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The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs, 1400–1600

Renaissance and Inquisition

This chapter looks at the Far East, the new West, and the tumult of Europe in between, in a period variously spoken of as Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Exploration, and Inquisition. The time span covered is about 1350 to 1650. Our route may feel a bit hectic, but the variety of investigations will prove a point: this was a moment of contact between many worlds of doubt. If learning of other people’s faith causes relativism and doubt, learning of other people’s doubt redoubles it. This chapter tours the further development of Zen and Buddhism, and Eastern materialist philosophy, as well as the European Renaissance move to secularism and Protestant doubt. A section on François Rabelais tells of a great historical fight over irreligion that had its origins in Rabelais scholarship. We’ll also look at a sampling of Inquisition trials for atheism or unbelief and spend a while with Michel Montaigne, one of the most entertaining doubters of all time. A section called “Uncertain Danes and the ‘Debauch’ of French Libertines” considers Hamlet among other undecided characters. Last, we will watch the Catholic Europeans head off to China to convert the masses and end up introducing the science of one land to the atheism of the other. It is a watershed moment in the history of doubt, yet it was typical of this period. Everywhere one looked, there was a drama of encounter between various worlds of doubt.


We have seen that from as early as 600 BCE, the theistic Brahmanical religion of India had competition: from the materialist Carvaka and the rationalist philosophers, to the more religionlike practices of the Buddhists, a nontheist world had commanded tremendous attention for six centuries. The end of the first millennium CE saw a resurgence of the Brahmanical tradition, in its bhakti and other theistic and devotional forms, and atheism in India came under sustained attack. Buddhists lost a lot of texts in this period, and Carvaka texts may have gone then, too. What’s worse, when Muslim invaders swept across India, starting in the eleventh century, they viciously attacked Buddhist monasteries. The Muslim world seems to have worked up a tremendous hatred for the monasteries, at least in part because of the atheism of the monks’ project. One of the most famous monasteries, Nalanda, was said to have housed countless manuscripts and ten thousand monks—it was savagely destroyed by Turkish troops in 1197. Since Hinduism had adopted so much of Buddhism outside the great monasteries, when these monasteries were destroyed, the only specifically Buddhist practitioners in India disappeared. It began as an Indian religion, but by 1000 CE it was all but gone there. Whatever full Carvaka texts had survived up to that point were destroyed then, too.

By this time, however, the dharma was thriving throughout the rest of Asia. As we have seen, Buddhism seduced China in its Mahayana form—the big raft. The early Middle Ages were a glorious period for Buddhism in China. The Tang dynasty (618–907) was the most cosmopolitan China had known: there was a great deal of trade (especially along the Silk Road between the Middle East and China); the government took a position of religious tolerance, so there were Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians, and Manichaeans around; people and texts were flowing and being transformed along the trade routes. Along with economic and social stability, such cosmopolitanism led to leaps in astronomy, geography, and medicine, saw the introduction of block printing, and the flourishing of literature and the arts: calligraphy, poetry, painting, and sculpture. Sophistication and urbanity were goals: there were competing famous philosophers and authors, and a popular culture that prized learning and education. Many of the great Buddhist schools arose in this period. A central inspiration for all was Nagarjuna, who had expressed doubt that went beyond the Buddha’s in a sense, because he said we could not even claim there is no self; there is not any right doctrine, there are instead meditations that can effect a ripening into enlightenment.

When the Tang dynasty declined, Buddhism was attacked as foreign and too inwardly and there was a great persecution of Buddhism in 845. The Nestorian churches were chased out of China then, too, as were the Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques of the trade cities. A neo-Confucianism that had absorbed from Buddhism a great deal of inwardness and concern for the individual took its place. When the dust settled, Zen emerged as the dominant Chinese Buddhism sect, partly because it was isolated in mountain monasteries and so did not get wiped out. The two main schools of Zen, the Lin-chi, which relied mostly on the koan, and the Ts’ao-tung, which concentrated on sitting in meditation, were introduced in Japan near the same time, in 1191 and 1227. In Japan they came to be known as Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai used the koan to encourage an overwhelming “feeling of doubt” that leads to satori, awakening.1 As in China, the Rinzai theory was “Great doubt, great awakening.” Zen masters used all sorts of techniques to wear away at the normal way of being in the world, to snap out of it. The Soto thought the Rinzai got caught up in all this and missed the point—which is why the Soto chose to just sit. This was at the very beginning of a military dictatorship based on the samurai, and Zen’s austerity, discipline, and aggressive approach to one’s own state of mind worked well here. Zen monks were important in politics, literature, and education.

There were many forms of Zen and Zen doubt. One of the most doubting of the great Japanese Zen masters was the poet Ikkyu Sojun. His vision of Zen was an intense concentration on life, not really for the sake of achieving enlightenment, but more in the insistence that enlightenment is, actually, consciousness of the pleasure of life. He counseled people to be neither angels nor demons but human beings; to be, and thus let the worry disappear.

We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world

All we have to do beyond that

Is to die.

