Sullivan's survey of Michel de Montaigne's skepticism and review of Sarah Bakewell's 2010 philosophical biography--How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer--is an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read that raises a bevy of unanswered (indeed unanswerable) questions about life and its feeble stabs at epistemology, which of course is what skepticism is all about, and thus makes Sullivan's reflections so engaging.
I confess my prejudice; I've admired and embraced Montaigne's philosophical skepticism throughout most of my adult life. His disdain of fanaticism--both political and religious--rejection of doctrine and self-evident respect for uncomfortable ambiguities stand second in my mental hierarchy only to Shakespeare's. I may get carried away from time to time on some singular subject and therefore to you, gentle reader, it may not seem like it, but I positively loathe certainty. Nothing is more corrosive to the intellectual soul or disruptive of good writing than a passionate conviction unbound. As Oscar Wilde so aptly observed (as he did about most everything), "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." Hence exceptionally bad poetry is quite popular on the political Internet and downright indispensable on cable news; most readers and viewers want only confirmation of their "genuine feelings," and most bloggers and television personalities are only all too happy to cough it up.
One non-political passage in Sullivan's superb survey I identified with rather acutely:
If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be [his] staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching.... [There is] the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.
In my young and soulfully beautiful wife's death I never found comfort in Scripture--"mysterious ways" my ass, she died young because we pour tons more cash into weaponry than cancer research--although in our daughter, hope does sustain me. She is my best and dearest friend and she's as soulfully gorgeous as her mother. The prospect of my own imminent death disturbs me little; I already know its cause--years of self-destructive behavior. This seems only fair. I knew what I was doing and I proceeded to do more of it. I deserve what I get. My wife did not. So yes, there's the unfairness of life's departure, but more than that there's its seemingly vile randomness. Three years ago the universe ceased to make any sense to me, and its flagrant indifference to earthly justice I now find metaphysically offensive. What's more, there's the guilt--the pounding guilt: inhuman, senseless and random tragedies such as MH-17 occurred with grim regularity before my wife's death, and yet I never wept over them. They failed to haunt me day after day as my wife's death does a thousand times a day--and ruthlessly compel me to ask, "Why?" Thus I'm forced to conclude that I'm as indifferent to most human suffering as the universe is. And that's a hard conclusion to accept.
To be clear, I'm not trying to pour my heart out here. See: Oscar Wilde. What I've instead attempted is a practical point which, I trust, Montaigne himself would have made: There are no plausible certainties about life, accept, perhaps, the one of the often dismaying utility of a searching skepticism. We can't, and really don't, know beans.
Well, damn, on a lighter note of political difference with Sullivan, he identifies his conservatism with Montaigne's skepticism.
We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.
Is it ... a capitulation to relativism, a manifesto for political quietism, a worldview that treats injustice as something to be abhorred but not constantly fought against? This might be seen as the core progressive objection to the way of Montaigne.
Indeed it would, as long as one insists on confining "progressivism" to the contemporary Maddowification of it. Which I reject. Online, I as a socialist seldom identify with socialism because of the ism's idealistically impractical socialists, just as I almost never identify with progressivism because of its idealistically impractical progressives. They too often possess an absolute or near absolute certainty in the rightness as well as the righteousness of their cause de jour. My alienation from that approach makes me a "conservative" not, however. The approach merely makes me uneasy. Because I'm a Montaignean skeptic.
Montaigne would have no more identified himself with an ism or ideology than Shakespeare would have--or, for that matter, rather paradoxically, than did the founder of modern progressivism, Franklin Roosevelt, whose pragmatically blended, non-ideological legacy Barack Obama has attempted to fulfill. Whatever failure he has experienced is the result of the opposition's ideological madness, not any inherent weakness in the philosophical value of pragmatism [the mother of all ism-negations, I should insert]. So what of my underlying if not uneasily irrepressible socialism? What of Sullivan's conservatism? In effect they're indistinguishable, which is somewhat mind-blowing. But then again, so was Montaigne.