Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

How the 17th C. French Catholic use of Pyrrhonian Scepticism against Calvinism created the French Enlightenment Skeptics

The following is taken from Richard H. Popkin’s masterly article: Skepticism and the Counter-Reformation in France.

This exploration into the Counter-Reformation in France will attempt to trace and explain one of the oddest developments of this period-the alliance of the most orthodox Catholics with the most skeptical followers of Montaigne in a common crusade against Calvinism


The dominant and dominating group of French Catholic theologians appear to have been intimately connected with the Montaigne tradition, so that the period of the French Counter-Reformation encompasses such a potpourri of figures as Montaigne’s adopted son, the arch skeptic, Father Charron, the Cardinal du Perron who was instrumental in the conversion of Henri IV, the heroic St. Francois de Sales, and his Pyrrhonian secretary, Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus, and Gentian Hervet, the translator of Sextus Empiricus as well as secretary of the Cardinal of Lorraine; also the great Jesuit disputants, Fathers Gontery and Veron, and Montaigne’s adopted daughter, Mile, de Gournay, and lastly his latter day followers-friends and protegees of Cardinals Ridielieu and Mazarin-like La Mothe Le Vayer and Gabriel Naude. As we shall see, the group of skeptics and Catholic leaders had an entente cordiale both of theory and of Counter-Reformation, though probably not of belief.

The burden of this study will be to explore the intellectual basis of this alliance, and to show that the character of the argument against Calvinism offered by the French counter-reformers indicates the reason for the association of skeptics and Catholic theologians. In terms of the type of anti-Calvinism developed in France, the skeptics may well have been the theoreticians, or have functioned as the theoreticians, of the theological world in France after the Council of Trent. We shall trace both, the history of one side of the French Counter-Reformation, and the rise of the French skeptics to intellectual leadership in the early seventeenth century, as a joint phenomenon. And then, after this strange alliance had led to a successful crusade against Calvinism, we shall see that the internal opposition between the Catholics and the skeptics became apparent, and the alliance gradually dissolved. To understand this union of skeptics and church leaders, it is first necessary to examine the means by which the Catholics tried to subdue the Calvinists intellectually, and then to study the rationale for this method, and compare it with the “theological skepticism” being developed by the Montaignians.

In France in the mid-sixteenth century, Calvinism grew very rapidly. In a few short years the country was embroiled in a civil war, both militarily and intellectually. The success of the Calvinists on the latter front required drastic measures to prevent the capture of the citadels of French thought by the reformers. Two remarkable events took place in the 1560’s to secure the Catholic intellectual position. One was the publication in Latin of the writings of the Greek skeptic, Sextus Empiricus, and the other the installation in Paris of one of the greatest Jesuit controversialists, Juan Maldonat. As a result of these events “a new machine of war” was fashioned to destroy Calvinism on the intellectual battlefield.


The next stage, the perfection of the “new machine of war” was to make the attack into a systematic series of applications of skeptical difficulties which would push the Calvinists into an insoluble crise pyrrhonienne. This development is due to two ardent debaters of the Jesuit order, Fathers Jean Gontery and Franfois Veron. The latter, whose presentation we shall follow, is a fabulous character of the Counter-Reformation. Originally one of the Jesuit teachers at La Fläche (when Descartes was a student there), Veron became so facile at Counter-Reform that he was freed from his duties as a teacher, and later freed from his order, to be the official arguer for the faith for the king of France.


Every text, Veron claimed, gets its meaning in terms of some interpretation made of the symbols, and then by inferring a meaning from the text. The text doesn’t come with a built-in interpretation. It does not contain statements about how various collections of letters are to be read, and what they mean. Any such decision is drawing a consequence not contained in Scripture itself. This involves both abandoning the non-Scriptural claim of the Protestants, that Scripture alone is the rule of faith, as well as presenting a basis for interpretation that is not subject to error. Inner persuasion as the standard for interpretation has all the difficulties mentioned previously in connection with it as a standard of canonicity. It is unverifiable, may be illusory, variable, etc. If the Protestants next retreat to the position that their interpretation consists solely of drawing the obvious logical inferences from what Scripture states, those with the “machine of war” are ready to devastate this new line of defense. First, this is not a Scriptural claim, since Scripture doesn’t present any rules of inference. Secondly, due to the fallibility of mankind, one can always be mistaken as to whether one has drawn the proper inferences. If it is always possible that one has erred, one will always be in doubt if one has found the true faith, unless there is an infallible judge of our judgments.