Ikkyu lived from 1394 to 1481. He famously loved the pleasures of the flesh and championed the idea that Zen is not only in the eating, excreting, and sleeping, but also in Eros—even cheap Eros—and romantic love. He’s remembered for putting that into his poetry, both in gleeful mentions of his Zen trips to the brothels and in the love poems he wrote to Mori, a woman he met when he was seventy-three. Ikkyu liked his sake, too. Some people saw him as awfully licentious for a Zen master, but he thought they were the ones missing the point. His place in the history of doubt is as a sensualist, a Zen doubter, and a provocative questioner of rituals, attitudes, and customs. He was nicely explicit about God in his poem “Skeletons.” In it he stated at the outset that “The original formlessness is the ‘Buddha,’ and all other similar terms—Buddha-nature, Buddhahood, Buddha-mind, Awakened One, Patriarch, God—are merely different expressions for the same emptiness.” He then told this story of a dream: “Toward dawn I dozed off, and in my dream I found myself surrounded by a group of skeletons.… One skeleton came over to me and said: ‘Memories flee and are no more. All are empty dreams devoid of meaning. Violate the reality of things and babble about “God” and “the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way.’ I liked this skeleton.… He saw things clearly, just as they are. I lay there with the wind in the pines whispering in my ears and the autumn moonlight dancing across my face. What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton?” Ikkyu kept a keen sense of wonder along with his rejection of the supernatural.

Consider three short poems: “To write something and leave it behind us, / It is but a dream. / When we awake we know / There is not even anyone to read it.” This feels stark, but only at first: “The vast flood / Rolls onward / But yield yourself, / And it floats you upon it.” This doubt is subtle: “On the sea of death and life, / The diver’s boat is frightened / With ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’; / But if the bottom is broken through, / ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’ disappear.”2

This encouragement to doubt was the heart of Ikkyu’s philosophy, but his poetry also speaks of doubting Zen practice itself. By this point Zen had developed many habits and conventions of its own. This stanza comes from a longer poem on the theme:

Contemplating the Law, reading sutras, trying to be a real master;

yellow robes, the stick, the shouts, till my wooden seat’s all crooked;

but it seems my real business was always in the muck,

with my great passion for women, and for boys as well.

Consider a few more short ones: “No one really knows / The nature of birth / Nor the true dwelling place. / We return to the source / And turn to dust.” “The vagaries of life, / Though painful / Teach us / Not to cling / To this floating world.” Each poem gives us another vision of tolerance for ambiguity, doubt, and emptiness. He could be gently comforting, too: “If at the end of our journey / There is no final / Resting place, / Then we need not fear / Losing our Way.”

If we turn our attention back to China, we see that the ancient materialist, naturalist philosophy Samkhya was still around, but by this point there had been some Samkhya teachers who believed in some of the supernaturalism in the Vedas. In the tenth century, the philosopher Vacaspati defended the original rationalism. He wrote that while nothing should be considered impossible without investigation, the revelatory manner of reaching conclusions was unacceptable. Only reason, he protested, not authority or tradition, leads to truth. “Though there is nothing prescribed, yet what is unreasonable cannot be accepted, else we should sink to the level of children, lunatics and the like.”3 A reasonable scale of probability—what is likely—forbids believing a whole range of imaginative possibilities, even though we do not know anything for sure.

The neo-Confucianism of the Sung dynasty rejected the creative cosmologies that had become part of Buddhism. It also rejected the whole transcendental world. Neo-Confucian Shih Chieh (1005–1045) wrote: “I believe that there are three illusory things in this world, immortals, the alchemical art, and Buddheity. These three things lead all men astray, and many would willingly give up their lives to obtain them. But I believe that there exists nothing of the sort, and I have good grounds for saying so.” His grounds were that no one he knew of personally had ever succeeded at any of them. Zhu Xi (1130–1200) was the greatest voice of neo-Confucianism. Taking a great deal from Buddhism in its least supernatural mode, as well as elements of Taoism and a variety of other philosophies, Xi imagined a rich metaphysics for Confucianism. According to Xi, the world was composed, on the one hand, by a pattern or principle, which is incorporeal and unchanging, and on the other, by material or force, which is physical and changeable. Xi’s whole doctrine was thoroughly naturalistic. “That which integrates to produce life and disintegrates to produce death is only material force. What we called the spirit, the heavenly, and earthly aspects of the soul and consciousness, are all effects of material force.”4 When the material is gone, he explained, so are these effects.

Xi died in disgrace owing to a mundane political struggle in which he was involved, but his ideas won out for a long, long time, reigning during the Yüan, Ming, and Ch’ing dynasties. There were other contenders, across these many years, who advocated the study of the mind or the inner life, but Xi’s naturalism was the orthodoxy. For some six hundred years—until the Chinese examination system was abolished in 1905—the memorization of long passages of his books was required of almost all students in China.

Doubt in medieval Asia was marvelously varied, such that even when the main focus of an established school was doubt, some came forward and doubted that method of doubting. Furthermore, while some directed their doubt expressly against the idea of God or gods, other doubters focused on questioning karma, enlightenment, authority, the sutras, any kind of life after death, or any kind of ritual—even the yellow robes. In the fifteenth century, the philosopher Aniruddha wrote, “Huge giants [or Gods] do not drop from heaven simply because a sacred verse, or competent person, says so. Only sayings which are supported by reason should be accepted.”5



One difficulty in ascertaining popular belief is that we simply do not know how much Christianity ever penetrated the great mass of peasants and workers of medieval Europe. Christianity arose as the Roman Empire was declining in the West. Until Charlemagne’s great programs began in 789, no one had had the resources to set up schools or missionaries or even bother too much about the religious ideas of the people who worked the land—the vast majority of humanity. Rural priests complained that their flocks showed up at church to gossip and play, and that when they took part they barely knew what they were saying. In the universities, people continued to labor away at Scholastic logic and natural philosophy. Outside them, there were surges in the numbers and varieties of monks and nuns, seers and mystics, sects and heretics. Average people lived in a world marked by piety, superstition, and raucous irreligion.

