Harald Høffding.

A history of modern philosophy; a sketch of the history of philosophy from the close of the renaissance to our own day online

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most miserable and the proudest of all creatures. Pride is his
congenital malady. He feels himself exalted high above the
rest of creation, and yet the distance between him and the
brutes is not so great as he believes (which Montaigne tries to
prove by a detailed account of the traits which testify to the
understanding and feeling of animals). He has no reason for
singling himself out from the host of created beings. His
knowledge is in evil case. The senses are uncertain and
erring. We can never be sure that they teach us the truth.
They only show us the world as modified by their nature and
condition. Not external objects, but merely the condition of
the sense-organs appears to us in sensuous perception {les
sens ne comprennent pas le subject estrangier, ains seulejnent leurs
propres passions').

In order to be able to place implicit confidence in the
senses we must possess an instrument that can control them,
and then, again, a means of controlling this instrument, and so
on ad infinitum. Reason, too, leads us to no final decision :
every reason adduced in support of an argument itself, in turn,
requires a reason, and so again we could go on ad infinitum.
Add to this that both we ourselves, as well as our objects, are
continually changing and shifting, that there is nothing fixed
and invariable. And the wealth of differences is so great that


the attempt to establish general laws or types is hopeless. No
law can exhaust the manifoldness of cases. The more search-
ing our examination, the more differences we shall discover.
And in the attempt to bring the discovered differences under
common points of view, we shall find that they stand in inner
contradiction to one another, so that the comparison can lead
to no result. Continual modifications and wide differences
are, in like manner, to be found within the sphere of moral and
civil laws. No natural law can be pointed out which is
observed by all men. Morals change according to time and
place. What kind of goodness is that which passed current
yesterday but will not do so to-morrow, and which becomes a
crime when we cross the river? Can Truth be bounded by
the hills, so that on the other side of them she becomes a lie ?
Doubt is thus our last resort. But even doubt must not be
regarded as definitely valid. We dare not say that we know
nothing. Our result is : what do I know ?

This whole line of thought has often been counted to
Montaigne for scepticism, because it has been regarded as his
last word. Such was the view of hfm taken by Pascal. But it
does not touch the fundamental principle of Montaigne's con-
ception of life, the point on which for him everything finally
turns and which enabled him to indicate a complete con-
ception of the world. Montaigne was certainly too much of a
causeur to develop his world-conception in a purely philo-
sophical form. His last word, however, is not the bewildering
difference of phenomena, not scepticism, not even individualism.
Behind all things he descries an infinite background, — the idea
of Nature in her grandeur and infinity, from whom the fulness of
things flows and whose power blossoms forth in a peculiar
manner in every individual creature.^

Thus Montaigne not only refutes puffed-up knowledge, but
he even goes so far as to praise ignorance, because it gives Nature
free play and does not hinder, by reflection and art, " our great
and powerful mother. Nature, from guiding us." By ignorance,
however, he understands, not uncultured and thoughtless
vacuity, but the ignorance which arises from an understanding
of the limitations of our knowledge. Only by knocking at a
door can we convince ourselves that it is shut — not merely
by standing passively before it. Only for " a good head " {une
teste Men faiste) is ignorance a good and healthy pillow. In


