(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This essay, one of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s longest, sets forth the reasons for the great French humanist’s belief in skepticism. It is the work that was most influential in reviving and popularizing the Greek skeptical theory of Pyrrhonism during the Renaissance and in the seventeenth century. Montaigne’s followers based their arguments on this essay, and many important philosophers, including René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Blaise Pascal, and Nicolas de Malebranche studied it and used some of Montaigne’s ideas in developing their own philosophies. The essay is also one of the first writings that discuss philosophical issues in a modern language. It had a tremendous vogue in the seventeenth century. Late in the century it was put on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. It has remained one of the major classics of French literature and thought and is one of the richest examples of Renaissance humanism and skepticism.

The essay was apparently begun in 1575 when Montaigne was studying writings, recently translated into Latin, of the Greek Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the third century. These works so impressed Montaigne that they caused him to doubt all of his previous views and caused him to undergo his own personal skeptical crisis. During this crisis, he sought to show that the knowledge that people claimed to have gained through the use of their senses and their reasoning capacities was all open to doubt.