The reformers, forced by this attack to be the defenders of natural reason, claimed that we have a standard for judging inferences-the rules of logic, and also that Jesus and the church fathers reasoned logically. Veron answered that the so-called rules of reasoning were set down by a pagan, Aristotle, and why should he be taken as the judge of religious truth? And neither Jesus nor any of the church fathers maintained that their views were true because of the logic involved, but that they were true because they were the Word of God. When some reformers answered that Zeno of Elea, and not Aristotle, was the author of the rules of inference, Veron retorted, “A great objection: that it be Zeno or another; are they better judges of our controversies?” The Calvinist leader, Pierre du Moulin, countered, in his Elements de la Logique Frangoise, that logic is not based on the opinions of some ancient Greeks, “For there is a natural logic, which men make use of naturally without applying any art. Even the peasants make syllogisms without thinking about it.” About this Veron exclaimed, “poor supposed faith, based on the rules of Zeno’s logic, or on the force of a peasant’s reason.” Something as unreliable as the natural reason of a peasant could hardly yield an indubitable faith. Why not accept the decisions of a council instead of those of a peasant? Lastly, Veron asked, since one sometimes draws wrong inferences, how can one be completely sure in any given instance that one has not committed a logical error?

Veron summarized his argument against deriving religious truth through reasoning from Scriptural text in eight “Moyens.” (1) The conclusions that the reformers have arrived at by inferences are not in Scripture. (2) These inferences are never drawn in Scripture. (3) By using inferences, reason, rather than Scripture, is made the judge of religious truths. (4) Reason can err. (5) Scripture does not say that conclusions derived by logical means are articles of faith. (6) The church fathers did not know the conclusions derived by the reformers. (7) The conclusions, at best, are only probable. (8) Even a necessarily true conclusion drawn from Scripture is not an article of faith, because nothing can be unless it be revealed by God.

With this type of argumentation, Veron was trying to create a special kind of skeptical crisis for his Protestant opponents. Unlike the “skepticism with regard to reason” and the “skepticism with regard to the senses” that Montaigne and Charron had developed, Veron intended only to present a skepticism with regard to the uses of sense and reason in religious matters. In terms of this, he tried to show that once the reformers denied there was an infallible judge, they could have no guaranteed faith because they had no defensible rule of faith. Every criterion of religious knowledge they adopted-Scripture, inner persuasion, reason-was shown to be doubtful if applied to religious questions. The Calvinists could not obtain religious certainty because any standards they employed could be undermined by Veron’s type of skepticism.


But the “new machine of war” appears to possess a peculiar recoil mechanism which has the strange effect of engulfing the target and the gunner in a common catastrophe, as the reformers pointed out. If Veron’s arguments were accepted, no written work at all could be accurately fathomed and comprehended. The denial that man, aided by his natural faculties of reason and the senses, is the judge of what something said would have devastating consequences, as the Calvinists Dailli, La Placette, and Boull ier, the Anglican Glanvill, the non-Conformist Ferguson, and the philosopher Leibniz pointed out. Not only would the reformer be left at sea in determining what his faith was, but so would everyone else. The Catholic who appealed to the church fathers would be beset with the same difficulties that Veron had raised. How do you know which books are those of the church fathers, how do you know what they say? The appeal to papal authority would be met with another application of Veron’s argument. How does one tell who is the pope, what he has said, whether one has understood it correctly? If the believer is possessed of fallible faculties, and cannot trust them in reading Scripture, can he trust them any better in locating the pope, in hearing him, in interpreting him?

The character of the alliance between the counter-reformers and the skeptics in France is indicated by the self-destructive character of the “new machine of war.” The alliance was not merely, as Bredvold has suggested, for strategic purposes. It also encompassed, for many of the French counter-reformers, the ideological core of their defense. They could not be hurt by the skeptical bombardment because they had no position to defend. Their faith was grounded in no rational or factual claim, but in an accepted, and unquestioned faith in the Catholic tradition. They saw, as Maldonat had claimed, that if they once doubted this faith by traditional acceptance, they too would be destroyed in the same way as the reformers. And so one finds an implicit fideism in many of the French counter-reformers, which is made explicit in the writings of the French skeptics from Montaigne to La Mothe Le Vayer.


After Montaigne’s death, Charron revealed in his writings the actual extent of his legacy, the magnificent union of skepticism and Catholicism… First he composed his theological opus, Les Trois Veritez, intended primarily as a Counter-Reformation blast at Calvinism. But to set the stage, and establish the first truth, that there is a God, Charron offered a “Discourse on Knowledge of God,” in which he linked Montaigne’s fideism to one of the great traditions of Christian theology, that of the negative theologians. He argued that God’s nature and existence were unknowable because of “our feebleness, and the greatness of God.” The infinitude of God surpasses all possibility of knowledge, because to know is to define, to limit, and God is beyond all limitations. And so, the greatest philosopher and the most knowing theologian do not know God more or less than the humblest artisan. But the feebleness and incapacity of man is such that even if God were not infinite, we still could not know Him. Here Charron offered a brief summary of the reasons for skepticism about human knowledge, and then declared, “O piteous and vile thing that man and all his wisdom is; О foolish and enraged presumption of trying to know God.”


His next work, La Sagesse, develops at much greater length the feebleness of man and Montaigne’s advice as to what to do about it. This treatise, one of the first philosophical works written in a modern language, is little more than Montaigne’s views presented in organized form. One of the unique features of it is Charron’s separation of ethics from religious considerations for, perhaps, the first time in modern philosophy.


This type of fideism readies its apex with Franfois de la Mothe Le Vayer, “le voluptueux incredule,” who inherited the mantle of Montaigne from Mile, de Gournay. La Mothe Le Vayer rose to eminence under the patronage of Richelieu and became the teacher of the king’s brother and a member of the Academie frangaise. Although hardly an original mind, his skepticism is probably the most far-going of any of the Montaignians up to his time. And in spite of the constant attacks on his religion, or lack of it, from his contemporaries like Guez de Balzac and Antoine Arnauld, down to the most recent studies of Pintard, Julien-Eymard d’Angers, and Grenier, almost all his writings include a constant appeal to, and defense of, an extremely fideistic kind of Christianity.

La Mothe Le Vayer’s first love was Sextus Empiricus, whom he called “our master,” “the divine Sextus,” “the author of our new Decalogue,” etc. The endless theme of La Mothe Le Vayer’s writings, from his early dialogues down to his final soliloquies, is that Pyrrhonism is the philosophy closest to Christianity, and that the message of St. Paul is really the same as that of Sextus. Skepticism teaches us the vanity and presumption of any attempt to understand nature and God, and the need for revelation. Further, the empty hopes of dogmatic men of finding truths about nature and God, of establishing sciences, are genuinely impious. If any science were possible, this would mean that God was limited and measurable by human standards in terms of His Nature and His Creation, and that God is not free and all-powerful. The message of the skeptics is that man cannot and should not understand, and that those who try to comprehend are plunging towards heresy and impiety. The only knowledge we can have is the revelation it pleases God to give us. The Christian skeptic is best able to receive the Divine Word because, as Montaigne and Charron had argued, his mind has been purged of errors and presumptions. But suppose the skeptic doubts even the Word of God? If he does, it is his catastrophic mistake. Pyrrhonism should perish at the foot of the altar. The skeptic ought not to carry his doubts into religious affairs but should submit to the revelation. No rational inquiry assists or abets the discovery and recognition of divine truth. All one can do is to accept it on faith, without the aid of evidence.


This alliance between Pyrrhonism and Catholicism, as advocated by the Montaignians and employed by various French counter-reformers, was, I believe, an underlying theory of the Counter-Reformation in France. The strategy of fighting the Calvinists by destroying their arguments through skepticism and reducing them to complete skepticism is intelligible in terms of the theory of fideists like Montaigne and Charron. The Catholic controversialists developed a skeptical method for destroying Calvinism. But this method would destroy any theory whatsoever, in spite of the restrictions suggested by Veron. Therefore the only way the Catholics could avoid committing intellectual suicide while defeating their opponents was to have no theory.


This ingenious alliance that routed the Huguenots in the ideological sphere, while Richelieu’s policy reduced them in the political sphere, had a difficulty similar to that of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Its success hinged on the sincerity of the participants, on their religious sincerity. If the aim of the Montaignians was not to secure Catholicism but to envelop all religions in doubt so that agnosticism would triumph, then the alliance had taken away from the Catholics the same means of defense that they had already taken away from the Protestants. With the growing influence of the Christian skeptics in the early seventeenth century, and possibly from knowing them too well, some of the orthodox became suspicious that the new theological base, pure fideism, might really be libertinism. The first suggestions that perhaps the Catholics had been betrayed appeared in the savage attacks of Fathers Garasse and Mersenne on the skeptics. Garasse, a bombastic figure of the early seventeenth century, gained much notoriety for his vicious attacks on Charron.


The realization that the theoretical defenders of the Counter-Reformation in France might really be advocating the destruction of religion developed slowly. Even after the warnings had been put up, various Catholic leaders defended the alliance and opposed the proffered substitute theories of the Counter-Reformation, the Somme of Garasse and the Meditations of Reni Descartes. The danger involved, that the defense of Catholicism offered by the skeptics actually made Catholicism a fortunate accident as far as human beings were concerned, seems to have left many of the French counter-reformers unconcerned. Their immediate interest was the intellectual destruction of Calvinism; if the price necessary to do this was to envelop all human standards of evidence in a total skepticism, they were willing to pay it, and then proclaim with the Montaignians that it was indeed fortunate when one looked without any preconceptions for the true religion, God had luckily revealed the Catholic faith to us.


