The backbone of philosophical thoughts relied heavily on Greek Mythology in the 16th Century. The common understanding of what was human was halfway between the Beast and God. As philosophy grew more popular, the question of where humanity lies within humans became a topic of discussion. What does it mean to be human and what doesn’t make us beasts? In Jean-Pierre Vernant’s “Myth and Society in Ancient Greece” he explores defining characteristics that separate beast from man through the Gardens of Adonis and Mythology of Spices. According to ancient Greek Mythology, what separated humans from beasts and gods was sacrifice and marriage. As the philosophical ideals on humanity, matter, science, and reason advanced these defining ideas of separation between beast and man were questioned. In debating the topic of human distinction, the works of Montaigne, Descartes, and Diderot exposed new solutions and opposing opinions that served as the base of modernity. By way of Descartes’s popularity as a philosopher and as his only response to a predecessor, his acknowledgment of Montaigne’s “Apology for Raimond Sebond” served as a landmark in philosophical modernity. Through the dissection of Descartes’s “Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy” and its relationship to Montaigne’s work, human reason and the limits of human knowledge are brought to the philosophical forefront.
In the 16th century, uncertainty, and accepting skeptical ideas were viable intellectual properties. There seemed to be more room for the possibility of human knowledge being secondary to another form of knowledge. By the mid-17th century, the landscape of philosophy was focused on definitive intellectual ideas based on science and reason. Michel de Montaigne was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance and his work had a direct influence on writers such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Rousseau, Emerson, and more. Until his death in the late 16th century, Montaigne spread the idea of looking from the outside in. He questioned the value and power of human reason and his ideas were rooted in uncertainty. Following his death, René Descartes with many opposing views changed the threshold of skepticism and ambiguity by offering a definitive answer to Montaigne. In “Apology for Raimond Sebond”, Montaigne provides examples of the perceptible behaviors of animals that one may infer that they have intelligence and that there is no defined line between beasts and humans. He asks, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?” By asking this question Montaigne is challenging the way people commonly look at nature. He pushes us to the point that man’s reason must acknowledge its limits in order to understand the relationship between humans and nature. He continues, “…for we understand them no more than they do us; by the same reason they may think us to be beasts as we think them.” By saying this, Montaigne is presenting the idea that human beings must acknowledge the possibility that a small portion of nature is perhaps all we are able to apprehend. It is impossible for us to draw a fine line between beasts and humans because the line isn’t apprehensive by human language and reason. Montaigne doesn’t go as far as to say that there is no line but he believes in the ambiguity and uncertainty of a definitive line especially one of reason. The question of animal intelligence among philosophers was important but most important was the vast difference between Montaigne’s and Descartes opinions. The argument which was never truly an argument between the two serves as a ground for modernity.
René Descartes wrote about the uniqueness of man in his “Discourse on the Method” which relies mainly on the human ability to reason. Descartes believed that the human ability to reason meant domination over animals whom he believed didn’t have thought or reason. In part 6 of “Discourse on Method”, he says that man may draw a clear border between himself and nature in order to make “ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” The difference between man and beast for Descartes is that beast acts only through instinct or “passion” rather than reason. But for Montaigne, it is a matter of not knowing why animals act and how they act. Human capability and apprehension are unable to reach the experience and purpose of nature and to assume that nature is compatible with the things we do, choose, and react to is unjustifiable. In part Five of “Discourse on Method ”, Descartes says that humans are the only animal that can make their thoughts understood and in doubting his own ideas, which Descartes does frequently, he paints the picture of magpies and birds who “utter words” yet cannot speak as humans do. He compares this idea to humans born “deaf and dumb” with the inability to communicate with others of the same kind due to a lack of organs, yet they invent a way of language through sign. Descartes continues to say that animals with some sort of language between each other should be able to make themselves understood by humans if they are able to make themselves understood by each other. That being said he concludes that not only do animals have less reason than man but they have none at all. He relies heavily on the idea of nature being strictly out of instinct and natural passion which takes all forms of intelligence out of the make-up of animals. His ideas are a response to Montaigne’s complex theory on the limits of human knowledge and philosophy. Descartes’s acknowledgment serves as a turning point in modernity. The difference between Montaigne’s and Descartes’ thoughts allows us to recognize the limits of human language and apprehension, and the possibility of animal languages and alternative forms of reason that lie outside of human capacity.
While expressing his uncertainty about human reason, Montaigne goes as far as to say that the barrier between language and communication extends to many human groups as well. He brings up the point that there are human beings that view each other as beasts rather than humans. By saying this he is reaffirming the idea that human reason has limits and language is just a barrier. In Diderot’s “The Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville” he covers the in-depth differences in thought and ideals of the small remote Tahitian village and a visiting European. The judgments of each overs view of civilized man and the natural world are harsh and rooted in contempt for each other. With the ability to speak the same language, yet completely separated in terms of their moral compass, knowledge of human reason, and position on marriage and religion. Diderot’s tale is just another word that followed the same idea of the questionable difference between beast and god that Montaigne touched on earlier in philosophy. Montaigne talks of dogs who communicate with each other while humans wonder what they are signifying, knowing that they understand each other is exactly what approaching a small village in Tahiti is like in the tale by Diderot. The idea that man is not defined by his reason and his reason as it relates to his surroundings was continuously being spread even after the death of Montaigne and maybe it was Descartes’s response that sparked philosophical discussion and rethinking.
In looking at the timeline of these questions and ideas of the line between man and beast we are able to get an understanding of the continuous skepticism and uncertainty people had with the human world. As civilization began to advance, the possibilities became endless and the desire for answers became stronger. Voyages allowed for experimentation and exposure to new cultures which would expand the knowledge of those writing history and philosophical triumphs. The great philosopher, Descartes was famous for his writing on Reason and the importance of human distinction from the rest of the world but what makes him important is those that came before. His ability to derive answers from predecessors and analyze the current state of humanity led him to be a highly favorable philosopher, one of the key attributes of modern-day philosophy. Through the analyses of the opposing ideas of Montaigne and Descartes, we get a better understanding of the speed at which philosophy was traveling in terms of its perspective of humanity in the world and the role of reason at the turn of the century and on.