Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Philosophical skepticism and Science in 17th century France: the case of La Mothe Le Vayer.

Following the recent post about 17th century discussions on the link between Celestial Battles and Auroras, championed, in the example I used, by Gassendi, I hereby propose another series of documents which aim to show how these discussions were extended in philosophical debates in the first half of the 17th century and in what context they appeared. Of course, the scope of these debates is much larger than what I can decently present here and we can only patch up together pieces of more general puzzle which will need to be completed by subsequent studies. Thus, in this incomplete study, I chose to concentrate on a particular case which can be compared for similarities and differences with Gassendi's approach and which has ramifications into more general philosophical debates and controversies on theology and science.

We have seen in the previous post how Gassendi's own observations led him to recognize Auroras in a phenomenon which was described by others as Celestial Battles. Gassendi's philosophical inclinations, based on doubt and advocating a skepticism holding that knowledge could be received only through the senses, experiment and observation, were a determining factor in his own account and study of the phenomenon.

The renewal of philosophical skepticism during the 17th century is an important key to understand philosophical debates which later led to the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science. Popkin and others have already underlined the importance of this factor in their fundamental studies on the subject (see references below).

Building up on Montaigne's teachings, a current of thought emerged in the last quarter of the 16th and first half of the 17th century which, helped by the rediscovery of Sextus Empiricus' writings, led to a modern avatar of the antic Pyrrhonian thought.

As Popkin have already noted (Popkin 2003, pp. 77 et al.), this new Pyrrhonism played an important role in the theological struggles of the time but also had an effect on controversies about pseudo sciences such as astrology, alchemy, sorcery, etc. which benefited from the decline of Aristotelian science. Typical of these debates are the dialogs between a skeptic, an alchemist and a Christian philosopher set up by Marin Mersenne in his Vérité des Sciences contre les sceptiques, [1625], and where he leads a double attack on alchemy and skepticism by using the latter's arguments against the former.

As a matter of fact, Pyrrhonism and its arguments were often used by non-Pyrrhonists, mainly as a rhetorical tool to attack Aristotelianism. Gassendi, more of an Epicurean himself and only a moderate skeptic, used for example Pyrrhonian critique of sense knowledge to attack Aristotelianism in his Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos (1649) in order to defend his epistemological view based on Epicurean Atomism. As noted by Popkin: "The nouveau pyrrhonisme was to envelop all the human sciences and philosophy in a complete skeptical crisis, out of which modern philosophy and the scientific outlook finally emerged" (Popkin 2003, p. 79).

Mersenne and Gassendi situated themselves between the extremes of dogmatism (both Aristotelian and Cartesian) and Pyrrhonist skepticism. Gassendi criticized the exaggeration of the power of human mind typical of dogmatism while attacking the skeptics for adopting the opposite extreme. According to Gassendi, while senses could prove to be unreliable, they could be corrected. By proposing a new epistemological view of nature based on Epicurean atomism, where atoms were created and set in motion by God, Gassendi presented a middle ground for natural philosophy in the seventeenth century.

In parallel to this critique of Scholastic and Aristotelian science as well as of the pseudo sciences, Pyrrhonism was also used to attack the "new science" itself. "Humanistic skeptics" or "Libertins érudits" such as La Mothe Le Vayer and Samuel Sorbière, regarded this new science as a dogmatism as dangerous as the former ones and all scientific research as "a form of human arrogance and impiety, which ought to be abandoned for complete doubt and pure fideism" (Popkin 2003, p. 79).

François de La Mothe Le Vayer (1588-1672) was one of the principal figures of this Pyrrhonian renewal in France and often used Sextus Empiricus as an authority. Le Vayer had a real influence mostly due to the fact that he gravitated around the royal court, first as the tutor of Philippe de France, brother of Louis XIV and later of Louis XIV himself. As a courtly figure of influence, he was under the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu and this gave him more freedom to discourse more or less openly about controversial subjects without being harassed by ecclesiastical authorities. It is still unclear whether La Mothe Le Vayer was an "atheist in disguise" (supported by Pintard) or more of a fideist inscribing himself in a theological conflict against Reformation (supported by Popkin).

