La Mothe Le Vayer, François de (1588–1672)

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François de La Mothe Le Vayer, a French skeptical philosopher, was born in Paris, the son of a government official. He acquired his father's post when the latter died in 1625. His wife was the daughter of a Scottish intellectual, Adam Blackwood. During his early years La Mothe Le Vayer traveled widely in Europe. In 1639 he was elected to the Académie française and in 1647 was appointed preceptor to the Duke of Orléans. He was a prominent figure in avant-garde circles in Parisin the group around Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's adopted daughter, Mademoiselle De Gournay; in the group of libertins érudits with Gabriel Naudé (16001653), Guy Patin (16011672), and Pierre Gassendi; in the scientific group around Marin Mersenne; and in the literary world of Molière (16221673; who jested at La Mothe Le Vayer in Le Mariage forcé and other plays) and Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. His many writings on skepticism began with Dialogues d'Oratius Tubero (1630), followed by the Discours chrétien de l'immortalité de l'âme (1637, the year of René Descartes's Discours de la méthode ), De la Vertu des payens (1642, published with Cardinal de Richelieu [15851642]as the sponsor), and a long series of skeptical essays on history and culture throughout the rest of his life.

Although his views are based primarily on those of Sextus Empiricus (whom he calls "le divin Sexte" and the author of "notre décalogue") and Montaigne, La Mothe Le Vayer's skepticism represents perhaps the most extreme type of antirationalism in the seventeenth century. He continually offers a wealth of evidence to show the variations in human moral behavior, the diversity of people's religious beliefs and practices, the vanity of scientific study, and the virtues of skepticism. He rarely develops his case theoretically by means of systematic arguments. Instead, he usually offers only illustrative materials, followed by a fideistic message that man can find truth only through faith, not through the use of his reason and senses.

In Petit Traité sceptique sur cette façon de parler, n'avoir pas le sens commun (1647) La Mothe Le Vayer contends that man does not understand the nature of even the most obvious things. All of one's information is relative to one's faculties. Even if there are any instruments for finding the truth about things, one, unfortunately, is unable to discover them. One's senses are unreliable, and one lacks any guaranteed criterion for distinguishing veridical experiences from others. Indubitable truths can be known only in heaven, not here and not through any human science.

These views are further developed in his Discours pour montrer que les doutes de la philosophie sceptique sont de grande usage dans les sciences (1669), where it is claimed, as the title shows, that the great service of Pyrrhonian skepticism for the sciences is that it can eliminate any serious concern with scientific research and that such research is a form of blasphemy. He asserts, without offering any real arguments, that logic is unreliable and physics only a problematical subject about which there are conflicting opinions. Nature is the free manifestation of God's will. Therefore, any attempt to restrict God's achievement to what man can measure and understand is an attempt to limit God's freedom and is hence blasphemous. When the scientists realize how uncertain their disciplines are, they should give them up and adopt skepticism, "the inestimable antidote against the presumptuous knowledge of the learned ones."

This complete skepticism should undermine the dogmatist's confidence and pride and lead him or her to the true faith: Christianity. In La prose chagrine (1661) La Mothe Le Vayer proclaims that of all the ancient philosophies, "there is no other that agrees so easily with Christianity as skepticism, respectful towards Heaven and submissive to the Faith." Had not St. Paul preached that skepticism was the way to salvation? The true Christian skeptic leaves his or her doubts at the foot of the altar and lives by faith.

La Mothe Le Vayer's anti-intellectual and destructive attack on human rational knowledge (presented almost obliviously to the scientific revolution going on around him, and especially to the achievements of Descartes) and his appeal to faith, although not introducing much that was new to skeptical argumentation, carried the Montaignian position to an absurd extreme. He denied any and all value to intellectual activities and left only blind faith. As a result, many commentators from Antoine Arnauld on have assumed that he was a pure libertine, undermining all bases for religion, and have classified him, partly on the basis of his risqué work Hexaméron rustique (1670), as an incrédule volupteux (sensual non-believer). His views, however, are compatible with his having been either a sincere Christian skeptic or a secret atheist undermining confidence in all views and beliefsa genuine fideist or an irreligious doubter. His philosophical influence seems to have been more through personal contact than through any serious presentation of philosophical skepticism. As a representative of the skeptical view, he was still important in Pierre Bayle's time, but was forgotten for the most part thereafter.

See also Continental Philosophy; Descartes, René; Fideism; Gassendi, Pierre; Mersenne, Marin; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Sextus Empiricus; Skepticism.


works by la mothe le vayer

Oeuvres. 15 vols. Paris: L. Billaine, 1669.

works about la mothe le vayer

Bayle, Pierre. "Vayer." In Dictionnaire historique et critique, 2 vols. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Reinier Leers, 1697.

Charles-Daubert, Françoise. Les Libertins érudits en France au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.

Giocanti, Sylvia. "La Mothe Le Vayer: Modes de diversion sceptique." In Libertinage et philosophie au XVIIe siècle. Saint-Étienne, France: Publications de l'Université de Saint-Étienne, 1996.

Paganini, Gianni. "'Pyrrhonism tout pur' ou 'circoncis'? La dynamique du scepticisme chez La Mothe Le Vayer." In Libertinage et philosophie au XVIIe siècle, edited by Antony McKenna and Pierre-François Moreau. Saint-Étienne, France: Publications de l'Université de Saint-Étienne, 1996.

Pintard, René. Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris: Boivin, 1943.

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

Richard Popkin (1967, 2005)