learned man, then he has made up his mind already! — Pyrrhonians have given themselves a wonderful strategic advantage by shrugging off the burden of self defence. It does not matter who attacks them as long as somebody does. Anything serves their purpose: if they win, your argument is defective; if you do, theirs is.  If they lose, they show the truth of Ignorance; if you lose, you do. If they can prove that nothing is known:  fine. 

They make it their pride to be far more ready to find everything false than anything true and to show that things are not, rather than that they are. They prefer to proclaim what they do not believe, rather than what they do. Their typical phrases include: ‘I have settled nothing’; ‘It is no more this than that’; ‘Not one rather than the other’; ‘i do not understand’; ‘Both sides seem likely’; ‘It is equally right to speak for and against either side’. To them, nothing seems true which cannot also seems false. They have sworn loyalty to the word epokhé [transliterated from Greek]: ‘I am in suspense’; I will not budge. (Montaigne, 562-563)

After a deep and extensive analysis and considering all objections, Montaigne accepts Pyrronistic skepticism. The key is the secure foundation it provides for human satisfaction and security. 

We would be better off if we dropped our inquiries and let ourselves be moulded by the natural order of the world. A soul safe from prejudice has made a wondrous advance towards peace of mind.

* * *

No system discovered by Man has greater usefulness nor a greater appearance of truth [than Pyrrhonism] which shows us Man naked, empty, aware of his natural weakness, fit to accept outside help from on high:  Man, stripped of all human learning, and so all the more able to lodge the divine within him, annihilating his intellect to make room for faith; he is no scoffer, he holds no doctrine contrary to established custom; he is humble, obedient, teachable, keen to learn — and as a sworn enemy of heresy he is freed from the vain and irreligious opinions introduced by erroneous sects. (Montaigne, 564)

The stamp of Pyrrhonism on Montaigne can be found throughout the Essays. In the midst of the strife of systems, he remains free, yet judicious. The carnage of intellectual battle confirms his faith. He is “cool,” like the cynics and their modern descendants, the beatniks. “We do not go

Such is Montaigne, philosopher and human being. In studying him, we are reminded of Hume’s admonition, “Be a philosopher, but in all thy philosophizing, be still a man.”

The question we pose at this point is about Shakespeare. Is there anything in the philosophy we have been expositing which finds its echo in him? Are there characters in his drama who evince the epokhé — or a reasonable facsimile? No. And yet the acceptation of Shakespeare as a disciple of the French sage will not down. 

We turn now to its evaluation.

V.  Tragic Skepticism

In a recent book, Professor Millicent Bell seeks to make a case for something called Shakespeare’s “tragic skepticism.” It is suggested that in staging “tragic skepticism,” Shakespeare expresses the spirit of Michel de Montaigne. In that context, however, something is amiss. For if the foregoing analysis is correct, “tragic skepticism” is an oxymoron at best, and possibly a contradiction in terms. We have noted that for Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of the skeptical movement in philosophy, far from being tragic, skepticism is the antidote to tragedy, the anodyne that relieves us of all suffering related to our ideas. When every diagnosis is differential, none is lethal. In strictly philosophical terms, the telos of Pyrrhonian skepticism is the Epokhé and “ataraxia,” or inner peace and tranquility. By the time of Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 AD), who inherited and gave systematic expression to the skeptical philosophy in the generation following Pyrrho, skepticism’s connection to human fulfillment was still of cardinal importance. “By scepticism,” he wrote, “we arrive first at suspension of judgment, and second at freedom from disturbance.” (Magee, 43) Skepticism emanating from the classic line of Greek antiquity would be wholly adverse to any form of reversal or misery, including tragedy.  

Bell first brings forward the notion “tragic skepticism” in her Introduction. It is: “the way tragedy results from skeptic disillusion.” (Bell, 4) What could these words portend? The pairing of “skeptic” and “disillusion” would be unintelligible to the founders of skepticism, Pyrrho and Sextus Empircus. They would find it quite impossible to understand what connection there is between tragedy and education in skepticism. In fact, we just learned a moment ago that skepticism for Sextus leads us not to disillusion or tragedy but to “freedom from disturbance.” What is Bell talking about? 

The answer, it seems, lies in Shakespeare.

[H]amlet feels at one and the same time the wonder of the human creature and the beauty of the world which has become a “sterile promontory” to him. His mood is one of tragic loss from which there seems no recovery.” (Bell, 4, emphasis in original)

What shall we make of this? There is no question that at the opening of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Prince Hamlet is dejected. It would be appropriate to say he is in a despondent mood, one which occurs well before his encounter with the ghost who gives news of the murder of King Hamlet by Prince Claudius, the king’s brother. In Act I, Sc. 2, he is contemplating suicide. (I, ii, 129-132) The manifest reason for his malaise is the accelerated remarriage of his mother to Claudius, but we all know that that is not an adequate explanation. No one suffers self-destructive ideation over breaches in etiquette or epistemological puzzles. But Prince Hamlet has been passed over for the Danish throne. That telling fact, coupled with the hasty remarriage of his mother implies he may be a court bastard and thus barred from the succession. This unsettling possibility has nothing to do with the skepticism of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, however. Those philosophers would advise Hamlet to cultivate a judiciously skeptical point of view to allay the worries that nag at him. As we can never know exactly who we are, why not just relax and take each moment as it comes? Classic skepticism yields peace, not anxiety or “disillusion.”  

Prof. Bell then follows up with this:

That ideas contend with one another in Shakespeare’s writings is a quality he shares with the skeptic near-contemporary with whom I find him comparable, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s curiously moving, often evasive, often self-revelatory confessions of alternating belief and unbelief are not merely a feature of his response to the dogmas of his religion. They are duplicated in his attitudes toward numerous other generally accepted assumptions about mankind and the world. Taken as a whole, Montaigne’s essays dramatize the unreadiness of his belief to come down on any conclusion without allowing for the possibility of its opposite. It is that representative skeptic method [sic] of balancing opposing views which was to be inherited from Montaigne by Pierre Bayle, who, at the end of the seventeenth century, made his famous encyclopedic dictionary a dramatization of the “method of doubt,” in which one opinion was posed against [sic] another. I am suggesting that Shakespeare’s thought . . . is, like Montaigne’s or Bayle’s, dialectic or dialogic. It pits an idea against its opposite. It looks to me as though Shakespeare — writing as he did at a time of cultural crisis when old convictions and new doubts were contending in men’s minds — put contrary views into combat to test their strength. His plays are never allegorical — they never dramatize directly the contest of ideas — yet in them ideas contend from line to line in the richest language the stage has ever known. Through the action and language of the plays he invites his audiences to question from moment to moment, the inherited, standard truths of his time. He allows his audience to view fearfully the results of abandoning the prop of such beliefs. This is the hidden structure of argument in Shakespeare’s plays. (Bell, 4-5)

This rambling is not easily followed. Let’s look closely. Bell asserts no influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, but merely finds them “comparable.” Yet the contours of this similarity remain veiled.  Montaigne is here not afforded so much as a single quotation. Instead, a series of pejorative epithets is sprinkled on the page: “curiously moving,” “often evasive,” “self-revelatory,” and “dogm[atic].” Montaigne is accused of having cultivated “attitudes” toward “generally accepted assumptions about mankind.” And then we have reference to his “unreadiness” of belief to “come down on” any conclusion without allowing for the possibility of its opposite. Yes, Montaigne embraced classical skepticism, but hardly because of a lack of preparation. Instead of demonstrating the connection of his “attitudes” to Shakespeare with particularity, we find an irrelevant allusion to Montaigne’s supposed influence on Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a relatively obscure figure in late seventeenth century thought, who is said to have practiced a “method of doubt.” What is the point of this detour? How would Pierre Bayle, who post-dates Montaigne and Shakespeare, shed light on their similitude? Notice that by the time she returns to Shakespeare, we are told that he seeks to use skepticism to induce “fear” in his audiences, a dubious proposition and entirely unsupported. 