It is against this background that we return to Petrarch. We last saw him searching old monasteries and libraries for a copy of Cicero’s letters. Surprisingly, Petrarch wrote back. Mirroring Cicero’s style, his letters were full of chatty questions and comments, and Petrarch ended with an appropriate marker: “Written in the land of the living; on the right bank of the Adige, in Verona, … in the year of that God whom you never knew the 1345th.” Godlessness found its way to the fore, even when it was not the topic of conversation.

It would be the painter Giorgio Vasari who would look back in 1550 and call the past two hundred years a “renaissance,” a rebirth of ancient genius. For Petrarch it was experienced as frustration with Church theologians and their devotion to logic. A friend of his once wondered whether Petrarch was not too hard on logic, to which Petrarch replied, “Far from it; I know well in what esteem it was held by that sturdy and virile sect of philosophers, the Stoics, whom our Cicero frequently mentions,” but once students learn it, Petrarch says, they should move on.6 If anyone “begins to vomit forth syllogisms,” he suggests, “I advise you to take flight.”7 In a work called “On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others,” Petrarch wrote, “I snarl at the stupid Aristotelians who day by day in every single word they speak do not cease to hammer into the heads of others Aristotle whom they know by name only.”8

The Renaissance turned away from the syllogisms of the past several centuries. Italy had always been more interested in poetry, plays, letters, and other literature than had the more Scholastic-minded northern countries. Also from the fourteenth century on, here and elsewhere, there was a rise in books that told real-world stories, not in Latin but in the spoken vernacular of each country. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, set in a plague year, contained ten stories supposedly told by a group of privileged young people to entertain themselves while hiding from the contagion (the book, by the way, borrowed liberally from Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass). In a personal letter to Boccaccio, Petrarch told of having had a “visit from an Averroist,” who listened to Petrarch’s Christian beliefs and then, as Petrarch told it: “Here he burst into a disgusted laughter and exclaimed: ‘Well you are surely a good Christian. I, for my part, do not believe in such things. Your Paul and Augustine, and all the others you preach and extol, were awfully loquacious fellows. If you could only bear Averroes, you would see how much greater he is than these silly babblers of yours.’”9 Petrarch wrote that he kicked the man out, but our interest is that he existed.

Humanism was not actually about secularism, nor blatantly about putting science above faith, but somehow everyone understood that, in a way, it was. When women of the time called for equality, they asked for rational, scientific education for girls. Christine de Pisan is known as the first woman to have supported herself by writing, and her Book of the City of Ladies in 1405 asserted that if daughters were “taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences” just as well as sons. Later in the century, Cassandra Fedele would echo the notion, claiming that “man is rightly distinguished from the beasts above all by [the capacity for] reason” and woman deserves her share as well.

In 1417 a manuscript of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things was discovered by Poggio Bracciolini. A Latin translation of Diogenes showed up in 1430. Lorenzo Valla, court historian to King Alfonso of Naples in 1435, became devoted to Epicurus. Valla also revolutionized the historical study of languages, and for linguistic reasons refused to believe that the Apostles’ Creed had been composed by the twelve apostles. His book On Pleasure championed Epicurus, advocating a life spent in prudent delights: quiet wisdom, decent virtue, and good times. For his tastes, Valla explained, the Stoics were too interested in controlling the passions. The Inquisition found him heretical on eight counts, including his defense of Epicurus, but in a close call, King Alfonso stepped in and saved him from the stake.

In 1453 the Muslim Turks took Constantinople, killed the emperor, and thus ended the eastern Roman Empire, long called the Byzantine Empire. That collapse shook a lot of texts out of the old Byzantine shelves; good texts—in their original Greek or at least translated only once. In western Europe, also in 1453, Gutenberg’s press turned out the first printed book, a Bible, and presses immediately began to pop up all over Europe, reproducing all the ancient material that was pouring in from the East. By 1473 the new presses had published On the Nature of Things. Only twenty years had elapsed between the first mechanically printed Bible and the first mechanically printed Lucretius!

In Italy, humanists noticed that they were living among the ruins of a real civilization. They launched campaigns to study the ruins and started to build in their style, or with lessons learned from them. Architecture was the first art to be transformed by the times: it was the great physical thing that the ancients had left behind. Then, of course, there were all the statues. Renaissance artists started copying those, too. It took a while: it is only in the High Renaissance that we see the first freestanding nude since ancient times, Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504). But let us take a moment to note the boy’s origins—they are the heart of the Renaissance mixture: the Hebrew story, in a Greek art form, informed by dissection, which was part of the new experimental mood that was just beginning and that would change the world. Despite the secularism of this outpouring of great art, the Italian popes tended to see it as a way to bring glory back to a weary Rome.

