Charron, Pierre (1541–1603)

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Pierre Charron, a skeptical philosopher and theologian, was born in Paris in a family of twenty-five children. He studied at the universities of Paris, Bourges, Orléans, and Montpellier and received a law degree from Montpellier in 1571. Sometime during his student years he became a priest. He was a successful preacher and theologian in southern France, serving as preacher in ordinary to Queen Margaret of Navarre and as a theological advisor and teacher in various dioceses in the Midi. In spite of his many worldly successes, he tried to retire to a monastic order in 1589 but was refused admittance because of his age.

During the 1580s Charron met Michel Eyquem de Montaigne in Bordeaux and became his close friend and disciple. Montaigne made Charron his intellectual heir, adopting Charron as his son. After Montaigne's death in 1592 Charron wrote his major works: Les trois veritez (Bordeaux, 1593), Discours chrestiens (Bordeaux, 1601; Paris, 1604), De la sagesse (Bordeaux, 1601), and Petit traicté de sagesse (written in 1603, published posthumously in Paris, 1606). These works were popular and were republished often in the seventeenth century, especially the skeptical De la sagesse, which was highly influential in disseminating skeptical views and arguments into philosophical and theological discussions and played an important role in the development of modern thought, libertinism, and fideism.

Opposition to Charron

Serious efforts to suppress and reject Charron's skeptical views were made by such figures as the Jesuit Father François Garasse, who in 1623 accused Charron of having supplied le brèviare des libertins and of having been a secret atheist trying to destroy religion. His work, which was first condemned in 1605, was seen as more dangerous than Montaigne's, partly because Charron was a professional theologian, partly because he wrote more didactically. Pierre Chanet, a Protestant medical doctor, published Considerations sur la sagesse de Charon (1643), an attempted Aristotelian refutation of Charron's skepticism about the possibility of knowledge.

Although Charron, like Montaigne, was attacked on many sides, his views were also defended and advanced by the so-called libertins érudits Gabriel Naudé, Guy Patin, François de La Mothe Le Vayer, and Pierre Gassendiand were supported in varying degrees as theologically orthodox by various French Counter-Reformation leaders. Pierre Bayle considered Charron an excellent and prime representative of fideistic Christian thought. Interest in and concern with Charron's views diminished in the eighteenth century, and he came to be considered a second-rate and derivative Montaigne whose style lacked the freshness and literary quality of his mentor's. In the light of more recent criticism suggesting that Montaigne was or might have been a sincere believer and that his skepticism was part of a theological movement of the period, Charron, too, has begun to be reexamined and reevaluated.

Charron's Views

The first statement of Charron's views was the Trois veritez, a tract against Calvinism and the views of its French leader, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay. The three truths Charron sought to establish were that God exists, that Christianity is the correct view of God, and that Catholicism is the true statement of Christianity. Most of this enormous work deals with the last claim. However, the work begins with a brief discourse on knowledge of God, developing skepticism about the possibility of human knowledge in this area, on the basis of both human rational limitations and the nature of God. One's own capacities are so limited and unreliable that it is doubtful that one could really know anything in either the natural or the supernatural realm. God's nature is infinite and therefore surpasses all attempts to define or limit it. Hence, one cannot know, in rational terms, what God is. Thus, the greatest theologians and philosophers know as much or as little about God as do the humblest artisans. One's knowledge consists only of negative information, what God is not. In fact, Charron announced, "the true knowledge of God is a perfect ignorance about Him" (Trois vritez, 1595, p. 26).

Charron combined the skeptic's views about the inadequacy and unreliability of human knowledge with the mystic's and negative theologian's view that God is unknowable because he is infinite and then utilized this combination to attack atheism. The denial that God exists proceeds from some definition of God, from which absurd conclusions are then drawn. Such a definition can only be the result of human presumption, the attempt to measure divinity by human means, and, as such, is worthless, since atheists do not, and cannot, know what they are talking about.

Throughout the Trois veritez Charron argued principally in a negative way, trying to show that it is unreasonable not to believe in God, Christianity, and Catholicism and that the evidence adduced by opponents is unreliable or dubious. He often contended that opponents, usually Calvinists, had to base their case on the results obtained by the weak and miserable human capacities, employing these defective results as measures of divine truth.

De la Sagesse

Charron's skeptical defense of the faith was made more explicit in De la sagesse and in his defense of that work, Petit traicté de sagesse. His major thesis was that since man cannot discover any truth except by revelation, morality should be based on following nature, except when guided by divine light. To support this thesis, Charron first put forth most of Montaigne's skeptical views in an organized fashion. One must first know oneself ("The true science and the true study of man is man," De la sagesse, book 1, chapter 1), and this involves knowing the limitations on what one can know. Charron presented the traditional skeptical critique of sense knowledge, questioning whether one possesses the requisite senses for gaining knowledge, whether one can distinguish illusions and dreams from veridical experience, and whether one can, in view of the enormous variability of sense experiences, determine which ones correspond to objective states of affairs. Next, he raised skeptical questions about one's rational abilities, contending that one possesses no adequate or certain criteria that enable one to distinguish truth from falsehood. He pointed out that in fact one believes things mainly as a result of passions and social pressures, not reasons and evidence. One actually functions a as beast and not as a rational being. Hence, one should accept Montaigne's contention that men possess no genuine principles unless God reveals them. Everything else is only dreams and smoke.