large as well as in small matters, the concept of Nature had
significance for Montaigne. Is it, e.g., a question of illness ;
then he will know nothing of physicians, for they only squander
Nature and hinder her proper development. Like every other
being, each illness has its appointed time of development and
close ; — interference is futile. We must let Nature do as she
pleases ; she understands the matter better than we. We must
submit to the order of Nature. Like the harmony of the
world, our life is made up of opposites, of different tones, which
all — illness and death, as well as health and life — belong to
the great whole. Is he speaking of education ; there, too, the
great thing is to let Nature have free course. The imparting
of knowledge ought only to be the means to the development of
feeling and character, and experience of life is the best school of
self-mastery. He virtually recants his scepticism when he gets
to the concept of Nature. The only way, he says, in which men
can guard themselves from measuring things with a false
measure is by keeping before them " our mother Nature in all
her majesty " : she shows us a general and continual variety, in
which we discover ourselves and all that we call great to be but
a vanishing point.^ This will hinder us from setting arbitrary
and narrow limits. Thus tolerance arises. As we have seen,
Montaigne's final result with regard to religion is that the un-
known Deity is worshipped by different nations under as many
different forms. And on this reflection Montaigne founds his
conservatism. " I have little patience with what is new," he says,
" under whatever form it may occur. Not because existing laws
are always reasonable. The validity of laws rests not on their
righteousness, but on the fact that they are laws : c'est le
fondement mystique de leur auctorit^ ! Custom is the mistress
of the world. Conscience feels bound to that which it has
been accustomed to respect, and cannot part from it without
pain. The wise man must, indeed, free his soul within, but in
external matters he must observe existing laws and customs.
To undertake to replace them by anything better is foolish pre-
sumption." Although Montaigne does not say so in so many
words, yet it seems to be implied in his thought that Nature
reveals herself through that which has become use and wont,
and thus his conservatism is a part of his faith in Nature,
although, according to Montaigne's own view, the new must be
every bit as " natural " as the old.


In this concept of Nature the first characteristic of Montaigne
which we noticed, i.e. his individualism, is founded. If every
man will listen carefully enough to the events going on within
him {s'il s'icouti) he will discover a nature and way peculiar to
himself, a ruling character {forme sienne, forme maitresse, forme
universelle) which offers resistance to external influences and
keeps him from incompatible emotions. This character is in
its innermost essence unchangeable. I may wish myself
another " form " ; may detest and condemn that which I
possess. But that which is rooted deepest in my nature cannot
really be repented of, for repentance only concerns that which
can be changed. By means of this " ruling form " Nature speaks
within each one of us — although to each in a different way,
so that every man must be judged according to his own
norm. Thus Montaigne preserves the rights both of the nature
of the particular individual and of that of the great whole.
While the Church demands an absolute regeneration, he
maintains that a complete transformation is impossible. He
disputes the reality of repentance if it involve such a transform-
ation. Repentance is only possible where there is an inner
principle which may be violated through the clear and
complete picture of the evil deed which has been perpetrated.
While reason alleviates all other care and sorrow, she begets
the pain of repentance ; and this is the severest of all pains
because it arises within us, just as the heat or cold of fever
is more penetrating than any which comes from without.
Similarly, we feel inner satisfaction and a noble pride when we
do good and have a good conscience. To base the reward of
good actions on the applause of others is to build on altogether
too unsure a foundation, thinks Montaigne ; especially in such
times as his own, where to enjoy the favour of the many was
a bad sign. Every one must have an inner touchstone {un
patron au dedans) by which to judge his actions. — " Only
thou thyself canst judge thy actions. Others see not so much
thy nature as thine art." — Even our neighbours judge our
actions differently from strangers. By means of the greater
insight into our nature which they possess, they are able,
perhaps, to discover that our brilliant external actions are only
fine jets of water springing up out of a swampy ground. We
cannot conclude from externals to the inner man. {Essais, iii.)