Such divagations do nothing to assist the reader to come to terms with the vague claims being asserted about Shakespeare. There is no recognition anywhere in the discussion that there are a variety of skepticisms, and that in discussing the subject it is necessary to distinguish them to avoid mix-ups. We have already seen above that the originator of modern epistemological skepticism was not Pierre Bayle in the late seventeenth century, but René Descartes earlier that century. It was Descartes, not Bayle, who famously practiced the “method of doubt,” as Prof. Bell herself later admits. (Bell, 14)

As for the actual relationship of Montaigne and Bayle, attending to the scholars who have devoted themselves to that subject is well advised. Here are the important comments of Karl C. Sandberg in the Journal of History of Philosophy (Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 103-104), reviewing the analysis of Prof. Craig B. Brush in his book, Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966).

The conclusion of this study establishes similarities and dissimilarities between Bayle and Montaigne, who have often been carelessly lumped together under the catch-all word of “skeptics.” Noting that both of them endorsed a form of religious fideism and argued that skepticism prepared the mind to receive Grace, Professor Brush touches upon the very thorny problem of defining Bayle’s religious belief, which he characterizes semi-fideism. He notes by way of contrast that Montaigne, by not sharing the Calvinist austerity of Bayle’s character, came at the end of his life to a particular brand of gay wisdom that Bayle never knewWhere Montaigne attained to the prize of self-knowledge at the end of his life of inquiry, Bayle found only an unmitigated pessimism, producing in his Dictionnaire a documented indictment of the human race.

Prof. Brush’s point is well taken. Montaigne’s Pyrrhonism cannot be conflated with other less sunny forms of skepticism, a tendency we see in Prof. Bell.  

Later in the Introduction she criticizes Montaigne for assembling a suspect mélange of doubt and belief in his fideistic Catholic faith. In this she detects a fundamental “ambivalence” in Montaigne’s thinking. (Bell, 13) But that so-called “ambivalence” is a function of Bell’s unwillingness to find in his Pyrrhonism a philosophy of consolation, and acknowledge that it culminates in the same ataraxia we see in Lucretius. It is also akin to the apatheia of Stoicism. When once we apprehend the natural telos of Montaigne’s classical skepticism, we can set aside such charges as syncretism and ambivalence. Professor Brush’s point is well taken: skepticism prepares the mind for Grace, and this in a double sense: first by sweeping aside the chaff of seeming knowledge, and more importantly, by giving to the human soul a foretaste of Grace in ataraxia. Thus, for Montaigne, reason plays a somewhat larger role in our religious sensibility than is allowed in the Aristotelian system of St. Thomas Aquinas, where strictly rational arguments can show the existence of God but not what He actually is, an understanding that can be received through divine self-disclosure or revelation only. As in the Augustinian tradition in which the soul is restless ’til it rests in the Rock of Ages, we may think of the skeptical ataraxia as the cooling shadow cast by that sturdy Rock. There is no “ambivalence.” After all, why would the Divine leave mankind in absolute darkness for untold millennia, deferring any sense of salvation until the Prophets? One might think, then, of Montaigne’s philosophy as a negative theology which clears a path not only to the idea of God but also to a sense of His nature.

Even when she touches on Pyrrhonism by name, Bell fails to say what it signifies. She writes, “Both Shakespeare and Montaigne exhibit, I believe, the effects of the current inclination of thought called “Pyrrhonism, after Pyrrho, the third-century B.C. Greek who taught that nothing can be known.” (Bell, 14)  After fourteen pages of exposition during which there is a failure to identify the nature of Montaigne’s philosophy, we finally witness a half-hearted attempt to approach it, only to find ourselves short-changed. The abstract dogma that “nothing can be known” is not Pyrrhonism. This was already explained above. And if Shakespeare is best understood as a follower of “Pyrrhonism,” it’s rather strange that it took four centuries to come to such a realization. Like so many would-be philosophers, Prof. Bell writes sentences about high-sounding topics which turn out to be mere subjectivities (“I believe”). 

Another swipe at Montaigne is taken on the subject of the supernatural. As her quotation from him employs archaic form, we will use a modern translation (M.A. Screech) from Chapter 27 of the Essays for better understanding.

It is not perhaps without good reason that we attribute to simple-mindedness a readiness to believe anything and to ignorance the readiness to be convinced, for I think I was once taught that a belief is like an impression stamped on our soul: the softer and less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it . . . .  The more empty a soul is and the less furnished with counterweights, the more easily its balance will be swayed under the force of its first convictions. That is why children, the common people, women and the sick are more readily led by the nose. On the other hand there is a silly arrogance in continuing to disdain something and to condemn it as false just because it seems unlikely to us. That is a common vice among those who think their capacities are above the ordinary.

I used to do that once: if I heard tell of ghosts walking or of prophecies, enchantments, sorcery, or some other tale which I could not get my teeth into . . . I used to feel sorry for the wretched folk who were taken in by such madness. Now I find that I was at least as much to be pitied as they were. It is not that experience has subsequently shown me anything going beyond my original beliefs (nor is it from nay lack of curiosity on my part), but reason has taught me that, if you condemn in this way anything whatever as definitely false and quite impossible, you are claiming to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God and the power of nature our Mother; it taught me also that there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities. (Montaigne, 200-201; cp. Bell, 16-17)

In all wisdom literature it would be hard to find more incisive judgment and adroitness of expression than this. But for Prof. Bell it is just a symptom of Montaigne’s addle-headedness.

The passage is as good an illustration as one can find in Montaigne’s Essayes of the character of his skepticism, which regards all things doubtfully, and even applies doubt to the act of doubting, because so many things cannot be known. (Bell, 17)

Well, that’s just not what Montaigne says. What he does is admit to a modest credulity when it comes to paranormal phenomena.

 Earlier, Prof. Bell mocks Montaigne’s skepticism in comparison with “modern disbelief” which is “a kind of certainty in itself.” (Bell, 13) Montaigne’s skepticism, on the other hand, robs us of modern disbelief by its “readiness not so much to deny what had always been believed as to say that one could not really know one way or the other.” (Bell, 13) In this respect, not only does Montaigne show greater depth and intelligence than his critics, but so also does Shakespeare, whose plays are filled with instances of fate, prophecy and the proximity of the gods. We recall Shakespeare writing in All’s Well That Ends Well: “They say that miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” (II, iii, 1-6) And given such sentiments and the prominence of supernatural elements in Shakespeare, does this lead to the conclusion that Shakespeare was under the spell of Montaigne and Pyrrho? Not at all. For any fair reading of Shakespeare will show that he inclined not to Pyrrhonism, an abstract doctrine, but rather to the presence and efficacy of a supervenient agency in human affairs. (Gontar, 161 ff) The philosophy of Montaigne is a blueprint for human fulfillment and satisfaction, seeing through the pretensions of “knowledge.” Shakespeare, on the other hand, operates in an entirely different intellectual laboratory, focusing on the Laocoön-like travails of larger-than-life individuals who are liable to various forms of self-deception. Had Shakespeare been preoccupied with “knowledge” he would have given us Faust, not Othello.

Returning once again to the singularity of Montaigne’s skepticism, we should not overlook the penetrating and even-handed treatment provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which exposes with great care the two moments of Montaigne’s skepticism, allowing us to see the reason why his position is so often misunderstood by contemporary thinkers. The key passages are these.

