A Message from an Age of Mysticism

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1993), p.5-6.

KEY TERMS: mysticism -- social scientific inquiry -- naturalistic humanism

Once upon a time there was a wise and courageous man who warned of the dangers of mysticism in an era of cultural change and dislocation as frightening as our own. He stood up for reason and the scientific approach to knowing at the risk of his very life. His plea and his warning are as meaningful and necessary today as they were then. The man was Michel de Montaigne, and he lived in France from 1533 to 1592.

By any measure, the sixteenth century was a dark period of history. In Europe the Renaissance had been a time of hope for humanity, after the long Medieval night. All manner of supernaturalism, magic and mysticism had held sway for centuries -- stamping out any tendency to apply rational critical inquiry to human experience. However, the Dark Age had not been the first such regressive wave of anti-reason and anti-science to engulf Western culture. In Ancient Greece, a surge of mystical idealism during the fourth century BCE -- initiated by the ideas of Parmenides and Pythagoras -- had signaled the end of the greatest flowering of thought and culture the world had ever known: the Age of Hellenism. Although there had been temporary recoveries, the spread of Christianity, coinciding with the fall of the Roman Empire, had eventually resulted in the dominance of mysticism and supernaturalism for centuries to come.

And now, in Montaigne's lifetime, the naturalism of Renaissance philosophy was once again being overwhelmed by a return to supernatural absolutism and mystical and magical thinking. Religious strife was endemic. No sooner had Protestantism been established in Scandinavia and the north German states than it began to disintegrate into warring factions, each with its own dogmas "writ in stone". The methods of John Calvin in central Europe were soon rivaling in ruthlessness the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and the barbarous persecution of Anabaptists by the Lutherans in the northeastern German states. Political as well as religious enemies of Calvin were punished mercilessly, with burning at the stake a likely fate for those who dared to subject prevailing beliefs to the test of experience. Under Luther, heresy and witchcraft cases mushroomed, and the mad hysteria of brutal persecutions for these alleged crimes spread like a pestilence throughout Europe. In 1534 alone, Calvin ordered thirty-five women burned at the stake as witches -- many of whom had been determined as guilty by no evidence other than the mystical intuitions of their accusers.

In such a climate, to support reason and scientific inquiry into moral and social matters was indeed to risk one's life. Yet there were some who dared to do so. The greatest of these was Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne would not have agreed with today's New Age mystics who try to convince us that mysticism is vastly different from absolutism in religion. He saw the two stances as merely opposite sides of the same coin. He thought that all anti-naturalistic doctrines spring from the same source: from our propensity to imagine that it is possible to know the unknowable. It is the yearning to experience -- by some mysterious supersensual means -- some immutable "truth" concerning what is, by definition, beyond the reach of experience. Montaigne referred to it as the ever-seductive, essentially elitist desire to be something more than human.

Referring to people in general, he said, "They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man." He recognized as particularly pernicious the religious theme expressed by the typical comment: Oh what a vile and abject thing is man if he does not raise himself above humanity! "How absurd!" exclaimed Montaigne, "To make the handful bigger than the hand is impossible and unnatural. Nor can man raise himself above himself; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp."

Most worrying to Montaigne was humanity's lack of interest in disciplined inquiry into the nature of the human condition, and the consequent dearth of reliable knowledge in that area. He believed that people who understand nothing about the causes of their own behavior should not be claiming knowledge about the meaning of the cosmos. "As if he could really take the measure of anything," he said, "Who knows not his own!" For "Man can only be what he is, and imagine what is within his reach."

Mystics claim not only to be able to imagine what is beyond their reach, but to know it in some absolute sense by an essentially mysterious means uncheckable by fellow experiencers. In the face of such arrogant pretensions Montaigne was at his ironic best. "Man is certainly crazy", he wrote. "He could not make a mite, but he makes gods by the dozens." He reminded his readers that "for every creature there is nothing dearer or more estimable than its own being...and each relates the qualities of other things to its own qualities...for beyond this relation and this principle our minds cannot go....For why should a gosling not say thus: 'All parts of the universe have me in view: the earth serves for me to walk on, the sun to give me light, the stars to breathe their influence into me'...Now, by this same reasoning, we [humans] are the end and goal of which the universality of things rise."

Like the goslings, humanity has tended to define the universe in its own terms. Thus we imagine a transcendental Purpose, Mind and Consciousness. But Montaigne was implying that these are merely uniquely human attributes transferred by egocentric humans to a universe the reaches of which are inevitably beyond their personal comprehension. Echoing down the ages, his message anchors us in the humility of naturalistic humanism. In yet another age of expanding mysticism, his words serve to remind us that we are irrevocably at one with the goslings, rather than the gods.