The ancients’ paintings had not survived, but eventually classical ideas were transferred from the other arts. Painting in the Middle Ages had been decorative or instructional, and the human figures props for the story. There had been many paintings of the Last Supper throughout the medieval period, for example, but as beautiful as many of them were, they were pictograms of a sort. In Leonardo’s Last Supper (1498), by contrast, each man in the painting responds to Jesus’ announcement of betrayal according to the nature of his heart. This is still a biblical story, but it is now about the psychology of its human characters.

The Church was confident, but not utterly at its ease. By as early as the mid thirteenth century, a movement of Latin Averroism was centered in Paris and Padua. In 1513 Pope Leo X issued a condemnation of any teaching that concluded that the human soul was mortal. It was aimed at what was going on in Padua, and the condemnation was not effective. The great Paduan professor Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1524) published all his books in the years just following it, and they all concluded that the soul is mortal. Pomponazzi had himself been educated at Padua, and he recounted that his fellow students had pressed their teachers for a rationalist evaluation of Averroës and Saint Thomas. Scholars in Florence were already generating Neoplatonic, mystical answers for such questions, but they were not to Pomponazzi’s taste. Pomponazzi said that he, too, wrote of such matters because one of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.”10 The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroës that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.

Pomponazzi rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral, reminding his readers of the heroic virtues of animals and even noting that self-interest could create such virtues as patriotism. Ghosts he rejected as a mix of vapors from the charnel house and human imagination. Demons and angels were not real. Possession and demonic prophecy were delusional states brought on by sickness or madness. What’s more: “It is likely that the whole world is deceived in this common idea of immortality, for if we assume that there are three major religions—Christ’s, Moses’, and Muhammad’s—either all of them are false and the whole world is cheated or two are wrong and the greater part of mankind is deceived.”11 He mentioned as atheists Epicurus, Lucretius, Diagoras, and some lesser-known figures, and counted these men as the few who had managed not to be taken in. Although he was sometimes issued warnings, Pomponazzi lived a full life, became a professor of philosophy at Bologna, and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.

Pomponazzi was doubt’s philosopher, but the man people thought of as the great unbeliever was Niccolo Machiavelli. His book, The Prince, appeared in 1513, having been written as a job application—to display Machiavelli’s abilities as a political counselor. It shocked Europe because the general political idea had long been that a leader should be a moral guide for people to follow into heaven—political philosophy still tasted of Charlemagne’s tribalist theocracy. Great power had been seen as crucially linked to great goodness. A good ruler, Machiavelli said, had to lie sometimes, precisely because everyone else did it, even popes. Machiavelli was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays, but he did critically question the relationship between high morality and worldly success. People of his time generally believed that Machiavelli had admired pagan religions above Christianity.12 Among the last words of The Prince one finds a discussion of Christian principles: “These principles seem to me to have made men feeble, and caused them to become an easy prey to evil-minded men, who can control them more securely, seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them.” Religion should be in service of the state, he explained, and Christianity was not the best religion for the task.

Pomponazzi and Machiavelli were part of the ebullient, philosophical doubting that was going on in Italy in the prosperous culture of the Renaissance, in the bath of fresh texts from the Byzantine Empire. Italy was not entirely alone in this mood: in France the philosopher Girolamo Cardano celebrated Pomponazzi, whom he called “the great new Averroist of Padua.”13

Yet for the most part, outside Italy, doubt in Europe in this period was about doubt in the Church. The Church had become a huge international bureaucracy and was often described as decadent. There were bishops who collected several salaries and lived in none of the dioceses that paid them, clergy with wives and children, surprisingly ignorant priests. Indulgences were on the rise, too. These were pieces of paper that one bought in order to help the soul of a dead loved one, or oneself, to attain passage to heaven. The slogan “As soon as the coin in the strongbox rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” surely did not come from the pope, but this was often the mood. There were different prices for the rich and the poor, and the Church was not shy about using the money for self-beautification rather than, say, charity. This all seemed like materialist foolishness to some; to other people, indulgences seemed a reasonable way to contribute to the Church and to the glory of God and thereby do a good deed and help oneself at the same time.

Desiderius Erasmus laughed and lectured about all this in the same spirit that he rejected Scholasticism, the Church’s primary intellectual world. His 1509 Praise of Folly made fun of the Scholastics to the point of suggesting ridiculous new questions for them: “Could God have taken on the form of a woman, a devil, a donkey, a gourd, or a flintstone? If so, how could a gourd have preached sermons, performed miracles, and been nailed to the cross?”14 Erasmus complained that the Scholastics were “so busy night and day with these enjoyable tomfooleries,” that they haven’t had time to read the Gospel “even once through.”15 And elsewhere, “Who could have imagined, if the savants hadn’t told him, that anyone who said that the two phrases ‘chamber pot you stink’ and ‘the chamber pot stinks’…are equally correct can’t possibly be a Christian.”16 He used this foul metaphor to remind his readers that theology had become extremely worldly in its concerns. When it came to the truth of it all, Erasmus shrugged. Listen to him on what we can know of truth: “Human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain, as has been rightly stated by my Academicians, the least assuming of the philosophers.”17 “Academicians” meant Skeptics, the Middle Academy, and it is useful to note that Erasmus based his opinion on the soundness of their conclusion that we could know nothing clearly, but that he also preferred their mood. He also published an edition of Lucian’s Dialogues.