We find two readings of Montaigne as a Sceptic. The first one concentrates on the polemical, negative arguments drawn from Sextus Empiricus, at the end of the Apology [for Raymond Sebond]. This hard-line scepticism draws the picture of man as “humiliated.” Its aim is essentially to fight the pretensions of reason and to annihiliate human knowledge. “Truth,” “being” and “justice” are equally dismissed as unattainable. Doubt foreshadows Descartes’ Meditations, on the problem of the reality of the outside world. Dismissing the objective value of one’s representations, Montaigne would have created the long-lasting problem of ‘solipsism’. We notice, nevertheless, that he does not question the reality of things – except occasionally at the very end of the ‘Apology’ –  but the value of opinions and men. The second reading of his scepticism puts forth that Cicero’s probabilism is of far greater significance in shaping the sceptical content of the Essays. After the 1570’s, Montaigne no longer reads Sextus; additions show, however, that he took up a more and more extensive reading of Cicero’s philosophical writings. We assume that, in his search for polemical arguments against rationalism during the 1570’s, Montaigne borrowed much from Sextus, but as he got tired of the sceptical machinery, and understood scepticism rather as an ethics of judgment, he went back to Cicero. The paramount importance of the Academica for XVIth century thought has been underlined by Charles B. Schmitt. In the free enquiry, which Cicero engaged throughout the varied doctrines, the humanists found an ideal mirror of their own relationship with the Classics. “The Academy, of which I am a follower, gives me an opportunity to hold an opinion as if it were ours, as soon as it shows itself highly probable,” wrote Cicero in De Officiis. Reading Seneca, Montaigne will think as if he were a member of the Stoa; then changing for Lucretius, he will think as if he had become an Epicurean, and so on. Doctrines or opinions, beside historical stuff and personal experiences, make up the nourishment of judgment. Montaigne assimilates opinions, according to what appears to him as true, without taking it to be absolutely true. He insists on the dialogical nature of thought, referring to Socrates’ way of keeping the discussion going:  “The leaders of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, is always asking questions and stirring up discussion, never concluding, never satisfying . . . .” Judgment has to determine the most convincing position, or at least to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each position; but if absolute truth is lacking, we still have the possibility to balance opinions [i.e., isothenia]. We have resources enough, to evaluate the various authorities that we have to deal with in ordinary life.

The original failure of commentators was perhaps in labelling Montaigne’s thought as “sceptic” without reflecting on the original meaning of the essay. Montaigne’s exercise of judgment is an exercise of ‘natural judgment’, which means that judgment does not need any principle or any rule as a presupposition. In this way, many aspects of Montaigne’s thinking can be considered as sceptical, although they were not used for the sake of scepticismFor example, when Montaigne sets down the exercise of doubt as a good start in education, he understands doubt as part of the process of the formation of judgment. This process should lead to wisdomcharacterized as “always joyful.” Montaigne’s skepticism is not a desperate one. On the contrary, it offers the reader a sort of jubilation which relies on the modest but effective pleasure in dismissing knowledge, thus making room for the exercise of one’s natural faculties(Stanford, n.p.n., emphases added)

The meaning is clear. So-called “hard-line” skepticism is employed by Montaigne to achieve a fair and accurate assessment of the state of human knowledge, that is, it is to put us in our proper place as the only species which seeks to compensate for its inevitable ignorance by making vain and inflated claims to “knowledge,” or, in some cases, omniscience. To employ a humble metaphor, such negative skepticism may be compared to the rough kneading of dough before the baking of bread. It is not the food itself but a part of its manufacture. Once the human mind is jolted out of its gnostic fetish, Montaigne can proceed homeopathically to show how the relaxation of intellectual pretensions serves as a restorative yielding natural felicity. As Socrates taught long ago, as long as we think we know, we cannot learn. Only when we are shorn of our intellectual pretensions can we proceed on the path of education. When it finally dawns on us how steep that path is, we shrug off the burden of Gnosis and content ourselves with the modest blessings of life.  

It is therefore inexcusable to attribute to Montaigne the sort of agonized modernity which bemoans the strictures of the anthropoid mind, and then — worse  — attributes the tragic confusions of Shakespeare’s major characters, Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, et al., to the negative influence of Montaigne upon the English poet. Not a single one of these characters exhibits the critically important epokhé and ataraxia which are the signs of intellectual maturity and wisdom as outlined by Montaigne. His bright and balanced outlook is altogether missing in them and in their creator. Nor, as we will see, is it clear that the principal dilemma of these characters arises out of a mere failure of comprehension or cognition. And it is not without significance that it was not until the twentieth century that anyone dreamed of arguing that epistemological issues lay at the core of Shakespeare. Four hundred years of criticism passed without anyone seeking to read him that way. Should all those earlier readings now be swept into the dustbin?  Limitations of space prevent a complete analysis of Professor Bell’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But there is no need to multiply examples which rest on premises demonstrated to be faulty. Instead, we will attend to Professor Colin McGinn and the meaning of “Shakespeare’s philosophy.”

VI.  Shakespeare’s Philosophy

Colin McGinn is not a literary critic or Shakespeare scholar, but a professor of philosophy who managed to compose a steady stream of academic and quasi-academic works at Rutgers University and the University of Miami. Aiming at the mass market, he accomplished the seemingly impossible, getting his volumes placed on the bookshelves of the nation’s largest bookstore chains, where they might easily fall into the hands of an unsuspecting public. Professor Stanley H. Nemeth comments:

Though occasionally insightful in its readings of specific passages, McGinn’s book suffers from a questionable approach, the effort to discover the meaning behind Shakespeare’s plays by dressing the author in borrowed clothes, the too tight doublet and hose of the smaller Montaigne and the completely inappropriate straightjackets of Hume or Wittgenstein. Thus for McGinn Shakespeare emerges as a sort of skeptical naturalist, a thesis difficult to maintain if one examines the plays in their entirety, neither neglecting nor distorting passages that undermine such a narrow view. (Nemeth, Amazon Books Review, January 7, 2007)

According to McGinn, Shakespeare lived in an age before “science.”  Between the dogmas of the medieval worldview on the one hand and claims of the modern period on the other, Shakespeare inhabited a no man’s land of “doubt and uncertainty.” (McGinn, 3) 

[T]he most relevant fact about this period is that it preceded the Scientific Revolution, so that science was in its infancy in Shakespeare’s day. Very little that we now take for granted was understood — in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. The achievements of Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Newton, Boyle and other heroes of the Renaissance were still in the future. (McGinn, 2)

Ironically, a passage such as this is itself just as dubious and uncertain as anything in the time of Shakespeare. McGinn refers to something called the “Scientific Revolution” without any citations or references. What is the purpose and meaning of the capital letters? Sir Isaac Newton was largely a  theologian, and his best known “scientific” work, Principia Mathematica, was published in 1687. In what way could he have been a “hero of the Renaissance“?  

The laws of mechanics were unknown; disease was a mystery; genetics was unheard of. Intelligent people believed in witchcraft, ghosts, fairies, astrology, and all the rest. Eclipses were greeted with alarmed superstition. Scientific method was struggling to gain a foothold.  The conception of the world as a set of intelligible law-governed causes was at most a distant dream. (McGinn, 2)

One would infer that “the laws of mechanics” are universally known and understood in our own enlightened era. Yet how many of us are acquainted with these “laws”? The fact is that “laws of “mechanics” is a metaphor, and not a very good one. Laws are properly creatures of legislation, and unless Mr. McGinn would like to argue that some divinity drafted the “laws” of nature, we would have no way to account for them. People obey laws because they are promulgated, and, conscious of their meaning, we strive to heed and follow them. How would this apply in the field of “mechanics”? Do billiard balls colliding on a table recognize and obey “laws”? If not, what is the meaning of referring to them as such? What ontological status would such “laws” have, and how would they impinge on and influence the objects and events described by “mechanics”?  If one retreated into positivism and said that the locution was not to be taken literally, and that “laws of mechanics” is meant only as a way of referring to measurable regularities and patterns of material behavior, in the absence of actual “laws” how would we account for those regularities? To deal with these simple threshold issues is already to be thrust into the midst of the “philosophy of science,” where all those nasty “doubts and uncertainties” we had banished from our “science” still lie in wait for us, belligerent and unresolved.   

“Witchcraft, ghosts, fairies and astrology” are all spiritual phenomena. Has everything spiritual been exorcised from our lives, as Mr. McGinn implies? Not really. What is consciousness? No one knows. Why am I born this person rather than that? No one knows. What happens after death? Our modern geniuses are still scratching their heads over that one. Can “science” account for itself strictly on the basis of the “laws of mechanics” or any other “scientific laws”? Who has accomplished such a thing?  Not only are spiritual, mental and psychic events common features of everyday life (including the hypotheses and theories of “science”) the very concept of matter has been so conceptually pulverized that, compared with the atoms of Democritus or the “substance”of Locke, in the 21st century it is completely unrecognizable.  

