The age of Renaissance gave birth to a new wave in philosophy that prompted philosophers to regard a human being as a center of the universe. The three prominent figures of this epoch, namely Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal, opine that the main concern is the human problem of finding the truth and self-recognition in the world. The great thinkers view the humanistic concept as the main framework for the harmonic functioning of the society, insisting on the equal position of all living beings, including humans. The philosophers discuss the limits of human reason and whether a person can be opened to the truth. The analysis of the works of Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal shows that the first two thinkers believe that knowledge of the individual about the truth and God can find reflections in their worldview, while Pascal sees the rationalistic nature of the man as well, however, without the ability to foresee the God’s plans.
How it works
To start with, the doubts of Montaigne in the selected passage concern the recognized tradition. In other words, he argues that the society should have abandoned universal verities not because of their obsolete nature but because people are used to believe in them. He claims that they are not accustomed to question the validity of the order of things. In fact, it is necessary to doubt everything as one can infer from Montaigne’s following quotation: “I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth… I do not contradict.” (Montaigne & M, 1966, p. 75) To reach the true knowledge, it is primarily essential to ensure that the person does not know anything. Therefore, skepticism for Montaigne is neither the goal nor the end, but rather the beginning of authentic philosophizing. Skepticism is a means of purifying individuals from various prejudices, including philosophical and religious biases.
Meanwhile, the first rule of the Cartesian method is never to take a fact for the truth unless its plausibility is obvious. According to Descartes, the only ways to the truth are intuition and deduction, which is “the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking”. (Descartes, 2017, p. 18) The philosopher also maintains that the notion of truth is the firm concept of a clear and attentive mind that can only develop in the process of continual cognitive thinking, “I think, therefore I am”. (Descartes, 2017, p. 18) This formula and his illustrative assumptions leave no doubt that people have an intuitive intellect that does not have anything mysterious and ensue from the natural reason, not the supernatural revelation. This principle recurrently permeates the philosophy of the thinker exhorting to follow only the natural light. "I noticed that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I," he says, "who was thinking this, was something." (Descartes, 2017, p. 18)
The progress of knowledge correlates with the development of humanity. As Selections from the Thoughts illustrate, the maturity of the universal man is humanism. Ultimately, the truth is a priority. In reality, the person either acquires exact knowledge or faces absolute ignorance as “all our dignity consists then in thought.” (Pascal, 2012, p. 30) When the man reaches the desired goals, they will be capable of rising to new heights, where the geometric spirit is helpless; thus, the main purpose of the individual is to grasp and implement Pascal’s ethic of morality, which is wise thinking. As for Montaigne, Pascal's man is the main subject of reflection. While philosophy asserts, thinking proves the greatness of the individual. Its magnitude is obvious as any person can be withdrawn even from their own insignificance. As Descartes states, the real greatness lies in the ability to think and recognize.
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Regarding Montaigne, the difference of his views is in the power of authority and lack of freedom. The search for truth in this theory is replaced with interpretation, exegesis, and true philosophy that describe the person, their specific needs, joys and pains, as well as grief and happiness, and, therefore, authentic philosophical thought, similarly to the genuine person, is joyful and happy. (Montaigne & M, 1966, p. 83) However, Montaigne himself was not such a consistent skeptic as the Descartes and Pascal. His skeptical arguments mainly dismissed religious fanaticism. As Montaigne sarcastically said, roasting a person for the sake of following passions means giving them too much importance. (Montaigne & M, 1966, p. 83) However, the main similarity with the ideas of other philosophers is that the greatest value is the man. Obviously, it is unreasonable to compare the importance of human life with any other notions. For this reason, he writes "Of Repentance", and, therefore, popularizes the ideas of skepticism.
