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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 227-230

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Book Review

Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration

Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration, edited by Alan Levine; vii & 282 pp. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999, $60.00 cloth, $22.95 paper.

Eleven scholars of the history of political thought contribute original essays to this volume on the relation between skepticism and toleration as understood by a variety of thinkers from the era of the Reformation (Luther and Calvin) through the Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot). Given the diversity of thinkers being treated, no universal consensus can be said to exist among them regarding the propriety or the meaning of skepticism, let alone the proper ground and extent of toleration. Nonetheless, through a judicious and balanced selection of authors and topics, the editor, Alan Levine, has contributed importantly to our understanding of the theme under consideration.

As Joshua Mitchell acknowledges at the outset of his essay on Luther and Calvin, "skepticism about the capacity of human reason to arrive at certainty . . . may, in equal measure, beget tolerance and intolerance." Certainly in the case of the two Protestant thinkers, as his conclusion suggests, the tendency was more in the latter direction: awareness of the limits of reason is supposed to deepen our recognition of the need to be guided by Christian faith. But the immediate political legacy of the Reformation in France--the wars of religion--gave urgency to the genuine case for toleration made by Montaigne, as documented in Levine's essay.

Drawing largely on the "Apology for Raymond Sebond," Levine represents Montaigne as providing a "non-rights"-based case for toleration which appeals to the individual's "self-interest, properly understood." Skepticism can help provide a ground for toleration to Montaigne because he "is not (equally) skeptical of everything." Levine properly challenges the labeling of Montaigne as a "fideist," since rather than professing his own religious belief, Montaigne "describes God as a human construction." On the other hand one may question Levine's account of Montaigne as an "Academic Skeptic" and his attribution to the essayist of the Stoic doctrine concerning the need to confront our mortality: the former seems to do insufficient justice to Montaigne's call for a positive, empirical science of "medicine," while the latter is belied by [End Page 227] Montaigne's advocacy of "diversion," especially in Book III of the Essays. In sum, Levine may not adequately account for what distinguishes Montaigne from his classical philosophic predecessors. Nonetheless, he rightly identifies Montaigne as an architect of "some of the key concepts" of modern liberalism, notably through his doctrine of the "self."

In her essay "French Free-Thinkers of the First Decades of the Edict of Nantes," Maryanne Cline Horowitz surveys the endeavor of such authors as Montaigne, Bodin, and Pierre Charron to locate "a sure and universal foundation for morality" amid the crisis of the religious wars. Unlike Levine she maintains the possibility that the conclusion of Montaigne's "Apology" expresses the perspective of "the earnest Christian life in which ancient philosophy is allowed to play a role," and she more generally seems to downplay the necessity for freethinking writers of the time to obscure the extent of their heterodoxy, even though she alludes to the severe penalties (such as being burned at the stake) that were meted out to authors deemed heretical. One wonders in particular about the sustainability of her distinction (borrowed from Craig Brush) between the "philosophical" skepticism of Montaigne and the "religious" skepticism of Pierre Bayle, based on the notion that the former "doubts the truth-giving capacity of reason" without challenging "the veracity of revelation." (Montaigne, after all, avows his determination to be guided by reason.)

In response to scholarly claims about Descartes's supposed "debt to his medieval predecessors," Michael Gillespie, in "Descartes and the Question of Toleration," highlights "the truly radical innovations of Cartesian thought." The "God" whose existence Descartes ostensibly proves in his Meditations, Gillespie observes, is far from the "traditional" Christian deity, but rather is reduced (broadened?) to identity with "the order...


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