Apparently, Philosopher McGinn imagines it is self-evident that “the conception of the world” (whatever that means) is to be understood as a “set” of “intelligible law-governed causes.” How do the ibis and mongoose fit in here? “O, this learning, what a thing it is!” (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, 157) Try as we might to barricade the doors and keep out haunting questions, they are importunate and thrust themselves upon us. What is denoted by the phrase “the world”? Would all agree about this? What is the relation between “the world” and our “conception of the world”? Is it our conception which is a “set,” or is it the world itself? How can a “world” consist of “sets”? Is there anything else in our world of sets besides “causes”? If so, why not say so? What is space? What is time? Are they parts of “the world”? Are all “law-governed causes” intelligible? How would that be demonstrated? Again, how do “laws” “govern” “causes”? Is it all so clear? Is “the world” wholly translucent and comprehended exhaustively? Do we know everything? Why not? 

The difference between Shakespeare’s view of the world and ours today is like the difference between darkness and light, says McGinn. He didn’t know, we do. Simple, isn’t it?

When Shakespeare looked up into the night sky, he had very little idea of what he was seeing, and the earth was still generally considered the center of the universe. (McGinn, 2)

Contrast that Stygian darkness with contemporary cosmology, in which all is as plain as the nose on your face.   

Hear, for example, breaking news from Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, December 10, 2013, courtesy of Mr. Ron Cowen.


A Ten Dimensional Theory of Gravity Makes the Same Predictions As Standard Quantum Physics in Fewer Dimensions

A team of physicists has provided some of the clearest evidence yet that our universe could be one big projection.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed that an audacious model of the universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space, plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos, where there is no gravity. Maldacena’s idea thrilled physicists because it offered a way to put the popular but still unproven theory of strings on solid footing — and because it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. It provided physicists with a mathematical Rosetta stone, a duality that allowed them to translate back and forth between two the languages, and solve problems in one model that seemed intractable in the other and vice versa. But although the validity of Malcadena’s idea has pretty much been taken for granted ever since, a rigorous proof has been elusive. In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Malcadena’s conjecture is true. (Cowen, n.p.n., emphases added)

Is this knowledge —  or a frank advertisement of nescience? 

Almost wholly unintelligible to the non-mathematical layperson, this assessment of our “universe” is not reassuring. The language is confusing and tentative. There are no unqualified claims of “knowledge,” nor, based on what is read here, are there ever likely to be any, as one mathematical model after another unfolds before us, including the inconceivably fecund “strings” of which everything is supposed (by some) to be made. Read carefully. The “universe” (whatever that is) “could be” one big projection, that is, an illusion. Is this knowledge? The line between “science” and “science fiction” is wafer thin. So, although when Shakespeare looked up at the night sky, he was unaware of exactly what he saw, we with our super-charged “knowledge” stand in much the same position: we don’t know either. And if this “projection” theory were adopted (for none of these ideas can ever be proven), with what would we be left but an unfathomable illusion? Que sait-on?

The project of “science” initiated in the late Renaissance has not been completed. There is no “GUT” or unified field theory. There is no generally received image of what “the universe” is. And the mathematical games played by theoretical physicists and cosmologists are utterly foreign to ordinary human beings seeking to grasp who and where we are. The most fundamental concepts of space, time, matter and energy are thrown about like playthings of the imagination. “Theories” consisting primarily of mathematical formulae are presented to a bewildered public as though they represented a revelation of the very nature of things. And yet there is no common understanding, no imaginable “cosmos.” Though Shakespeare may have had no “knowledge” when he gazed at the starry firmament, he at least had the advantage of not being totally alienated and lost, the immediate effect of what is reported in the journal Nature above.

Were Montaigne alive today, his assessment of this situation would remain unaltered. How, he would ask, can the geocentric worldview be discarded when the theory of relativity holds sway? If motion is not absolute, what basis is there for stating that the apparent revolution of the heavens is the exclusive product of the earth’s rotation on its axis? In all of this well-funded speculation we see once again why Socrates abandoned cosmology: it was and remains a matter of surmise and speculation. Immanuel Kant, F.H. Bradley and other great philosophers showed repeatedly that the very categories of modern science are basically incoherent, and as such cannot yield univocal knowledge. Thomas Kuhn has shown that so-called “science” is a cavalcade of replaceable “paradigms” (that is metaphors) which are subject to periodic supplanting. What Professor McGinn offers, then, is a huge oversimplification.

(The reader wishing to pursue such issues pertaining to the adequacy of scientific knowledge may wish to read: “Ruminating on the Stephen Hawking Phenomenon,” by Colin Bower, New English Review, August 26, 2006.)  

Things go from bad to worse, as Prof. McGinn  identifies “knowledge and skepticism” as the first of three themes promoted by “Shakespeare’s philosophy.” (McGinn, 3) As human existence has always been viewed as the vessel of “knowledge,” Shakespeare must be understood as at least a maverick and, depending on the degree of one’s principles, possibly a modern heretic. For the great thinkers of western civilization according to McGinn defined human nature in terms of its capacity for knowledge. (McGinn, 4) The lone dissenting voice was that of Socrates, who advised caution, the testing of our ambitious ideas, and who counseled “epistemological modesty.” (McGinn, 5) 

It was left to the Greek skeptics, notably Sextus Empiricus, to push the Socratic lesson to its conclusion:  that knowledge, however desirable, is simply not within our grasp. Plato’s entire philosophy therefore founders, since it is just not possible to know anything worthwhile . . .  Man does not have the capacity to satisfy his epistemological desires  —  he is too prone to illusion, error, and uncertainty. We cannot be sure that our senses are not deceiving us, or that our reasoning faculties yield sound inferences, even whether we are dreaming. Man is a small and feeble creature, epistemologically blighted, and not able to comprehend the universe. At its extreme, such skepticism claims that no belief has any greater justification than any other, so that belief itself is an irrational act (this is the school known as Pyrrhonism).  The skeptics accepted Aristotle’s dictum [that the purpose of human being is to achieve knowledge] but argued that it is man’s nature also to be thwarted in his desire for knowledge. (McGinn, 5)

These claims are false. As stated by McGinn, human existence, defined by the desire for a knowledge which is incessantly being “thwarted,” would be doomed to frustration and despair. But, quite to the contrary,  Pyrrhonistic skepticism, as we have seen, was a practical path leading not to hopelessness but to unshakeable reserve. 

In his taxonomy of skepticism, Montaigne put his finger on the confusion. 

Whoever sets out to find something eventually reaches the point where he can say that he has found it, or that it cannot be found, or that he is still looking for it. The whole of Philosophy can be divided into these three categories; her aim is to seek true, certain knowledge.

1.  Peripatetics, Epicureans, Stoics and others think they have discovered it. They founded the accepted disciplines and expounded their knowledge as certainties.

2.  Clitomachus, Carneades and the Academics despaired of their questTheir conclusion is one of weakness, of human ignorance. This school has had the greatest number of adherents and some of the noblest.

3.  As for Pyrrho and the other Sceptics or Ephetics, whose teachings many of the Ancients derived from Homer, the Seven Sages, Archilochus and Euripides, and associated with Zeno, Democritus, and Xenophanes), they say they are still looking for Truth. They hold that the philosophers who think they have found it are infinitely wrong. They go on to add that the second category — those who are quite sure that human strength is incapable of reaching truth — are overbold and vain. To determine the limits of our powers and to know and judge the difficulty of anything whatsoever constitutes great, even the highest, knowledge. They doubt whether Man is capable of it. (Montaigne, 560, emphases added)

McGinn manifestly errs in consigning Pyrrhonism to Montaigne’s second category, those who claim knowledge is impossible. This is the view against which Socrates campaigned his whole life. Bradley and other philosophers have acknowledged its contradictoriness. Pyrrhonistic skepticism, on the other hand, is not a knowledge claim, and on that basis it avoids the inherent contradiction of skeptical absolutists who maintain that knowledge is impossible. McGinn is thus seen making the same mistake we have witnessed repeatedly in the course of our examination of this subject. Pyrrho and his friends never “despaired” over the paucity of human knowledge. On the contrary, they rejoiced that the entire enterprise could be avoided altogether, preserving our essential sanity and equanimity.