In one of his numerous Petits traités which took the forms of letters and which were written between 1649 and 1660, Le Vayer expresses his views about credulity.

Remaining true to the main line of Pyrrhonian philosophy, Le Vayer "suspends from judging" and does not determine anything. Indeed, as a Pyrrhonian, he does not abolish appearances but only question the account given of these appearances. Taking the example of a celestial phenomenon which occurred in 1615, Le Vayer opposes his own personal observation to another one by the historian Jean-Baptiste Legrain. By doing so, Le Vayer applies almost to the letter one of the principal method of Pyrrhonism, ie. "to every argument an equal argument is opposed". Both witnesses, Le Vayer and Legrain (whom Le Vayer "appreciates"), are on a same step of equality, their testimony is of equal value. To Legrain's account of celestial armies, Le Vayer opposes his own observation and experience which he defines as a "usual meteor".

Of course, Le Vayer knew about Gassendi's views about Auroras. Gassendi and Le Vayer were both members of the Tétrade, a philosophical gathering where views were exchanged freely.

Gassendi was often seen as a skeptic but philosophically was more inclined toward Epicurism rather than Pyrrhonism. Both philosophies had strong ties, relying on doubt, but while Pyrrhonism leads Le Vayer to "suspend his judgment", Gassendi's epicurean inclination led him to advance new epistemological outlooks of which his studies on the identification of Auroras as well as his attacks on superstition are an offspring.

For Le Vayer however, the value of the method of doubt lies not only in avoiding credulity but more importantly in refuting sciences and scientific interest. In fact, Le Vayer does not attack superstition in itself, he theorizes on the deceptive nature of senses to bring forth the argument that believing in such stories without skepticism is being credulous and is misleading. Thus, the only truth for Le Vayer stands in God's hands.

Indeed, to the opposite of his contemporary Descartes, Le Vayer believed that since natural human reason was feeble, it was therefore incapable of discovering knowledge about the surrounding natural world (and particularly about God). He develops this idea in his Discours pour montrer que les doutes de la philosophie sceptique sont de grand usage dans les sciences [1668] only to conclude that "the desire to know too much, instead of enlightening us, will cast us into the darkness of a profound ignorance".

Thus, in his nihilistic claim and his call upon submission of reason to faith, Le Vayer allowed a supernatural world to coexist with the natural world, a world where it was possible to believe anything and to doubt anything.

Yannis Deliyannis.


Lennon, T. M. 1977. "Jansenism and the Crise Pyrrhonienne", Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 38, no. 2 (Apr-Jun. 1977), pp. 297-306.

Morreau, P-F. (ed.) 2001. Le scepticisme au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle: le retour de philosophies antiques à l'âge classique. Paris: Albin Michel.

Pintard, R. 1943. Le Libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle. Paris: Boivin.

Pintard, R. 1980. "Les problèmes de l'histoire du libertinage, notes et réflexions", XVIIe siècle, n° 127, pp. 131-161.

Popkin, R. 2003. The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford: University Press.

Spruit, L. 1995. Species intelligibilis: from perception to knowledge. Vol. II: Renaissance controversies, later Scholasticism and the elimination of the intelligible species in Modern Philosophy, Leiden-New York-Köln: E. J. Brill.



Legrain, Baptiste. Décade commençant l'histoire du roy Louys XIII du nom Roy de France et de Navarre, depuis l'an mil six cens dix, iusques à l'an mil six cens dix-sept inclus . Paris: M. Guillemot, 1618, p. 237.

