Pierre Charron (1541 - 1603) was a French philosopher and Roman Catholic theologian who helped to shape the new thought of the late sixteenth century. Charron was influenced by the skepticism of the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), which he introduced in his sermons and writings in order to refute Calvinists, non-Christians, and atheists. He developed a fideist concept of religion, admitting skepticism while relying on faith alone for knowledge of God. He contended that one could not arrive at a knowledge of God or truth through reason; humanity was weak and finite and, therefore, incapable of knowing the nature of God. His De la Sagesse (On Wisdom, 1601), presented one of the first modern ethical systems to establish a basis for morality independent of religion, founded essentially on Stoic theories and the recognition and development of humanity’s natural character. He promoted the concept of true piety as an individual commitment to morality and the exaltation of God, rather than adherence to church dogma and religious ceremony. Since humans were incapable of knowing what was true and what was not, they should accept religion as being the most suitable for its particular character and society.
Charron’s theories were notably well-received during the seventeenth century, and made an impression on many skeptical philosophers in France and England.
Pierre Charron was born in Paris, one of the twenty-five children of a bookseller. After studying law, he practiced as an advocate in Paris, but, having little success, entered the church. He soon became an eloquent preacher, rising to the position of canon, and was appointed preacher in ordinary to Marguerite de Valois, wife of Henry IV of Navarre. Around 1588, he determined to fulfill a vow which he had once made to enter a cloister; he was rejected by both the Carthusians and the Celestines, probably because of his age, and returned to his former vocation as a preacher. He delivered a course of sermons at Angers, and in the next year moved to Bordeaux, where he formed a famous friendship with Michel de Montaigne. On Montaigne's death, in 1592, his will requested that Charron bear the Montaigne arms.
In 1594, Charron published (at first anonymously, afterward under the name of "Benoit Vaillant, Advocate of the Holy Faith," and also, in 1594, under his own name) Les Trois Vérités contre tous les athées, idolâtres, juifs, Mohammétans, hérétiques et schismatiques', which was designed as a Counter-Reformation pamphlet to respond to the reformed theology of John Calvin. By methodical and orthodox arguments, Charron sought to prove that there is a God and a true religion, that the true religion is Christianity, and that the true church is the Roman Catholic. Charron asserted that the nature and existence of God are unable to be known, since God is infinitude and humans are weak and finite. He alleged that religious belief based on faith, rather than on reason, is necessary for the acceptance of Christianity, and that only the authority of the Roman Catholic church could compensate for the human feebleness innate in the reformer’s efforts to know God. The last book (which is three-quarters of the whole work) is a response to a famous Protestant work, Le Trait de l'Eglise by Du Plessis Mornay; and in the second edition (1595) there is an elaborate reply to an attack made on the Trois Vérités by a Protestant writer.
Les Trois Vérités ran through several editions, and obtained for its author the favor of the Bishop of Cahors, who appointed him grand vicar and theological canon. It also led to his being chosen deputy to the general assembly of the clergy, of which body he became chief secretary. It was followed in 1600, by Discours chrestiens, a book of sermons, similar in tone, half of which treated of the Eucharist.
In 1601, Charron published, at Bordeaux, his third and most remarkable work—the famous De la sagesse, a system of moral philosophy. (Usually, it is presented together with the Essais of Montaigne, from which Charron drew many ideas, but the work is distinctly individual.) The work was especially interesting for the time in which it was published, and the man by whom it was written. A recognized champion of orthodoxy against atheists, Jews, and Protestants, Charron, without resigning this position, and while still upholding practical orthodoxy, suddenly stood forth as the representative of the most complete intellectual skepticism. De la sagesse, which represented a considerable advance on the standpoint of the Trois Vérités, brought upon its author the most violent attacks, the chief being by the Jesuit François Garasse (1585-1631), who described him as a brutal atheist. It received the warm support of Henry IV and of the president, Pierre Jeannin. A second edition was soon called for. In 1603, notwithstanding much opposition, it went to press; but only a few pages had been printed when Charron died suddenly in the street of apoplexy. His death was regarded as a judgment for his impiety.