The attempt to end the alliance by claiming that the skeptics were secret atheists, whose aim was to destroy all religion, met with little success in the early part of the seventeenth century. The beleaguered Calvinists who sounded warnings about the consequences of using Fran£ois Veron’s machine of war were also ignored. The aggressive, premature anti-skeptics, like Garasse and Descartes, found themselves denounced and persecuted by the most orthodox leaders of the society, while the “Christian skeptics” were thriving as the favorites of Louis XIV and were dominating the intellectual scene. Garasse was condemned by the Sorbonne and silenced by the Jesuit order. Descartes, offering a positive theory to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, to replace the skepticism and fideism them current, found himself attacked by a leading Jesuit, Father Bourdin, and assailed by the Jesuit order until they achieved the condemnation of his works late in the century. Among the leaders in the struggle against Cartesianism were Father Gabriel Daniel, a Jesuit who preferred the skepticism of Gassendi to the dogmatic metaphysics of Descartes, and Pierre-Daniel Huet, the Bishop of Avrandies, and La Mothe Le Vayer’s successor as the teadier of the Dauphin, who advocated a complete Christian Pyrrhonism in preference to what he considered the heretical dogmatism of Descartes, heretical for trying to provide a rational basis for religion.


The alliance died late in the seventeenth century, with the skeptics now classed as enemies of the church rather than friends. It is hard to date its termination, and the about-face in evaluation of the merits and aims of the Christian skeptics. But the fate of Father Richard Simon’s Histoire critique du Vieux Testament of 1678, the crowning achievement of the “new machine of war,” is probably indicative of what was happening. This scholarly work purported to demolish the Calvinist appeal to Scripture by showing that (a) no original manuscript of the Bible exists, and (b) nobody knows the original meaning of ancient Hebrew. Therefore Father Simon claimed no one could safely base one’s faith on Scripture.

The destructive potentialities of Simon’s work were immediately realized, the implications that it had for any and all historical documents, be they scriptural, apostolic, papal, or anything else. The work, dedicated to Louis XIV, was suppressed before publication. (A copy of this edition survives in the library of the last important leader of the alliance, the last direct-line disciple of Montaigne, Bishop Pierre Daniel Huet.)

The alliance lasted approximately from the end of the Council of Trent until the period of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, until France was again “toute Catholique.” But France “toute Catholique” was on the verge of showing one of the effects of a century of skeptical basis for its faith, in the Enlightenment, in the application of the tradition to Christianity itself by Voltaire, Diderot, and others.

The alliance contained an intellectual problem which was bound to be the source of its destruction. The total skepticism with regard to any foundation for any human knowledge eliminated the possibility of any rational basis for the religion as well. The total skepticism implied no conclusion whatsoever about what one was to believe. If the “Christian skeptic,” or the operator of the machine of war, had any beliefs, that was accidental as far as his negative argument was concerned. If one accepted the negative argument, the doubt about the possibility of man, by rational means, ever finding the truth, then on what basis could the members of the alliance advocate their faith? Any beliefs, or no beliefs, were compatible with their argument, since their argument implied nothing whatsoever. One could accept the negative reasonings of Charron and Veron if one were a complete agnostic, or if one were a Catholic, a Protestant, or anything else.


The theoretical base for this side of the French Counter-Reformation contains a two-edged sword that can be used against any argument for Catholicism as well as any argument for Calvinism. If those who employ the sword do not happen to be believers, the results can be another Age of Enlightenment instead of another Age of Faith. The present-day appeal to Christian skepticism in the Neo-Orthodox movement may soon spawn a new unwanted heir, a new Voltairean epoch.

5 comments on “How the 17th C. French Catholic use of Pyrrhonian Scepticism against Calvinism created the French Enlightenment Skeptics

  1. Pingback: The Protestant Faith in the Apostolic Tradition and the Infallible Church | Deus Ex Machina

  2. Pingback: The Structure of Divine Revelation: The Primacy of the Apostolic and Scriptural Witness and the Scriptures | Deus Ex Machina

  3. Pingback: Comment l’usage d’un scepticisme exagéré par les catholiques français du XVIIe siècle contre les huguenots a crée les sceptiques des Lumières – Phileo-sophia

  4. Pingback: the suicidal skepticism of counter-reformation Catholicism | Throne and Altar

  5. Pingback: Comment la Contre-Réforme a crée l'athéisme français — Richard H. Popkins – Par la foi

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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