Not content with misrepresenting skepticism and its varieties in the history of philosophy, McGinn goes on to make an extraordinarily equivocal general claim:

I shall be arguing . . . that Montaigne had a profound influence on Shakespeare’s worksor, to be more cautious, that many passages in Shakespeare echo passages from Montaigne. [!] In particular, a skeptical thread can be seen running through the plays, which draws upon the kind of skeptical thinking Montaigne revived from the Greeks.” (McGinn, 6-7, )

Well, which is it, a “profound influence,” or textual echoes? Shall be we cautious — or not? Almost as if he wanted to advance a claim in which he had no  confidence, McGinn no sooner avers a “profound influence” of Montaigne on Shakespeare than he retracts it. One thing is plain: he has no hesitation in identifying Montaigne’s skepticism as the doctrinaire variety which has caused so many to despair over the possibility of knowledge. After demonstrating to his own satisfaction that Shakespeare studied Montaigne with all the assiduity with which he labored over the Holy Bible, McGinn provides a vivid description of the sort of skepticism Montaigne bequeathed to English drama. 

Montaigne was especially noted for his eloquent revival of Greek skepticism, particularly in his long essay “An Apology for Raymond Sebond.” Here he dwells with some relish on the limitations on man, his feeble senses, his preposterous overconfidence, his desire not just to obey God, but to imitate Him. In Montaigne’s view, man is but a paltry animal, inferior to many animals in his acuity and good sense, far too fond of his Reason . . . .  So Shakespeare would be exposed to full-blown philosophical skepticism in Montaigne’s writings, and in a form I suspect he would have found especially appealing — since Montaigne is a dramatic, anecdotal, poetic, and powerful writer. Not for Montaigne the dry tomes of the traditional philosopher; his essays are personal, lively, and pungent. I myself, some five hundred years later, find them unusually persuasive and affecting, full of rugged wisdom and brutal honesty — the very characteristics, indeed, which leap from the page of Shakespeare. The word “unflinching” aptly describes the style of both authors — yet with a wry humanity. The great subject of death is never far from either writer, with a steady-eyed contemplation of its terrors and mysteries. But most of all it is Montaigne’s contrarian skepticism that seems to have impressed Shakespeare — as it did many of his contemporaries. (McGinn, 6)

No attempt is made to parse the philosophy of skepticism to identify exactly what type was practiced by Montaigne and his alleged student, Shakespeare. As only destructive and frustrating skeptical theories are treated, there is no alternative but to conclude that Montaigne’s principled jubilation remains unknown to McGinn, despite references to the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” and other Essays. By “full-blown skepticism” it is fairly plain that he intends the setting up of aggravating doubts hostile to happiness. It is, then, not the consolamentum of skepticism but its “problems” which McGinn says are inherited by Shakespeare. There isn’t a hint anywhere in the plays (except for Cassius’s allusion to Stoicism in Julius Caesar) of authentic Pyrrhonian thought. Of course, Montaigne’s thinking was hardly confined to skepticism. His essays teem with thousands of citations to Latin and Greek authors of every persuasion, including Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero, St. Augustine, et al. He chatted amiably on a dizzying variety of subjects. In philosophical terms, he borrowed as he felt like it, yet on the whole his oeuvre gives an impression of homogeneity and coherence. For example, while Epicurus and Lucretius praise friendship, the main line of Stoicism dismisses it as a source of disquietude. Though he might have remained on the sidelines of this debate, by recounting the joys of his own friendship with Etienne de la Boëtie, he added an element not inconsistent with the teachings of Pyrrho. For after all, why should we not enjoy the fruits of philosophy together? This is what Plato was after all along.

In 1912, Bertrand Russell published a small book which exercised an impact out of all proportion to its diminutive size: The Problems of Philosophy. There he departed from the traditional view of philosophy as either a vehicle of wisdom or a presentation of reality as a systematic whole, casting it instead as the puzzling over certain issues which are largely the dregs of modern science. Up until that point, the foremost philosopher in the English-speaking world had been F.H. Bradley, whose major work, Appearance and Reality (1893), argued along neo-Hegelian lines that our lived world of relational experience is incoherent and non-veridical, and contained and resolved in a supra-relational Absolute. Against this metaphysical system, Russell proposed that the business of philosophy is to confirm the content of quotidian experience by disposing of the challenges of epistemology in such a way that we can be confident that the real world corresponds closely to the world of human apperception. Against the idealism of Bradley, then, Russell erected an epistemological realism. Ever since that time, Anglophone philosophers have sought to practice philosophy not in the context of wisdom seeking, nor in systematic manner, but as an attempt to put to rest the particular intellectual riddles of their day. Perennial visions of Truth and Transcendence have been off limits in academic philosophy for more than a century.

Colin McGinn is a bird of that feather. He accepts Russell’s atomistic conception of philosophy as an assortment of disassociated “problems,” and approaches Shakespeare in this vein, as though he had been not a sixteenth century poet but a twentieth century Oxford don. The result is a travesty which manages to make a hodge-podge of both philosophy and Shakespeare simultaneously, no mean feat. Under the heading of “knowledge and skepticism,” a topic, as we have seen, entirely misconceived as a transmission of Montaigne, McGinn proposes that “what Shakespeare added to this ancient skepticism was a special form of skeptical concern – the problem of other minds.” (McGinn, 7, emphasis in original) Though actually an aspect of the problem of the existence of the so-called “external world,” the issue of solipsism centers on our seeming inability to prove the reality of other people conceived as foci of mental activity. Needless to say, of this far-fetched quandary William Shakespeare had not an inkling. It is therefore entirely false and misleading to attribute such a concern to him. Unfazed, McGinn alters the meaning of the “problem of other minds” from the philosophical issue of solipsism to the everyday challenge of understanding other people. The result is a dismaying caricature of philosophy.

The problem arises from a basic duality in human nature — the split between interior and exterior. It seems undeniable that all we observe of another person is his or her body — that is all that we can see and touch and smell. But another person’s mind belongs to the interior aspect of the person — which we cannot see, touch, or smell  There is something hidden about other people’s minds, which we can only infer from what is publicly available. People can keep their thoughts and motives to themselves, simply by not expressing them, and this puts us in a position of not knowing. (McGinn, 7)

Presented as philosophy, this is embarrassing. To paraphrase Oscar Levant on Leonard Bernstein, Mr. McGinn is busy disclosing secrets which have been well-known for the last 100,000 years. At best, these “truths” are trivial, as evident to children as to those calling themselves philosophers. Yet McGinn goes on and on, as though he’d unearthed the Ark of the Covenant. 

I may know that I have dubious motives in regard to someone else, but I also know that you do not know this — and I know that I can easily prevent you from knowing it. This is what makes deception possible —  the asymmetry between my knowledge of my mind and your knowledge of my mind.  There is a sense, then, in which my mind is private, and known to be so, while my body is public property. (McGinn, 7)

Ironically, Shakespeare himself repudiated the “split between interior and exterior” in Julius Caesar, a play never mentioned in Shakespeare’s Philosophy. In discussing the incendiary political situation in Rome, Cassius asks Brutus rhetorically if he can see his own face. Brutus replies he cannot, for “the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other things.” (I, ii, 54-55) Cassius answers:

‘Tis just;
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow.
(I, ii, 56-60)

Therefor, good Brutus, be prepared to hear.
And since you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
(I, ii, 68-72)

In other words, though according to Professor Colin McGinn, Brutus should know far more about himself than any other man, the fact is that Cassius knows important things about Brutus to which Brutus himself is blind. Here the mind of Shakespeare soars above the “problem of other minds” to teach us a far more searching lesson: we are often open books to others, who can read our souls more easily and thoroughly than can we ourselves. Brutus is ambitious. But he cannot admit that ambition. He fears that Caesar will not allow him to succeed him as the leader of Rome, but of that fear he sees almost nothing, preferring to represent himself to himself as a champion of “honor” and the general welfare only. His “mind” (to use McGinn’s term) knows not itself. Brutus is a self-deceiver. Of such complexities McGinn seems entirely innocent.