How this patron au dedans arises, and in what relation it


stands to the forme maitresse, Montaigne does not explain more
closely. He thus leaves a considerable problem to subsequent
thought. But just as he only praises ignorance and the quiet
surrender to Nature in the case " of a good head," so it cannot
be his meaning (as may clearly be seen from his words) that
we ought to leave everything to Nature in the practical
sphere. The individual nature develops its own peculiar form
only under the co-operation of the deliberation and the will ;
and only through attention and labour can the ruling " form "
be preserved from disfigurement Montaigne is well aware that
his is no heroic will. If he have any virtue it is owing, he
thinks, rather to the favour of fortune than to the work of the
will. He is thankful that he comes of a good stock {u7ie race
fanuuse en proutThonindc) and has enjoyed a good education.
He feels a natural detestation for most vices (especially cruelty),
but will not answer for how it might have gone with him had
he possessed a less fortunate nature ; inner strife and discord
he cannot endure. Reason strives ever for the mastery within
him, but it is often all she can do not to let herself be disfigured
by the impulses which she is not alwaj-s able to reform. And
yet it was his conviction that the highest pleasure is attached
to virtue ; struggle can only be a state of transition. The
lower pleasures are only momentarj' and fleeting and are apt
to bring remorse in their train. Perfect satisfaction, equally
far removed from sensuous pleasures and from painful struggle
to keep the commandments of reason, is only to be found there,
where the innermost nature of the soul finds expression in
good actions. To have developed an inner nature such that
every occasion to inward struggle vanishes, is what ^lontaigne
regards as the highest. He knows that he himself only stands
in the third rank, neither among those who struggle
manfully, nor among those who are high above all struggle.
But he admires "the greatness of heroic souls." His own
weakness does not blind him to the strength of others.
Although he himself creeps on the ground, yet he is able to
follow their lofty flight. Moreover, he regards it as no trifle
that in an age when virtue appears little else than a jargon
du college he should have retained the power to pronounce
ethical judgments (i. 19, 36; ii. 11 ; iii. 13).

Montaigne's defence of the concept of Nature is classical
in character. But he carries this concept beyond the limited


form in which it appeared among the Greek thinkers. By its
close connection with the concept of individuality it is extended
to infinity. If Montaigne opposes Nature to the artificialities of
men, he does so partly because the latter regard certain particular
" forms " as alone justified, and thus overlook the fulness of
Nature; and partly because they do violence to certain peculiar
individualities, which possess the same right to develop themselves
sur sonpropre modele as do any others. The future was to unfold
these two thoughts of infinity and individuality. And Mon-
taigne's scepticism, his great powers of observation, and his
Humanistic learning, gave him freedom of mind and the
means to emphasise the importance of these concepts. His
scepticism — which is really an assertion of the right to think
— induced him to transcend artificial barriers ; and his rich
experience and learning taught him what was to be found on
the other side of these limits, i.e. new individual forms, by
means of which one and the same single infinite nature finds

Montaigne died in 1592. A thinker such as he could
hardly hope to find disciples. His thought was altogether too
subjective for that. In him were united elements which could
appear in the same combination in no other mind. The man
who comes nearest to being a disciple, and who may be
regarded as the systematiser of his ideas, only represents a
single — although a very important — side of his world of
thought. It was his acquaintance with Montaigne which led
Pierre Charron to his philosophical ideas. Born in Paris
in 1541, he was originally a lawyer, but afterwards took
orders, and became a famous preacher. He published writings
in defence of the Catholic faith against Protestants and free-
thinkers. The most remarkable of these, however, is a work
which appeared at Bordeaux under the title De la sagesse, in
the year 1 600 (three years before his death), and which contains
a complete defence of the same leading thought which we met
with in Pomponazzi, as well as in Machiavelli and Montaigne,
i.e. the thought of human nature as the foundation of ethics
and politics. He lays great stress on the ignorance which
results from true self-knowledge. A closer examination shows
us the misery, as well as the greatness, of human nature. The
natural reason cannot be the measure of all things ; we must
therefore abide by the old doctrines of the Church, and not become



entangled in new ones. — Thus Charron, like Montaigne, — only
to a still greater degree, — draws conservative conclusions from
the principle of doubt. But, curiously enough, he discusses the
relation of religion to morality, upon which Montaigne had not
touched. Rehgion and morality accompany one another, but
they must not on this account be confused with one another,
since each has its own spring (ressori). Above all things goodness
must not be made dependent on religion, for in this way it be-
comes an accident and no longer originates in " the good spring
of Nature." " I will," says Charron, " that a man be a good man
even though there be no Heaven and no Hell. It seems to me
detestable when a man says : If I were not a Christian, if I did
not fear damnation, I would do this or that. I will that thou
shouldst be good because Nature and Reason so will it —
because it is demanded by the general order of things of which
Reason is only a part — and because thou canst not act against
thyself, thine essence and thine aim ; — ^what will may follow
from this. When once this stands firm, religion may follow
after, but the converse relation is ruinous."