We come now to one of the great paintings in the history of doubt. In 1508 Pope Julius Il’s architect, Donato Bramante, recommended Raphael Sanzio to paint for the pope’s library. Libraries of Imperial Rome had had portraits of great poets, and the practice was being revived in late-fifteenth-century Italy. What Raphael did, though, was new. The fresco he painted was called the School of Athens and in it were arranged, in meaningful poses, all of doubt’s old friends: Plato at center, holding the Timaeus and pointing up; Aristotle holding the Ethics and gesturing toward our physical world; Socrates at left, explaining something to Alexander the Great (in fancy soldier dress); and Alcibiades, another student Plato described in such scenes. Xenophon listens in from under his black-and-white hat. The Stoic Zeno is the old man with green cowl and book at far left, near where Epicurus leans, looking well fed. He wears a laurel wreath and seems to be getting a bit of a rubdown as he writes. Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in the street and rejected the whole human effort against the universe, is the figure reading on the steps, stretched out in the sunshine. Heraclitus is at the front left, seated and leaning, and is in fact a portrait of Michelangelo. Averroës is nearby in a turban. Ptolemy and Zoroaster chat on the right, holding a sphere of stars. Euclid and Pythagoras are also there. The architecture around them is yet another portrait: Raphael had seen Bramante’s drawings for Saint Peter’s. As for Raphael, he’s in the front, far right, a twenty-seven-year-old looking directly at us.

So the Catholic Church had room for Erasmus’s deep skepticism, as well as images of materialist philosophers and casual rejecters of all faiths. Erasmus’s call for reform was just that, and certainly was not about “believers” versus doubters. That’s where Martin Luther came in. By the time he found himself rejecting the selling of salvation through the indulgences (a new, jubilee indulgence had just been announced to help finish Saint Peter’s), on a church door in Wittenberg in 1517, Luther had already come through great agonies of doubt. He could not convince himself that he had done enough to deserve salvation. Luther was near despair when he turned to the works of Saint Paul and found his answers.

It was the other great shock of the old. Erasmus and Luther returned to the ancient Christian texts just as Petrarch and Valla had returned to the ancient philosophers. The shock of Paul’s claim of “justification by faith alone,” and of his suggestions of predestination, convinced Luther: Christianity should be about faith alone. Paul had thrown out the laws of Moses. Fifteen hundred years later, the tense situation of belief being more important than acts was purposefully revived. The Bible text was described as literally true and the community who joined Luther challenged itself simply to believe it, as Paul had asked believers to accept the resurrection and as Jesus had asked the crowd to believe his miracles and that God’s kingdom had come. Life within such challenges of belief is an inner battle to be certain; it can be ecstatic and immediate when it’s good, and full of nail-biting worry when it is bad. The new Protestant doubt drew freely upon the image of Augustine in his garden, wracked with struggle.

Luther wrote Against Scholastic Theology, a list of ninety-seven points asserting, for instance, that “It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This in opposition to common opinion.”18 In fact, “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.” It’s not just the ancient philosopher Luther is rejecting: “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith.” We should not even want rational proofs to believe, let alone speculative doubting. “If a syllogistic form of reasoning holds in divine matters, then the doctrine of the Trinity is demonstrable and not the object of faith.” In case we missed his point, he says, “Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This is in opposition to the Scholastics.” What Luther rejected in the Reformation was not just Church corruption. It was the primacy of Aristotelian logic that had dominated education and intellectual culture.

Luther also scolded Erasmus’s tactic of Skeptical obedience. Doubt was not Luther’s cup of tea. Answering Erasmus, he wrote, “[Y]ou foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus’s sty who, having no belief in God himself, secretly ridicules all who have a belief and confess it.”19 Luther was dazzling with a harsh word. He continues, “Permit us to be assertors, to be devoted to assertions and delight in them, while you stick to your Skeptics and Academics till Christ calls you too.” Then he delivers one of the great lines in this history: “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”20 The idea that the Holy Spirit might be a Skeptic is Luther’s own flight of fancy; Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.

Of course, the Catholics saw the reformers as the real skeptics and atheists, for they had ditched the common gestures of worship and disavowed the authority of the Church. This generated a lot of uncertainty. Luther said the Church had no authority and that individuals could feel what the truth was: easy, perhaps, when the subject was priestly sexual improprieties or the hawking of indulgences, but on more subtle questions, like the usefulness of confession, the sense of moral obviousness was gone. The whole thing begged the question: If we do not trust the Church to know the truth, why should we trust ourselves? How can we know? It might have precipitated a skeptical crisis by itself, but since Cicero and Sextus were becoming increasingly available, that was not necessary.

In the next generation, Calvin pushed Luther’s justification by faith a step further: Luther said we were all too sinful to be saved by acts; only faith and God’s grace could save us. That left room for some gestures on one’s own behalf; one could struggle to believe. Calvin said omniscient God knows before we are born who is capable of such belief, so we are each damned or blessed before we cry our first tear. The struggle here becomes to know that one has been saved and is among the Elect, by finding oneself to be sufficiently full of belief. In this exceedingly anxious situation, all of the churches, the Roman church and the various Reformed churches, regularly accused one another of atheism. A word that had not been much used since ancient times was suddenly everywhere. There were countless books devoted entirely to discussing the varieties of atheism. In Geneva, when Jacques Gruet, a prominent member of the bourgeoisie, protested Calvin’s increasing domination of the city’s public life, Calvin had Gruet burned as a “speculative atheist,” that is, one who intellectually rejected the faith. Calvin insisted that papers found at Gruet’s house proved the matter, but they were burned with him, so we do not know more. Calvin had a man named Monet beheaded for being a “practical atheist,” that is, one who behaved as if there were no God. Monet had a book of pornographic pictures that he called “my New Testament.”21