The second book of De la sagesse presents a discourse on the method for avoiding error and finding truth, in view of the human predicament. Charron's method closely resembles the one René Descartes set forth later: examine all questions freely and dispassionately, keep prejudice and emotions out of all decisions, develop a universality of mind, and reject any decisions that are in the slightest degree dubious. This skeptical method, Charron claimed, is of greater service to religion than any other there may be. It leads one to reject all dubious opinions until one's mind is "blank, naked and ready" to receive the divine revelation on faith alone. The complete skeptic will never be a heretic, since if he or she has no opinions, he or she cannot have the wrong ones. If God pleases to give him or her information, then the skeptic will have true knowledge. Until the skeptic receives the revelation, he or she should live by a morale provisoire, following nature. The last book of De la sagesse presents this theory of natural morality, showing how one ought to live as a skeptic and noble savage if one has no divine guidance.

De la sagesse was one of the first important philosophical works to be written in a modern language and to present a moral theory apart from religious considerations. Some considered the work a basic didactic statement of Pyrrhonian skepticism, challenging both traditional philosophical claims to knowledge and religious ones and thus preparing the ground for a thoroughly naturalistic view of human nature and conduct. Charron claimed that the argument in De la sagesse only represented part of his view, dealing with the human situation apart from divine guidance.

The overall theory stated in his various works, his ecclesiastical career, and the piety expressed in his Discours chrestiens suggest that he was a sincere fideist, who saw skepticism as a means of destroying the enemies of the true faith while preparing the soul for salvation.

The problem of interpreting Charron's views involves a larger issue, that of assessing the purport of the revival of skepticism in the Renaissance and the relation of this revival to Reformation and Counter-Reformation thought. Skeptical thought, perhaps, played several different and possibly incompatible roles in the period. Both then and now, skeptics like Charron could provide the "rationale" both for antirational fideism and for irreligious naturalism.

See also Bayle, Pierre; Fideism; Gassendi, Pierre; La Mothe Le Vayer, François de; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Naturalism; Reformation; Renaissance; Skepticism, History of.


works by charron

Oeuvres (1635). Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine Reprints, 1970.

works about charron

Adam, Michel. Études sur Pierre Charron. Talence, France: Presses univeritaires de Bordeaux, 1991.

Bayle, Pierre. "Charron (Pierre)." In Dictionnaire historique et critique. 2 vols. Rotterdam: Reinier Leers, 1697.

Belin, Christian. L'oeuvre de Pierre Charron, 15411603: Littérature et théologie de Montaigne à Port-Royal. Paris: Slatkine, 1995.

Bremond, Henri. "La folle 'sagesse' de Pierre Charron." Le correspondant 252 (1913): 357364.

Busson, Henri. La pensée religieuse francise de Charron à Pascal. Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1933.

Charron, Jean. "Pierre Charron." In A Critical Bibliography of French Literature. Vol. 3, The Seventeenth Century, edited by Nathan Edelman, 476478. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1961. Annotated bibliography of works about Charron.

Charron, Jean. The "Wisdom" of Pierre Charron: An Original and Orthodox Code of Morality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Dini, Vittorio, and Domenico Taranto, eds. La Saggezza moderna: Temi e problemi dell'opera di Pierre Charron. Naples: Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 1987.

Gray, Floyd. "Reflexions on Charron's Debt to Montaigne." French Review 35 (1962): 377382.

Gregory, Tulio. Genèse de la raison classique de Charron à Descartes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. "The Origin of Pierre Charron's Concept of Natural Law in Man." PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1970.

Julien-Eymard d'Angers. Pascal et ses précurseurs: L'apologétique en France de 1580 à 1670. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions latines, 1954.

Julien-Eymard d'Angers. "Le stoïcisme en France dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle. Les origines (15751616)." Études franciscaines 2 (1951): 389410.

Maia Neto, José R. "Charron's Construction of Épochè as Wisdom." Presented at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, April 13, New York: 2004.

Maia Neto, José R. "Charron's Epoché and Descartes' Cogito : The Sceptical Base of Descartes' Refutation of Scepticism." In The Return of Scepticism: From Hobbes and Descartes to Bayle, edited by Gianni Paganini, 81113. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003.

Paganini, Gianni. Scepsi Moderna: Interpretazioni dello scetticismo da Charron a Hume. Cosenza, Italy: Busento, 1991.

Popkin, Richard H. "Charron and Descartes: The Fruits of Systematic Doubt." Journal of Philosophy 51 (1954): 831837.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Rice, Eugene F. The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sabrié, Jean B. De l'humanisme au rationalisme: Pierre Charron (15411603), l'homme, l'oeuvre, l'influence. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine Reprints, 1970.

Richard H. Popkin (1967, 2005)

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Charron, Pierre (1541–1603)

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