Such a decided recognition of the independence of ethics
from the lips of a Catholic priest is indeed remarkable. It
remains a psychological puzzle as to how Charron, who shortly
before had appeared as a zealous Catholic preacher, was led
to embrace such an opinion. It at any rate attests the
fact that there existed at the time a strong tendency in that



The great interest in everything human fostered by the
Renaissance naturally and inevitably led to the eager psy-
chological study of mental phenomena. Although, with all
the above - mentioned thinkers, psychological explanation
and psychological interests play an important part, yet
psychological inquiry as a separate endeavour, diflferentiated
from the more far-reaching philosophical conclusions deduced
from it, had not yet emerged. At this time, moreover, all
psychological study was merely theoretical. And if any
one man is to be named as the representative of the pure
psychology of the time, that man is the Spaniard LUDOVICUS ^
ViVES : a quiet ^cholar, an eager Humanist, the friend and
follower of Erasmus of Rotterdam, i\F is chiefly important
within the spheres of psychology and pedagogics. Born in
Valencia in 1492, he studied in Paris and afterwards lived
till his death, in 1540, at Bruges. He was for some time
tutor to the daughter of Henry VHI. of England, but the
action for divorce brought about a breach between him and
the English court. Vives was an earnest Catholic, but his
peace-loving and healthy mode of thought led him to address
an outspoken letter to Pope Hadrian VI. (1522), in which
he expressed the wish that a general council should be con-
vened to distinguish between that which is necessary to piety
and morality, and that which may be handed over to free
inquiry, that thus, by this means, the breach within the Church
might be healed. He afterwards spoke in behalf of tolerance,
and a milder and freer interpretation of Christianity. As a
pedagogue, he was of very great significance for his own age.
Many of the excellent ideas concerning education subsequently


put into practice by the Jesuits, really originated with Vives,
who is said to have been a personal acquaintance of Loyola's.
His interest in philological criticism and pedagogical problems
led him to undertake an examination of scientific method in
general, and he demands that experience be taken as the
ground of all knowledge. He himself tried to comply
with this demand within the sphere of psychology, and may
be regarded as the founder of modern empirical psychology.
Like all his contemporaries, he avails himself of the rich
material afforded by antiquity, but he endeavours to confirm
everything by his own experience, and his work De anima et
vita (Bruges, 1538) contains many original observations. His
description of particular mental phenomena — especially of the
emotions — -is even now instructive, and his book exercised an
extraordinary influence on the psychological theories of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.*

The clearly empirical standpoint of Vives is especially
■yj apparent in the section of the first book of the De anima
entitled " What the soul is.'' After he has drawn attention
to the difficulties connected with the answering of this question
(since we find it easier to say what the soul is not, than
what it is), he remarks that, properly speaking, we are interested,
not in knowing what the soul is, but rather how it is active,
and that the precepts of self-knowledge concern not the nature,
but the functions, of the soul. We find it here asserted, with
the greatest assurance, that we have directly to deal with mental
phenomena only, and that empirical psychology can altogether
dispense with the purely speculative theory concerning the
nature of the soul.

Vives remains true to this standpoint throughout his
purely descriptive mode of treatment. It was, indeed, almost
inevitable that he should regard much as proved by experience
which could not stand before later criticism ; but, in spite of
this, Vives did not a little towards effecting a differentiation of
the psychological standpoint, which had hitherto been con-
founded, on the one hand with speculative and theological
points of view, and on the other with the standpoint of physics
— which differentiation Descartes carried out still more clearly
and decidedly. Descartes owes more to Vives than might be
thought from the very few times he mentions him.