Other minds actually are, in a quite everyday sense, extremely hard to know about, and radical mistakes are not only possible but also common. The philosopher’s skeptical problem is thus rooted in mundane realities. I think Shakespeare was acutely conscious of this problem, and that it powers and structures many of his plays, notably Othello. He is working out the dramatic consequences of a philosophical problem, as this problem affects people locked into very real and intimate relationships. All our social relationships, from the most casual to the most intimate, as in marriage and family connections, are conditioned by the fundamental inaccessibility of other minds. Everything becomes a matter of interpretation, of competing hypotheses, with the perpetual possibility of massive error. Overconfidence is the besetting sin here, as people leap to unwarranted conclusions about the motives and thoughts of others. Tragedy can result.  (McGinn, 7-8)

The skeptic, we might say, is a kind of tragedian about knowledge: he admits Aristotle’s dictum [All human beings desire knowledge] is correct — people do desire to know; they are not indifferent to knowledge — but he claims that this desire is necessarily thwarted. Thus a basic value in human life is declared unrealizable, and this is our tragedy.

I shall suggest that Shakespeare’s tragedies often revolve around the tragedy of knowledge itself. It is a tragic fact that one of our deepest desires must go unfulfilled, and from this tragedy other tragedies ensue. (McGinn,  8)

Reading such palaver one is reminded of Hippolyta’s comments on Pyramus and Thisbe: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, i, 209)

Let’s clarify.

First, secrets are kept not by “minds” but by people, you, me and others. That there are misunderstandings between and amongst people is not exactly a revelation. The addition of the term “minds” adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of the foibles of human communication. Second, that we frequently misunderstand one another is in no way, shape or form a philosophical issue, and McGinn cites not a single authority in support of that jarring proposition. Third, the notion that we as human beings have privileged access to our thoughts and feeling has often been challenged by critical philosophers, a fact that McGinn is chary of mentioning. The passage cited above from Julius Caesar remains to be reckoned with by students of the “problem of other minds.” In the case of Othello, while it’s pretty obvious its hero is clueless about Iago’s true nature and intentions, Iago understands Othello better than the dark general comprehends his inner darkness. Fourth, making mistaken judgments about the thoughts and feelings of others can result in tragedy only when “tragedy” is used in the popular sense of a serious event resulting in grief or anguish. But McGinn is writing about Shakespeare, a classical tragedian, and there the word has a specialized meaning not reducible to everyday setbacks reported by sensationalistic journalists for whom every traffic fatality is “tragic.” McGinn equivocates on the term in order to make good his claim that mere social blunders based on misunderstandings can be the stuff of “tragedy.” But the fact that human beings are largely ignorant and err thereby is merely unfortunate, not “tragic.”

Classical tragedy issues not from mere blunders caused by the “inaccessibility  of other minds,” but from self-deception. And strangely enough, McGinn almost recognizes this. “The self,” he says,

is not always a harmonious whole, running on rational principles, but often a mélange of conflicting forces, the source of which is unclear. We are as much victims of ourselves as we are of the world around us . . . Accordingly, we can be mysteries to ourselves, bewildered by our feelings and actions; the conscious rational will has limited sway.

Self-knowledge, therefore, like knowledge of other selves, is not always reliable; a person can be quite wrong about his character, and the way his mind operates. Self- knowledge, when possessed, is a hard-won achievement, not a given; it tends to come to Shakespeare’s characters only toward the end of their ordeals. (McGinn, 12-13)

This, of course, is an improvement, but still wide of the mark, missing the essential insight, for as expressed by McGinn it still boils down to mere mistake, a dearth of data, this time not about others but about ourselves. Brutus’s problem is not that he lacks adequate information but that he deceives himself about who and what he is. Put directly, he lies to himself. Once we do that, we are alienated; we remain in flight from reality, and it is that flight from ourselves and life itself that issues in tragedy. We allow ourselves to act monstrously and rationalize such actions by our neurotic self-narrations, those private press releases we rehearse over and over to avoid confronting what we have made of ourselves and others. For what could possibly be tragic about mere error? We miscalculate, forget, overlook, sometimes with dreadful consequences. And some of these blunders may be morally significant. But even these fail to rise to the level of true tragedy. Do Romeo and Juliet perish because of a mere breakdown in communications? No. That there is a failure to send and obtain facts accurately is undeniable, yet those mechanical snafus are not the source of tragedy. This can be traced, rather, to the troubled heart of Juliet, a young but genuinely tragic heroine whose obsession with death is willfully misunderstood and misapprehended as love. (Gontar, 51 ff.) King Lear tyrannizes over others, including his own children, but portrays himself to himself and others as a victim. Within Macbeth’s heroism lies a will so malignant that it can be admitted only in witches, hit men, his spouse and Banquo’s ghost. We take our demons and project them outwards onto others. The bad guys surround me. Oedipus is himself the villain he has been seeking. Othello’s anxiety about his own potency is translated into a bizarre conviction that his wife has been unfaithful. He is socially and sexually compromised in Venice and hurls himself into cuckoldry as Empedocles hurled himself into Aetna. (Gontar, 114 ff.) The suggestion that his troubles are somehow attributable to his failures as an “epistemologist” is ludicrous. Epistemology is an arid game played primarily by white, upper middle class, male professors of philosophy in English speaking nations, not negro generals languishing in quattrocento Europe. Tragedy, then, has little to do with empirical error and nothing to do with theory. Were the tragic protagonist merely mistaken he would be far less culpable, and, perhaps, deserving of forgiveness or exoneration. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained it in Being and Nothingness and illustrated it in his own left-bank dramas, tragedy is “mauvais fois,” that is, bad faith. The characters in the bourgeois hell of “No Exit” are condemned to spend eternity peeling back the layers of self-deception with which they camouflaged the meaning of their actions in life. We find the same motif in the “pipedreams” cultivated by the bar room habitués in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. And it is manifest in the delusions of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. These are all in one way or another descendants of Shakespeare’s tragic psychology. 

One more point. Colin McGinn puts forward a text bearing the title “Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays,” as though we were going to have a look at least at a decent cross section of the corpus. In this natural expectation we are defeated. There are chapters on only six plays, four tragedies and two comedies. The histories are entirely omitted, as are the long poems and sonnets. How on the basis of so little one could presume to extract anything resembling Shakespeare’s “philosophy” is not easy to see. It is normal and appropriate for philosophy to be drawn to art, as it is to religion and history. And philosophers who immerse themselves in Shakespeare can learn much that is helpful. F.H. Bradley cited Shakespeare many times. Hegel wrote extensively on him, as have many other thinkers. But art is not thought, and poetry is not philosophy. The essence of the latter is reason expressed in argument, something we don’t find in Shakespeare and frankly don’t want. Those most familiar with his writings marvel at their many-faceted aspects, perspectives and dimensions, placing any conclusory maxim or metaphysical summation beyond reach. But at the very least one would anticipate that a would-be critic would take the time to immerse himself in such panoramic material before hurling his tiny thunderbolts. In Mr. McGinn’s case, he began to make a “detailed study of Shakespeare” in 2004-5 (McGinn, vii), delivering  the benefit of his revelations in 2006. It is therefore hard to avoid the impression that we have here not a fellow with something to say, but one who has to say something. Not only is this shallow writer unqualified to do a book about Shakespeare, there is even less warrant for him to be commenting on Michel de Montaigne, a philosopher who was apparently faintly scanned, and whose teaching is not once adequately or correctly formulated. One shudders to think how many minutes were invested in studying him. Out of his depth in Shakespeare, one would expect that a professional philosopher would at least be able to  fairly present the views of as famous a forebear as Montaigne. All in all, it is a discreditable performance, a marginal yet well-promoted manuscript, glossy but ghastly, which has managed to become a staple of popular Shakespeare exegesis, as a visit to any large bookstore will confirm.

VII.  Shakespeare Versus Montaigne on War

Let’s expand the scope of the conversation by considering a representative event in Shakespeare not taken up by Professors Bell and McGinn. In The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, Act 4, Sc. 1 there is a parley between Prince John, representing his father Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, and the leaders of the rebellion, the Archbishop of York, Lord Bardolph, Thomas, Lord Mowbray and Lord Hastings. On the brink of a momentous battle the rebel forces are ill prepared to undertake, the issues are discussed with John on the plain where the fight must unfold. John surprises the enemy princes with an acceptance of all their grievances and promise of redress, provided they dismiss their armies and retire. 


Pleaseth your grace to answer them directly
How far forth you like their articles.


I like them all, and do allow them well,
And swear here, by the honour of my blood,
My father’s purposes have been mistook,
And some about him have too lavishly
Wrested his meaning and authority.

(to the Archbishop)

My lord, these griefs shall be with speed redressed;
Upon my soul they shall. If this please you,
Discharge your powers unto their several counties,
As we will ours; and here between the armies
Let’s drink together friendly and embrace,
That all their eyes may bear those tokens home
Of our restorèd love and amity.


I take your princely word for these redresses.


I give it you, and will maintain my word;
And thereupon I drink unto your grace.
(He drinks)
(IV, i, 278-294)

Upon this solemn pledge of the Prince, the rebel lords dismiss their squadrons, only to find too late that the King’s forces have not been released, and that they are prisoners of the stealthy Prince.


Our army is dispersed.
Like youthful steers unyoked, they take their courses,
East, west, north, south; or, like a school broke up,
Each hurries toward his home and sporting place.


Good tidings, my lord Hastings, for the which
I do arrest thee, traitor, of high treason;
And you, Lord Archbishop, and you, Lord Mowbray,
Of capital treason I attach you both.


Is this proceeding just and honourable?


Is your assembly so?


Will you thus break your faith?


I pawned thee none.
I promised you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain; which, by mine honour,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion and such acts of yours.
Most shallowly did you these arms commence,
Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence. —
Strike up our drums, pursue the scattered stray.
God, and not we, hath safely fought today.
Some guard these traitors to the block of death,
Treason’s true bed and yielder up of breath.
( IV, i, 328-349)

Prince John is a perfidious liar. Using phrases like “by the honour of my blood,” he declared that upon agreement of the rebels to dismiss their forces he would do the same, but instead he maintained his army and arrested the King’s adversaries. Furthermore, the Prince has limited authority and rectitude, as he himself, emissary of his father Bolingbroke, is a rebel against King Richard II who was deposed by Bolingbroke. If anyone deserves death in this scene it is John.

Is there philosophy here? Not in form, perhaps, but in principle. Is it grasped by Professors Bell and McGinn. Not at all. Does it reflect the “influence of Montaigne”? Absolutely not.

The rebels have been misled. Does this show an interest in Shakespeare in skeptical philosophy and the watery academic “problem of other minds”? Hardly. What it shows is that war is a scourge of mankind, and that as it ravages the human race we become increasingly savage and degenerate. These northern lords were allies with Bolingbroke in overthrowing King Richard II. Now, resentful of his heavy-handed rule, they would rise up and eject the man they installed on the English throne. Injustice begets injustice, and ahead lie the Wars of the Roses, the undoing of countless “nobles” grasping for power and wealth. 

Montaigne had a tolerant attitude towards war, somewhat as we find it represented in Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well, where a young man with no occupation might “go to the wars” as an adventure or to promote himself, a plateau on life’s way as presented by Jaques in his famous “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It (II, Sc. 7, 149-153).

The difference between Montaigne and Shakespeare, however, is that when Shakespeare looked closely at war he found an unspeakable horror beyond any rationalization or justification. War was in his considered judgment a penalty imposed on an unruly and improvident human race, an inferno of suffering indicative of the rupture of justice and order. Think of Queen Margaret taunting Richard with the blood of young Rutland in King Henry VI, Part Three, (I, iv, 68-180) or the scene of fathers and sons who unwittingly slay one another and then discover whom they have killed. (II, v, 55-93) Will the word “honour” adequately compensate the conscript for his amputations? (King Henry IV, First Part, V, ii, 131-141) Falstaff’s question still resonates today. In the Henriad Shakespeare’s disgust with violence in battle rises to a pitch not to be seen again until Pablo Picasso’s Guernica stunned the world with the debacle of modern combat in 1937.

For all his wisdom, Montaigne never occupied this point of view.

A recent study of Montaigne’s notion of war in the Essays has reached the conclusion that, while the French gentleman does not explicitly praise war, neither does he condemn it. (See, Montaigne on War, by Alfredo Bonadeo, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 46, No. 3, July – Sept 1985, pp. 417-426)

As Lucretius, the Epicurean poet, beholds a ship foundering at sea, its crew and passengers drowning in cold water, he experiences the sublime indifference of ataraxia. There is something in the classical wisdom of Montaigne, too, that fairly insulates him from the harrowing agonies of life. Indeed, that was for him the very raison d’être of philosophy. Quite different is Shakespeare, bound as he is by compassion for suffering humanity. Look at Miranda in The Tempest. No remote contemplative she. When she witnesses the storm-tossed ship, her emotional reaction is a contravention of Montaigne’s repudiation of emotion. (Montaigne, 7, 11, ff)


If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have sufferèd
With those I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces! O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of Power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed and
The fraughting souls within her.
(I, ii, 1-13)

In war or peace, Shakespeare is the poet of the passions.

VIII.  Conclusion

Many have tried to capture Shakespeare, but few, if any, have succeeded. Of himself he writes not a word. Montaigne, to the contrary, even when he seems to be occupied with a host of external topics, is always in one way or another talking about himself. Is it plausible that two such totally divergent figures had common purposes and procedures? Did the world’s most garrulous yet modest egoist mold the most private and invisible of poets? The burden of proof will always rest on those promoting the novel affirmative. While we cannot go to Shakespeare for information about himself and his sources of inspiration, Montaigne, like the later philosophical autobiographer, Rousseau, is only too glad to exhibit himself to us. Montaigne spreads himself throughout the Essays. He disseminates. Take his squib on Democritus and Heraclitus. As Montaigne’s focus on them has more to do with temperament than doctrine, his analysis may prove more revealing of his own personal mindset than his comments on dogmatists and skeptics.

Let us attend to this passage carefully, listening with what Theodore Reik called the “third ear.”

Democritus and Heraclitus were both philosophers, the former, finding our human circumstances so vain and ridiculous, never went out without a laughing and mocking look on his face: Heraclitus, feeling pity and compassion for these same circumstances of ours, wore an expression which was always sad, his eyes full of tears.  

I prefer the former temperament, not because it is more agreeable to laugh than to weep but because it is more disdainful and condemns us men more than the other — and it seems to me that, according to our deserts, we can never be despised enough. Lamentation and compassion are mingled with some respect for the things we are lamenting: the things which we mock at are judged to be worthless. I do not think that there is so much wretchedness in us as vanity; we are not so much wicked as daft; we are not so much full of evil as of inanity; we are not so much pitiful as despicable. Thus Diogenes who frittered about all on his own trundling his barrel and cocking a snook at Alexander, accounting us as no more than flies or bags of wind, was a sharper and harsher judge (and consequently, for my temperament, a juster one) than Timon who was surnamed the misanthropist. For what we hate we take to heart.   Timon wished us harm; passionately desired our downfall; fled our company as dangerous, as that of evil men whose nature was depraved. Diogenes thought us worth so little that contact with us could neither trouble him nor corrupt him: he avoided our company not from fear of associating with us but from contempt. He thought us incapable of doing good and evil.

Statilius’ reply was of a similar character when Brutus spoke to him about joining in their plot against Caesar: he thought the enterprise to be just but did not find that men were worth taking any trouble over; which is in conformity with the teaching of Hegesias (who said the wise man should do nothing except for himself, since he alone is worth doing anything for) and the teaching of Theodorus, that it is unjust that the wise man should hazard his life for the good of his country, so risking his wisdom for fools.

Our own specific property is to be equally laughable and able to laugh. (Montaigne, 339-340)

It is no surprise to find that Montaigne is allied with Democritus against Heraclitus (though it is wondered if he studied the paradoxical epigrams of the latter as carefully as they deserve). After all, Democritus’ philosophy descended to Epicurus and thence to Lucretius, a major thinker in Montaigne’s conceptual pantheon. What is life, Democritus seems to ask, if not a show put on by an infinite concatenation of infinitesimals, a vain display not to be taken seriously? From Heraclitus, child of phusis, an urgent and importunate message emerges with which each man must wrestle in the depths of his soul. Democritus is more accommodating, inviting us to skate over the glittering surface of things and laugh at those who ardently crash. Quite obviously, Montaigne sides with comedy against the tragic sense of things. Is this a thinker whom Shakespeare could wholly embrace? There is a one-sidedness here from which thinkers such as Shakespeare and Hegel must inevitably recoil, no matter its scope and magnanimity. 