Increasing numbers of the ancient authors were accused of atheism, and an expanding cast of relatively contemporary writers as well. It is striking to see the word suddenly all over so many manuscripts and letters. Frequently, the people being accused were more reasonably seen as zealots of one sort or another than as unbelievers, yet this new use of the word is also part of the history of doubt. Lucian was generally understood as an atheist by Renaissance and Reformation Europeans. When they accused each other of atheism, they delighted in spicing up the indictment by calling their target a “slave of Lucian” or a “student of Lucian.” This public worry over atheism happened because authority and sufficient belief were such tense issues, suddenly, again. Many who were themselves more certain thought their opponents had rejected God’s decrees, and that seemed like atheism; many people accused others of atheism because doubt troubled them; and some people were reporting on real, serious doubt.

Meanwhile, in 1543 the Pole Nicolas Copernicus published a book called On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres. He had been sent to Italy to study medicine so he could serve as his powerful uncle’s private doctor. There he picked up some Neoplatonism, which was carrying on Plato’s reverent equation of the sun with the ultimate good. It seems to have influenced his sense that the sun was worth going around. He did not publish his big idea until he was on his deathbed and he claimed he did not believe in the system he described, but merely found it useful for calculations. By the old system, to make the planets’ observed orbits match the worldview of an Earth-centered solar system, you had to have the planets going around their orbits in wacky epicycles. Copernicus found that if you pretend the sun is at the center, you find the planets almost exactly where they would seem to be from Earth. That is, you could predict the path of the planet through our sky. Most people were first aware of or convinced of heliocentrism by the work of Galileo in the next century. Here, note that henceforth some people were confronting the possibility that humanity is not the center of anything—heaven no longer above us and demons no longer below.

Amid all this, Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman, experienced a doubt similar to that of Luther and decided to answer it with blind dedication to the pope. He set up the Jesuits as “shock troops of the papacy” dedicated to converting people all over the world to Catholicism and thus making up for the pope’s losses in Europe. Meanwhile, the Inquisition was killing Protestants, Protestant leaders were killing various dissenters, spontaneous massacres arose in which neighbors killed neighbors, and there were full-on Wars of Religion. It was a bloodbath.


A center of fresh doubt in these years was at the court of Margaret of Navarre. She lived from 1492 to 1549, right through the tumult of the new explorations, new religious movements, and the height of the Renaissance. A near-contemporary included the following story in his Lives of Illustrious Women: When one of her maids was fatally ill, Margaret sat by her bedside with such strange concentration that other ladies asked her “why she looked with so much attention on that poor dying creature.” Indeed, the queen “never stirred from [the girl’s] bed-side, as long as she was agonizing, looking her earnestly in the face, without interruption, till she was dead.” The reason, replied the queen to her ladies, was that she had heard many learned men assert that the soul left the body the moment it died. Queen Margaret wanted “to see if there came from it any wind or noise, or sound on the removal and going out of the soul,” but in the end, she reported, “she could perceive nothing like it.” It was a serious matter: “she added, that if she were not well settled in her faith she should not know what to think.” As it was, though, “she would believe what her God and her Church commanded her to believe.”22

As we started to see, at this time people thought of Italy as the breeding ground of atheists, and northern France was getting a bit of a reputation as well. Navarre, on the border of France and Spain was about to join them, and this had a lot to do with our Margaret of Navarre. A writer of stories, plays, and poems, she was best known for her Heptaméron (1558), an original collection of stories in the genre established by Boccaccio’s Decameron. Her brilliant court was frequented by literary men, among them the famous writers Etienne Dolet and François Rabelais, both of whom have been thought of as atheists for centuries. As queen consort of Navarre and sister of King Francis I of France, Margaret could do as she pleased to some degree. She was a strong supporter of religious liberty and mild church reform. Did she doubt? Did Dolet and Rabelais?

There is a historical fight over disbelief that centers on these two men. When Rabelais was alive, a lot of people called him an atheist, an “ape of Lucian,” and a drunk. He wrote books about two giants he invented—a father and son, Gargantua and Pantagruel—and he gave them lives full of messy carousing, complete with unceremonious sexual adventures, excretions, and general muck. These books were funny then and they are funny now. In them, many people make fun of priests, scripture, Church hierarchy, and ritual. What historians have gone back and forth on is what Rabelais himself actually believed.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a historian of great prestige, Abel Lefranc, known as “the commanding general of an army of Rabelais experts,” claimed that Rabelais was an aggressive atheist, barely hiding behind his literary veil.23 Lefranc had terrific evidence, not least that Rabelais’s colleagues called him an atheist, and vociferously! Lefranc’s book became the last word on the subject for a generation. Rabelais was an atheist. Then along came Lucien Febvre, who read the classic book and, he tells us, found the thesis absurd. In 1947, in his celebrated The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, Febvre claimed that Rabelais not only had not been an atheist but could not have been an atheist. The great critique of Febvre’s day was against history that impressed modern values on the past. He was saying that historians had been doing this to the question of irreligion, reading our modern, secularist ideals into history. Febvre proceeded to show that Lefranc had made a lot of errors reading his sources. Back then, Febvre explained, simply everyone used the word atheist to insult one another. Furthermore, upon careful consideration of complicated texts, Febvre was able to show that most of the jibes Lefranc had thought were aimed at Rabelais were actually being hurled at Etienne Dolet, Rabelais’s friend at the court of Margaret of Navarre.