Through the Middle Ages the Scholastic method and Aristotelian thought and logic, as presented in the Arabic commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes, had ruled the church and the academic world. However, after middle of the fifteenth century, these were challenged by humanists and philosophers of nature, who were eager to study the original works of the ancient Greek philosophers. In contrast to Aristotelian-Scholastic thoughts, some scholars tried to research Aristotle himself. Besides the theories of the Aristotle, some scholars studied other ancient philosophical traditions. Montaigne (1533-92), the famous French philosopher and essayist, revived Pyrrhonic skepticism and came to be known as the French Socrates. (Like Socrates, Pyrrho (c. 365-275 B.C.E.) left no written works, but through the anecdotes of his disciples, gave the most influential account of ancient skepticism as Pyrrhonism.) Montaigne’s major literary work was in the form of Essais (meaning “attempts”) in which he reawakened the ancient discussions of skepticism. During the religious conflicts between the Catholics and the Protestants in France, he served as a negotiator, a counselor and a companion to headmen of both sides. Montaigne viewed humanity as a poor kind of creature whose supposed supremacy over the animals was a useless and vacant allegation. He therefore asserted the importance of following divine revelation and nature. One of Montaigne’s close friends was Pierre Charron, who adopted Montaigne’s skeptical thinking. Charron wrote De la sagesse, in which he explained that humans cannot achieve certitude regarding metaphysical and theological truths; however, one's self-knowledge, which reveals to an ignorance of God, also reveals the possession of human free will through which one is able to obtain moral independence and control over physical desires. True wisdom is the recognition and achievement of the moral ideal, independent of dogmatic religious teachings.
Charron's psychology was sensationalist. With sense, all knowledge commenced, and into sense all might be resolved. The soul, located in the ventricles of the brain, was affected by the temperament of the individual; the dry temperament produced acute intelligence; the moist, memory; the hot, imagination. Dividing the intelligent soul into these three faculties, he showed, after the manner later adopted by Francis Bacon, what branches of science corresponded with each. With regard to the nature of the soul, he merely quoted opinions. Belief in the immortality of the soul, he said, was the most universal of beliefs, but the most feebly supported by reason. Charron was decidedly skeptical as to man's ability to attain truth; he plainly declared that none of one's faculties enable him to distinguish truth from error. In comparing humans with the lower animals, Charron insisted that humans possessed no special quality or attribute which separated them from animals. Though inferior to human in some respects, in others animals were superior. Charron’s appraisal of humanity was not flattering; humanity’s essential qualities were vanity, weakness, inconstancy, and presumption. Upon this view of human nature, Charron founded his moral system. As skeptical as Montaigne, he was even more cynical, with a deeper and sterner tone. Morality had no connection with religion, and reason was the ultimate criterion for deciding what was moral and what was not.
Charron presented an interesting view of religion, based on traditional skepticism. All religions grew from small beginnings and increased by a sort of popular contagion; all taught that God was to be appeased by prayers, presents, vows, but especially, and most irrationally, by human suffering. Each was said by its devotees to have been given by inspiration. In fact, however, a man was a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, before he knew he was a man. One religion was built upon another. But while he openly declared religion to be "strange to common sense," since humanity was incapable of arriving at the truth, he should not sit in judgment on his faith, but be "simple and obedient," and allow himself to be led by public authority and the rules of his particular society. It was equally important to avoid superstition, which Charron boldly defined as the belief that God is like a hard judge who, eager to find fault, narrowly examines our slightest act, that He is revengeful and hard to appease, and that therefore He must be flattered and importuned, and won over by pain and sacrifice. True piety, the first of duties, was the knowledge of God and of one's self; self-knowledge being necessary to knowledge of God. It was the abasing of humans, the exalting of God, the belief that what He sent was all good, and that all the bad was from humanity. True piety led to true spiritual worship; for external ceremony was merely for humanity’s advantage, not for God’s glory. Charron was thus the founder of modern secularism.
I desire that one should be a good man without paradise and hell; these words are, in my view, horrible and abominable: "If I were not Christian, if I did not fear God and damnation, I should do this or that." De la Sagesse, 2, 5, 29.
Charron’s political views were neither original nor independent. He scorned the common masses, declared the sovereign to be the source of law, and asserted that popular freedom was dangerous.
A summary and defense of the Sagesse, written shortly before his death, appeared in 1606. In 1604, his friend Michel de la Roche prefixed a Life to an edition of the Sagesse, which depicted Charron as a most amiable man of purest character. His complete works, with this Life, were published in 1635. An excellent abridgment of the Sagesse is given in Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann's Philosophie, vol. ix.; an edition with notes by A. Duval appeared in 1820.
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