Yet, the passage is astonishing in that it anticipates ironically two of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Julius Caesar and Timon of Athens. Timon’s misanthropy cuts directly against the grain of Montaigne’s restrained but lively bonhomie. We may be quite sure that if Shakespeare did read him he crafted Timon not in emulation but in spite of Montaigne. Classical cynicism is pushed to its existential limits in Shakespeare’s unsparing crucible and crumbles. Had Montaigne ever attended a performance of Timon of Athens he would have been utterly revolted and demoralized by the foregrounding of everything he condemned. Worse, had he been counseling the young Shakespeare, he would have advised that The Tragedy of Julius Caesar never be written, for its topic (the very deeds of men) is unworthy, not “worth taking any trouble over.” (Montaigne, 340) Yet this is the writer of whom it is claimed with all the insistence of a mantra that he was a major influence on Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, like life, is too protean and encompassing to be shrunken to doctrine, maxim or formula. Such a colossus cannot be glossed in any system or summa bon mot to offer. But we have thus far not been vexed by anyone claiming that Shakespeare had an impact on Montaigne.

In youth melancholy and brooding, Montaigne rose through study and reflection to the peaks of genius, and attained happiness in the company of bygone sages who showed the way to human fulfillment. He learned that our emotions and impulses are often the engines of our undoing, and he developed a profound antipathy to the passions. Shakespeare took a more Olympian route to enlightenment. Montaigne was, after all, a magistrate, a judge, a hearer of gritty disputes, and the essays in many ways resemble reports of appellate decisions. Such a figure was familiar to Shakespeare, who, if the Oxfordians are correct, was a member of the bar himself. Brutus (Praetor Urbanus), Shallow, Angelo and Escalus are all judges. That is to say, the mind of Montaigne already appears inscribed in Shakespeare as

the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances
(As You Like It, II, Sc. 7, 153-156)

Hence, as prodigious an intellect and personality as Montaigne is, an imperishable legacy to the humanity he teased and cajoled, in comparison to Shakespeare there is no comparison. Montaigne is a compendium of opinions, Shakespeare a fashioner of souls. Montaigne is a philosopher, one who seeks to persuade through arguments, anecdotes and authorities. Shakespeare is a poet who, like Prospero, tosses us on the billows of language and brings us safely home. Montaigne is aloof and in his best moments impervious to the sensational. Only for his friend did he remove the mask of indifference. Shakespeare takes another tack, releasing at every turn the power of our hearts to make us new, more fully engaged and animated, compassionately attuned to ourselves and others.

When Leontes enters the hidden chamber and stands in front of the statue of Hermione, the departed wife he wronged sixteen years earlier, he is struck by its uncanny verisimilitude and vivacity. How could it be so real? In truth, it has taken her so many years to recover from the losses of her children, her family. She was stone for so long. But now she is ready to forgive. Let’s join them for a moment.


No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy
May think anon it moves.


Let be, let be!
Would I were dead but that methinks already.
What was he that did make it? See, my lord,
Would you not deem it breathed, and that those veins
Did verily bear blood?


Masterly done.
The very life seems warm upon her lip.


The fixture of her eye has motion in’t,
As we are mocked with art.


I’ll draw the curtain.
My lord’s almost so far transported that
He’ll think anon it lives.


O sweet Paulina,
Make me to think so twenty years together.
No settled senses of the world can match
The pleasure of that madness. Let’t alone.


I am sorry, sir, I have thus far stirred you; but
I could afflict you farther.


Do, Paulina,
For this affliction has a taste as sweet
As any cordial comfort. Still methinks
There is an air comes from her. What fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.


Good my lord, forbear.
The ruddiness upon her lip is wet.
You’ll mar it if you kiss it, stain your own
With oily painting. Shall I draw the curtain?


No, not these twenty years.
(V, iii, 60-84)

And so the statue of Leontes’ beloved wife comes alive before his eyes, descends to him, and they embrace. Here is a piece of pathos indeed.

What fine chisel could ever cut this breath? None but the pen of Shakespeare, the chisel of blood and tears, laughter and despair, anguish and exaltation. Red was the color of his ink.

For Montaigne life is but froth, and he would have delighted hugely in the fanciful moments of Shakespeare (e.g., The Merry Wives of Windsor) But Shakespeare himself was not partial; he was “the complete consort, dancing together.” He took the road more traveled, the one which leads straight through the heart. That lesson is best exemplified in King Lear, a tragedy. Two fractured souls, father and daughter, are torn apart by a father’s demented love and foolish pride. Even Cordelia’s name refers to that great organ, and throughout the play Lear’s own heart, metaphorical and organic, beats at the center of the action, his rage, his terrible fall, purgation in the elements, and deliverance. In the end, though shattered, he is reborn, not so much as Cordelia’s father as her child. In the last moment, that noble heart breaks, and Lear asks that the button on his garment be undone to help him breathe his last. (V, iii, 285) Each time we enter this tragedy we too are remade. That is the miracle of Shakespeare, one which Michel de Montaigne, for all his Solomon-life sagacity, could never have imagined. Shakespeare dwells in the ultima Thule of the human spirit, where tragedy and comedy coalesce. Such glorious works as The Winter’s Tale are not “problem plays”; they are responses to the human condition. Man’s sentences are his answer to the sentence on him.

Prophecy was a craft denied to Montaigne. But it was granted by the gods to Socrates and his student Plato. A playwright himself, Plato understood that comedy and tragedy are ultimately two sides of a single coin, and that the day would come when one individual artist would so master both that he would redeem the human race in art, “cleans[ing] the foul body of the infected world.” (As You Like It, II, vii, 60) In his masterpiece, Symposium, Plato shows us the morning after the drinking party, when only a few of the revelers are still upright. Aristodemus is one of those dozing.

He slept on for some time, for this was in the winter and the nights were long, and when at last he woke it was near daybreak and the cocks were crowing. He noticed that all the others had either gone home or fallen asleep, except Agathon and Aristophanes and Socrates, who were still awake and drinking out of an enormous bowl which they kept passing round left to right. Socrates was arguing with the others — not that Aristodemus could remember very much of what was said, for, besides having missed the beginning, he was still more than half-asleep. But the gist of it was that Socrates was forcing them to admit that the same man might be capable of writing both comedy and tragedy — that the tragic poet might be a comedian as well.

But as he clinched the argument, which the other two were scarcely in a state to follow, they began to nod, and first Aristophanes fell off to sleep and then Agathon, as day was breaking. Whereupon Socrates tucked them up comfortably and went away, followed of course, by Aristodemus. And after calling at the Lyceum for a bath, he spent the rest of the day as usual, and then, toward evening made his way home to rest. (223c-d)

Shakespeare is the supreme dramatist heralded by Socrates. It is he who spans the gap between mirth and misery, adopting us as his lesser characters. Under his tutelage we struggle, grow and prosper, and our little lives are rounded still with sleep. We shall not see his like again.


            Millicent Bell, Shakespeare’s Tragic Skepticism, Yale University Press, 2002

            Colin Bower, “Ruminating on the Stephen Hawking Phenomenon,” New English Review, August, 2006

            Alfredo Bonadeo, “Montaigne on War,”  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 46, No. 3, Jul-Sept, 1985, pp. 417-426

            Ron Cowen, “Simulations Back Up Theory That Universe is a Hologram,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, December 10, 2013

            David P. Gontar, Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013

            Bryan Magee, The Story of Thought, DK Publishing Company, 1998

            Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy,  Harper Collins, 2006

            Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, M.A. Screech, trans., Penguin Books, 1991

            Stanley H. Nemeth, Review of Shakespeare’s Philosophy, Amazon Books, January 7, 2007

            Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton, Huntington Cairns, eds.,  Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1961

            Karl C. Sandberg,  Review of Montaigne and Bayle:  Variations on the Theme of Skepticism (The Hague:  Martinus Nijhoff, 1966) in Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 1, Jan. 1978, pp. 103-104

            William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2d edition, S. Wells, G. Taylor, eds., Oxford University Press, Clarendon, 2005

            Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Montaigne”






David P. Gontar’s latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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