Signes estranges sur Paris. [...] Et le mesme iour sur les huicts heures du soir apparurent des signes sur la ville, lesquels commencerent sur la maison Royale du Louure, & de là s'estendirent sur la ville, c'estoient hommes de feu combatans avec lances, estans enuironnez de feux qui couuroient toute la ville, ce que i'ay veu auec plusieurs autres, & quelques vns estimoient que c'estoient des representations de ce qui aduiendroit des deux armees qui commençoient lors à se ioindre sur le riuage de Loyre, lesquelles on a veu s'euanoüyr comme ces feux apres quelque montre de combatans; Et d'autres portant leurs imaginations craintiues plus haut, apprehendoient d'autres plus grands maux à venir. Strange signs over Paris. [...] And the same day at about eight in the evening, signs appeared over the city which began over the Royal house of the Louvre and from there extended over the city. They were fiery men fighting with lances, surrounded by fires which covered the whole city. This I saw along with several others and some thought that they were representations of what would become of the two armies which were beginning to gather on the banks of the Loyre river and which left as these fires after a few skirmishes. Others, who rose their fearful imagination higher, feared some great evils to come.


Oeuvres de François de La Mothe Le Vayer, Conseiller d'Etat, &c., Tome VI, Partie II., Dresde, 1758, pp. 244-246.


Je prendrai le second exemple de ce qu'a écrit Baptiste le Grain, que j'estime beaucoup d'ailleurs, dans sa Decade de Louïs le Juste. Il dit au 6. livre, qu'il observa lui même dans Paris l'an 1615. sur les huit heures au soir du 26. jour d'Octobre, des hommes de feu au Ciel, qui combattoient avec des lances, & qui par ce spectacle effroiant prognostiquoient la fureur des guerres, qui suivirent. Cependant j'étois aussi bien que lui dans la même ville, & je proteste, pour avoir contemplé assidûment jusques sur les onze heures de nuit le Phenomene, dont il parle, que je ne vis rien de tel, qu'il le rapporte, mais seulement une impression céleste assez ordinaire en forme de pavillons, qui paroissoient & s'enflammoient de fois à autre, selon qu'il arrive souvent en de tels Météores. Infinies personnes, qui sont encore vivantes, peuvent témoigner ce que je dis, & néanmoins dans un siécle l'on citera le prodige de la Décade comme indubitable, & il passera de même que tous les autres de cette nature pour un des plus constans, qui soient dans nôtre Histoire. Or ce n'est pas seulement en matiere de semblables relations, qu'on nous impose: nos meilleurs livres sont pleins souvent de tant d'extravagances, qu'on peut croire toutes les rêveries d'un Febricitant, si l'on défere à l'autorité de ceux, qui les ont composés. [...] La Lune, selon quelques Pythagoriciens, est habitée d'animaux quinze fois plus grands que ceux d'ici bas.[...] Et je m'imagine, qu'on nous produira bien-tôt des personnes venuës de la Lune, ou de quelque autre païs semblable comme il en tomba autrefois un Lion dans le Peloponese, au rapport de Plutarque; un Homme ailleurs, si l'on en croit Héraclide dans Diogene Laërce; & un Boeuf encore, au cas que l'autorité d'Avicenne suffise pour cela.


I will take my second example from the writings of Baptiste le Grain, for whom I have a great esteem, in his 'Décade de Louis le Juste'. He says in the sixth book that he observed in Paris in 1615, at about eight in the evening of the 26th of October, men of fire in the sky, who fought with lances, and who by this terrifying spectacle foretold the fury of the wars which followed. Yet I was also in the same city as him, and I protest, having studied attentively until eleven at night the phenomenon of which he speaks, that I saw nothing similar to what he reports, but only a quite common celestial appearance in the form of pavilions appearing and flaming up from time to time, as is usual with such meteors. Many persons, still living, can testify to what I say and yet, in a century from now, the prodigy of the 'Décade' will be cited as indubitable and will be considered as well as all the others as one of the most assured that can be found in our History. [...] And I imagine that anytime soon there will be talks about men from the moon, or from whatever similar land, such as in past times when a lion fell [from the moon] in the Peloponnesus, as it is reported by Plutarch; a man elsewhere, if we believe Heraklides in Diogenus Laërtius; and even an ox, if the authority of Avicenna is sufficient to [admit] that.

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