To support his claim that the “mentality” of the times could not allow atheism, Febvre got a lot of his information from tinkers, tailors, and tanners, as well as the usual theologians and kings. The “mentalities” idea and the attention to popular opinion helped shape the way history was done in the twentieth century. But what Febvre claimed here was pretty extreme. He held that the mentality of the time was such that there were no intellectual replacements for the answers theism offered, so no one could have rejected them. In fact, he claimed that no one could have been an atheist until Descartes made it conceptually possible.

What then of Rabelais’s friend Dolet? Febvre himself offered good evidence that contemporaries saw Dolet as an atheist. He was clearly a doubter, and he was killed for it—hanged and burned at age thirty-seven. He would be called the “Martyr of the Renaissance” in the sixteenth century and a “Martyr of Free Thought” in the nineteenth, but Dolet had actually tried to stay out of trouble, writing that he hated persecution but that in response to it: “I play the part of a spectator. I grieve over the situation, and pity the misfortunes of some of the accused, while I laugh at the folly of others in putting their lives in danger by their ridiculous self-will and obstinacy.”24 He was no fanatic.

Yet he had some things to say. Dolet put at the end of one of his books, “Death? Let us not fear its blows. It will either grant us to be without feeling or it will allow us to enter a better world and a happy state—unless our hope of Elysium is entirely groundless.” Contemporaries understood what it meant to consider that death may “grant us to be without feeling.” A contemporary wrote of Dolet, “Sneer away, you ape of Lucian.… To deny the existence of a God in Heaven who wished his son to die for the salvation of men … to deny the Last Judgment and the punishments of Hell—this is madness.”25 In the end, as I said, he was burned for it.

Dolet alone should have thrown the “no real doubt” thesis into turmoil. But there’s more: Febvre himself, only a few years after publishing his book on Rabelais, found a text by Bonaventure des Périers called Cymbalum mundi. It had been published in 1537, and it struck Febvre as the real thing: unbelief. He dealt with it by claiming that des Périers had been unusual, an exception, because he happened to have access to ancient texts that sufficiently augmented his mentality. The thing was that Febvre’s The Problem of Unbelief was so impressive in its use of sources and reconstruction of cultural oddities, and his invective against Lefranc was so mocking and bilious, that even after “mentalities” history was no longer new and dominant, historians have not wanted to come out in favor of unbelief in this period.

This almost unconscious fear of the subject has kept scholarship away from it for the last sixty years. Some historians studied the deep rebelliousness within popular forms of religion and some studied the various heresies, and that nuanced the picture, but did not changed it. The dominant understanding remained that real, serious doubt in God was impossible in this period.26 In the last few decades, however, a few historians, especially in Europe, have stood up and said that the whole thing was ridiculously overdrawn. Scholars like Susan Reynolds, Michael Hunter, and David Wootton have cried foul that half a century has gone by and this essential subject, in one of the most productive periods of historical scholarship ever, has been bizarrely ignored. Maybe all that evidence of people calling each other atheists actually meant some people were atheists. This revision, however, has not yet reached far, so most people still tow Febvre’s line. Even the fine religious historian Karen Armstrong in her History of God, in 1994, writes that “As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at his time were so great as to be insurmountable…” No one could be an atheist “[u]ntil there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications.… Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration.”27

But things are changing. The medieval historian Susan Reynolds argues that the idea of “the Age of Faith” persists “more or less unnoticed rather like a shabby old chair in our mental sitting-rooms.… It is rather rickety, and goodness knows where it came from, but it looks all right now that we have smartened it up with the new loose covers of heresy and ‘popular religion.’ All the same, the old chair is still there underneath. It is constructed out of the assumed credulity, the incapacity for atheism, of the medieval mentality.”28 Reynolds argues that there is no reason to be certain that even in completely “untouched and traditional societies” there are not some people who doubt. There is certainly no reason to believe in a complete lack of doubt in a culture so variously reminded of other religions and philosophies, ancient and foreign. Reynolds asks why else people like Anselm were worrying about proving God’s existence: “They clearly knew about unbelief and regarded it as dangerous, even before the thirteenth century brought so much more of Aristotle as well as other classical pagans and some Jewish and Islamic philosophers to their notice.”29 Most important, Reynolds writes that we cannot keep explaining away evidence of atheism based on the idea that there could not have been any, which is itself dependent on the idea that we cannot find any. Reynolds’s lecture on the subject in 1990 is the most colorful attack on the “mentalities” idea of medieval faith, but there are others like it, many collected in Michael Hunter and David Wootton’s Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.30

The problem had always been thought of as such: “no one” in this period called himself or herself an atheist; indeed, many who have been called doubters or even closet atheists for these past centuries specifically denied it. Febvre had even mocked historians who called such figures atheists because in so doing, the historians were calling them liars and cowards. After all, he said, other heretics were willing to die for their beliefs. Well, yes, but first of all, one does not die for atheism as one dies for a god. Second, atheists have a long history of pride in silently smiling and going about their business with respect for the believers and compassion toward their needs. What is much more, however, is that indeed there were people who announced that they did not believe in God. We have seen some explicit suggestions of it in condemnations as early as the thirteenth century. The real mother lode, however, is in the sixteenth-century documents from the Inquisition. In the past few decades, historians have been at work finding these documents and interpreting them. They reveal actual men and women who explain how they came to doubt.