As is apparent from the title of Vives' book, he places the


concepts of the soul and of life in close connection with one
another. He regards the soul as the principle of life — not
merely of all conscious life, but of all organic life. He strives
to conceive the lower forms of life as the foundations of the
higher. His psychology is a physiological psychology which
feels itself called upon to describe phenomena as far as possible
from the physiological side also. He naturally applies the
physiology of his time. As an inquirer, he proves himself
emancipated from the Aristotelian school by assigning know-
ledge to the brain. There were still Aristotelians who
maintained that the nerves proceed, not from the brain
(although the later Greek anatomists had proved this), but
from the heart. The vital power, on the other hand, has its
seat, according to Vives, in the heart, where the first and last
signs of life make themselves felt, and whose restricted or
free functioning is expressed by the emotions. In agreement
with a doctrine handed down from the Stoics and Galen, Vives
supposes that the brain is filled with a fine air or breath
{spiritus tenuissimi ac pellucidi). It was assumed that the
vibrations of this air were connected with events in conscious-
ness, but Vives does not enter more closely into the question.
What the relation between the soul which is active in the
brain, and that which is active in the heart, may be, he also
leaves undetermined. According to his view, it is only human
souls which are immediately created by God ; the souls of plants
and of animals {i.e.- the principle of organic life and of sensuous
perception) are generated by the power of matter. The
thoughts and aspirations of the human soul find no satisfaction
in the finite and sensuous, but seek an infinite object ; hence we
may conclude to the divine origin of the soul, for causes must
correspond to their effects. Vives here shows himself a decided
spiritualist, which indeed was only to be expected from his
religious presuppositions. On this point also he bequeaths
weighty problems to succeeding thinkers. His psychology is
confined to the description of the various mental phenomena.
It was reserved to later inquiry to discover the mechanical
principle, by means of which we may pass from one phenomenon
to another.



The Humanism of Italy bore the stamp of an intellectual
aristocracy. Its great significance lay in the founding of a free
intellectual life. But as to how it was faring with human life
in wider circles, it did not concern itself particularly. It left
the Church, the State, and the life of the community to look
after themselves, while it occupied itself almost entirely with in-
tellectual and aesthetic problems. Even Machiavelli himself, in
spite of his great interest in national and political affairs, forms
no exception in this respect, for that which fascinates him most
is the development of the power of the Prince, and he did
not trouble himself as to the more hidden powers and
conditions of social life. Humanism fell with the downfall
of political freedom in Italy ; but that political freedom
was overthrown, and that no national life of the State could
develop itself, was the fault of Humanism itself, on account of
the narrow view it took of humanity, owing to its fear of
facing the depth and breadth of things. It was this same fear
which caused it to leave the religious question unsolved, and
to content itself with merely pushing it aside. The more
northern nations, amongst whom the Renaissance set in with
less brilliancy, carried out their enfranchisement more deeply
within, and more widely without. It was the great merit of the
Reformation that it would not be contented with an evasion of
the religious question, but attacked it directly, proclaiming in
the sphere of religion the same principle of personality which
Humanism had already proclaimed in other spheres of thought.
The Reformation is the application of the thought of the
Renaissance to religion, by which I do not mean that Luther
and Zwingli first adopted these ideas, and then applied


them. The greatness of their personality consists precisely in
this ; — that they discovered these thoughts anew in their own
experience of life, and clothed them in an entirely original form.
They maintained that direct personal experience of life is the
real foundation of religion, and taking their stand on this, they
fought against the Church and the theology of the Middle Ages.
Men's inner powers were freed from artificial forms. Chris-
tianity was here really brought back — to use Machiavelli's
expression — to the original principle from which it had sprung.
Although Luther did not enter upon a critical examination
of primitive Christianity, yet he seized upon an important point

Online LibraryHarald HøffdingA history of modern philosophy; a sketch of the history of philosophy from the close of the renaissance to our own day → online text (page 4 of 52)