As to confrontation of thinkers’ beliefs, Pascal cites a counterargument to Montaigne stating that people with their minds have not yet reached an understanding of what truth is. If they accomplished this mission, the society would have a stronger sense of justice, and lawmakers would not seek legal models in the fantasies of the Persians or Germans. In fact, the man is helpless in the eyes of the Creator, and humankind cannot fulfill the endless plans of God staying in the middle of nowhere, trying to raise the dignity of thinking, while there is no opportunity to understand the core of their being. Pascal's polemical excitement directed against philosophers and philosophic deists is understandable. He did not side with Descartes who turned the Creator into an engineer who, after pushing the world, retired to a well-deserved rest and left doubtful people searching for the self-recognition. Although according to Pascal, absolute scientific knowledge is unattainable, available facts about the universe containing some deviations from the truth is nevertheless reliably and extremely valuable. (Pascal, 2012, p. 30) Its significance lies in its ability to separate the beautiful from the abominable.
Evidently, the perspective of Descartes does not elucidate in any of his works why the truth of revelation contradicts reason. He only confines himself to a remark that literally mirrors the thoughts of Montaigne who is inclined to think that people should follow the human spirit to understand the truth and, thus, recognize their thinking nature. “I think, therefore I am” is a paramount remark as everything that the person can know of the truth finds its traces in themselves and in their mind. (Descartes, 2017, p. 18) However, Pascal’s point renders more credible as remarkably, the truth that stems from the mind may not accurately, even incorrectly, reflect the actual state of things. (Pascal, 2012, p. 30) Thus, the person will be always in doubt as the absolute truth of such knowledge is out of the question.
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The language of the philosophers underlined their uncertainty about the nature of their thought and subjectivity. No one pretends to reveal the truth as philosophers use suspension points to show they develop a complex topic without any subtle attempts to convince anyone. Montaigne uses skeptical arguments in his deliberations. From the moment when the person overcomes various prejudices, he discovers a true knowledge and tries to reassure himself of accuracy of his points in this passage. Descartes uses language to show his original point of his metaphysical reflections as the cogito, where considering a universal doubt he deduces his existence and makes conclusions about a soul and consciousness. His sentences have solid structure similarly to a programming code, which enables a reader to move forward and assess the credibility of the previous argument. Additionally, the language of Pascal is easier to read and understand than Montaigne’s and Descartes’. He uses convincing arguments to criticize the latter and emphasize people’s eagerness to have a stable order to build a tower to the skies, but eventually the foundation gives a crack creating the gap. His doubt is a rather an argument than a thinking process as compared with the other two philosophers.
Thus, the most startling difference between the philosophers becomes evident due to the words of Montaigne who attempts to establish the limits of human reason and ascertain whether a person is available to the truth. Evaluating these reflections, one can notice a conflict between the teachings of Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal. Moving logically from the effects to the causes, the individual in works of Montaigne and Descartes can reach the root cause of all phenomena, i.e., stand before God. Consequently, these doctrines argue that if God is absolute truth, then the man is a creature that possesses a reason to ad infinitum approach to the Creator and penetrate into the essence of things. Revealing the world around Him, the person gradually reveals God. Pascal also sees the man as a thinking being but without the power to understand the universal plan. In his opinion, the man seeks the truth as he thinks. He doubts the order of things and is a moral being as Montaigne’s man. Additionally, he recognizes himself as Descartes’ man, who, however, is deprived of an opportunity to speak with God.
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In conclusion, Montagne, Descartes, and Pascal applied the individualistic approach with skeptical elements to the self-recognition. When reading the passages of philosophers, one can infer that they try to comprehend the nature of thinking in addition to morality. Later, however, Pascal writes that only God's thought can possess the truth. Montaigne’s work appeared between Renaissance and humanistic philosophy as well as scientific rationalism; the thinker cannot define the philosophical tradition that is of utmost importance for him. Ethics of Montaigne’s and Pascal’s views echoes the ethics of the Epicurean, according to which a man, on the one hand, must live unnoticed, content with the blessings of nature and without inventing unnecessary luxuries. Descartes sees the danger of completely denying the attainability of reliable knowledge, the rationale of which he regards as the most important task. On the other hand, for Pascal, moral judgments are more important than the theoretical background of science since they determine the life path and destiny of the man.