Montaigne: The Power of “I don’t know”
Facing up to our own ignorance is surprisingly empowering
A high profile financial commentator was invited to speak on a network television show. As he was readying himself for his appearance, the producer said to him, “whatever you do — don’t ever, ever say ‘I don’t know’. If you say that, we’ll never ask you back.”
This is why there is so much garbage in the media. Nobody’s allowed to say “I don’t know.”
This is why even people you like and respect sound so opinionated and conceited on social media: “I don’t know” doesn’t get likes or retweets.
But “I don’t know” is the most intelligent and courageous thing you could say in many situations. In my professional life, I say to the people I mentor: “there’s no such thing as a stupid question. To not ask questions is stupid.”
To admit “I don’t know” isn’t the same as willful ignorance. There’s a difference between “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”. To admit you don’t know is to open yourself up to a better understanding of a situation.
“What do I know?”
A philosopher who made an art of “I don’t know” was Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne was born into a nouveau riche family in France in 1533. The great essayist’s childhood was odd to say the least. His father was a very wealthy merchant but didn’t want Michel to be spoilt by a comfortable early life.
The boy was put in the charge of a peasant family for three years to make him understand that hard work and even hunger was a reality for most people. He was brought up to speak latin as his first language and became exceptionally erudite in classical literature.
Montaigne became a lawyer. His training, involving weighing up two sides of an argument, had a profound effect on his philosophical writings. The philosopher became a master of doubt (and the benefit of the doubt) and is noted for helping revive the ancient Greek philosophy of Scepticism. His essays are peppered with references to the Sceptics and in particular Pyrrho, the founder of the philosophy.
Scepticism emerged around the same time as Epicureanism and Stoicism. The ancient Greek world was in turmoil after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. The emperor had died at the age of only 32 and without a viable heir. The Greek-speaking world was torn apart by the violence of dictators vying for territory in the power vacuum.
Like the Epicureans and the Stoics, the Sceptics’ aim was to enable people to find spiritual or emotional tranquility in a very turbulent world.
In short, the Sceptics argued that we can never be entirely sure of what we know. If we admit that and suspend our judgement on things, we can attain ataraxia — a state of mental peace.
Montaigne began writing philosophy in his late thirties. His father had died and the writer gave up working to devote himself to a retirement of contemplation, much like the “otium” (worthy leisure time) that Seneca endorsed.
He practically became a recluse in his “citadel” library, a tower in his château which he consecrated to his “freedom, tranquility, and leisure” for a decade of writing. His modesty was refreshing, but also behind his strength as a thinker. He wrote,
“These writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge.”
His essay writing was initially to help ease a depression brought on by the death of a close friend. The first essays ruminate on death and sadness and his therapeutic efforts to calm his own mind.
Montaigne professed not to be an expert in anything in particular and so made himself the principle subject of his writing. As he emerged from his depression, he examined himself even more.
“I study myself more than any other subject,” he wrote. “That is my metaphysics, that is my physics […] My trade and art is to live.” This subjectivism is at the heart of his Scepticism. He coined the motto “What do I know?” (“Que sçay-je?”) For Montaigne, experience, not intellectual knowledge, is the key to wisdom.
What’s important is to examine and interrogate your experience rather than take a truth handed down to you at face value. Think of how we read body language and tone of voice when we talk to people. Our intuitive reading of these unconscious aspects of communication are just as important as our processing of learned language.
Montaigne wrote extensively on education and made psychological and pedagogical observations that are influential today. He believed children should be in dialogue with their educators at a time when by rote was the only way children learned.
Individualised learning, the philosopher thought, was important for the child’s use of experience in reason, rather than referencing dogmas handed down to them.
Faith and Truth
Montaigne was a devout Christian his whole life. He believed his faith did not contradict his scepticism. In fact it was precisely his scepticism that made room for faith. As the world rapidly modernised during the Renaissance, scientific ideas began to transplant religious ideas about the world. Montaigne warned against believing in theories as the truth.
The modern science-inspired belief that we will find a “theory of everything” would be something that Montaigne would take issue with. In the secular world, science is often pitted as an alternative to religion. This is a category mistake — to believe in science is just to have a new kind of unfounded “faith”.
So was Montaigne irrational and anti-science? Not at all. Montaigne was a pragmatist rather than an outright relativist. He did not believe in ultimate truth, but he did believe many truths have practical value.
Science has its pragmatic benefits to humankind. Discoveries and technologies have allowed us to walk on the Moon and cure thousands of diseases, but we should not confuse the march of technology with a scientific idea of the “truth”. Even scientific thinking has its basis in doubt: the scientific method holds that theories are only true until disproven.
Reason — which is distinct from knowledge — allows us to make judgements based on whatever level of knowledge we have. Lacking certainty isn’t crippling to us, it’s in fact quite liberating.
Montaigne wrote that he prefered the company of poorly-educated peasants because “they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” This is a spiritual as well as an intellectual point. Our education can become an inflexible dogma that could preclude possibilities for a better way of living.
Our ideas of the truth, of how things really are, can blinker us to other ways of seeing the world. It’s being able to see many different perspectives on a situation that allows us to make use of reason.
Pyrrho, the philosophical father of Scepticism, was a soldier in Alexander the Great’s army. As the Macedonians conquered different nations, Pyrrho realised that each culture has its own truths. Why should one viewpoint be more true than another when each has its own practical merits?
Montaigne’s Scepticism made his attitudes surprisingly modern. He thought there was no reason to think that human beings were superior to other species (implicitly aligning humans with animals, hundreds of years before Darwin).
He thought the “savages” in the lands that Europeans were colonising were just as upstanding and good in their own way, they simply had different priorities and customs.
We often jump to conclusions based on our beliefs, but take a moment to examine them. See from the other perspective and then maybe another. That conclusion — that annoyance you felt that a friend deliberately didn’t reply to a text, for example — may not be the explanation. For as long as there’s no explanation there’s no reason to be upset.
Suspending your belief in any particular truth will help you emotionally and intellectually. Only beliefs can upset you, if you take a non-commital attitude to the evidence around you, you’ll not only find some peace but also enable the freedom and creativity of curiosity.
In a digital world that encourages hyper-emphatic rants, of clashing and irreconcilable world-views, sometimes it helps to say, “I don’t know”. The first three words to a better understanding of the world and each other.
Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new.
Michel de Montaigne had an enormous influence on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my article on Nietzsche’s theory of the Will to Power: