After finishing Montaigne’s lengthy essay on education, I discovered that my Great Books reading list included his short essay “It is folly to measure the true and false by our won capacity” and decided to finish it too, in my effort to catch up. I think it to be a much better conversation starter.
Montaigne talks about the dangerous habit of those “who think they have more than common ability” to attribute “belief and conviction to simplicity and ignorance.” He confesses that although he was once guilty of this himself, he is now reformed writing,
I presently pitied the poor people that were abused by these follies. Whereas I now find, that I myself was to be pitied as much, at least, as they; not that experience has taught me anything to alter my former opinions, though my curiosity has endeavoured that way; but reason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater.
In our modern context it is easy to generate a list of beliefs that are generally attribute to simplicity and ignorance, at lease by the Prius-driving, NPR-listening, espresso-drinking liberal crowd to which I belong. Creationism, Virgin Birth, Bodily Resurrection, Intercessory Prayer, Physical Afterlife.
Montaigne, as it turns out, may be thinking of a pretty similar list. The direction he takes it, however, is different than I would go. Montaigne issues another of his condemnations of the Reformation and defenses of the Catholic church, including this, which likely sounds familiar to modern readers, “We are either wholly and absolutely to submit ourselves to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity, or totally throw off all obedience to it: ’tis not for us to determine what and how much obedience we owe to it.”
In contrast, I am wary of my own certitude, despite the frequency with which I am certain. Nonetheless, my wariness is not generated by the notion that I should submit to authority, but that perhaps I am missing value tucked away in these believes held by those who I belittle with the tag of simple or ignorant. Perhaps the Truth lies somewhere in between prayer is valuable as a breathing exercise and prayer is a way to call on God to remove a tumor or heal a liver. Perhaps the inability to access the Truth is a measure of the limits of my own capacity.