Before looking at the Inquisition papers, we should note first that the passages in Rabelais that Abel Lefranc read as atheist, and Febvre read as “not atheist,” were part of the canon of doubt, either way. How much of a doubter was Rabelais? Febvre tells us not to take the scatological humor and the bawdy jokes as evidence of doubt, and certainly not to read things into it—one historian had suggested that when one of the giants farted out little men and women it was a critique of virgin birth, and we may agree with Febvre that this is a bit of a stretch. Then again, we may not. In either case, the world we are shown by Rabelais is not one of rational unbelief, but it also is not one of piety or traditionalism. This is how the book begins:

MOST noble boozers, and you my very esteemed and poxy friends—for to you and you alone are my writings dedicated—when Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prime of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a Silenus.31

Silenus, he tells us, is a fancy painted box that holds serious drugs. Socrates liked to drink and carouse, we are further told, and Plato warned that many people missed the real interior meaning of his teacher because of this, so he calls him a Silenus. Likewise, warned Rabelais, one should endeavor to see the deeper meanings of his seemingly comic books.

Some of Rabelais’s material is more outrageous than anything in any teen movie today. In one famous story, some men from one island visit another during a holiday; they get silly and one of them responds to a paraded picture of the pope by making an obscene gesture—called “showing a fig.” A few days later, the insulted hosts avenge themselves, arriving at the offenders’ island, killing many, and offering the remainder a choice: death or, if they are willing, a task: a fig is placed in the “private parts” of a donkey and anyone willing to both remove that fig with his teeth and then replace it again would be granted his life. Rabelais tells us that some died and some went for the fig. Those that performed the fig maneuver were called Popefigs ever after.32

Amid the gross stories, written in tavern slang, there is a letter from Gargantua to his son, Pantagruel, written in high style and with exquisite prose. This letter has always been taken as a singularly immediate commentary on Rabelais’s historical moment—it’s one of the great descriptions of the Renaissance as seen from within. It has also been read as the closest thing to a straight confession that Rabelais, or his literary character, did not accept the Christian afterlife. The setup is that Pantagruel is away at school, and the letter from his father is intended to hearten the boy toward his studies. First Gargantua explains that parents care so much about a child’s education because of the realities of their own mortality.

[W]e can, in this mortal state, acquire a kind of immortality and, in the course of this transitory life, perpetuate our name and seed; which we do by lineage sprung from us in lawful marriage. By this means there is in some sort restored to us what was taken from us by the sin of our first parents, who were told that, because they had not been obedient to the commandment of God the Creator, they would die, and that by death would be brought to nothing that magnificent form in which man has been created.

But by this method of seminal propagation, there remains in the children what has perished in the parents.…

When, at the will of Him who rules and governs all things, my soul shall leave this mortal habitation, I shall not now account myself to be absolutely dying, but to be passing from one place to another, since in you, and by you, I shall remain in visible form here in this world, visiting and conversing with men of honour and my friends as I used to do.33

Gargantua also says to Pantagruel: “to see my grey-haired age blossom afresh in your youth … I shall not now account myself to be absolutely dying.”

The letter mentions God, as we see above, but no use is made of him. One deals with the fact of death by mortal, human means. Gargantua’s letter gives his son a lot of philosophy, and God is on the sidelines there, too. Instead, the thing to do is study. When Gargantua was himself a young man, his education was poor because, he reports, “the times were still dark.” Nowadays, the humanist’s life is available to all, and his son must embrace it.

Now every method of teaching has been restored, and the study of languages has been revived: of Greek, without which it is disgraceful for a man to call himself a scholar, and of Hebrew, Chaldean, and Latin. The elegant and accurate art of printing, which is now in use, was invented in my time, by divine inspiration; as, by contrast, artillery was inspired by diabolical suggestion. The whole world is full of learned men, of very erudite tutors, and of most extensive libraries, and it is my opinion that neither in the time of Plato, of Cicero… were there such facilities for study as one finds today.… I find robbers, hangmen, freebooters, and grooms nowadays more learned than the doctors and preachers were in my time.

Why, the very women and girls aspire to the glory and reach out for the celestial manna of sound learning.34

It is not an antireligious letter, but it is worldly. Since Rabelais started his book with a whisper to read it for unspoken claims and hidden messages, the book has been experienced by many as pointedly irreligious. Rabelais’s place in the history of doubt is as a sage of secular life, and as a shocking jester, as the bulk of his work is outrageous enough to break traditional barriers of decency in any age. The quiet moments of contemplation he created were in the mode of the graceful-life philosophies: confronting death as an absolute, and making some meaning based on loving one’s family, having a carousing good time now and again, drinking deeply of ideas, letting that metaphor end in a hangover now and again, and doing the work of wisdom—reading, writing, and meditation on the truth. The French poet Joachim Du Bellay, a contemporary of Rabelais, wrote him this poem:

Who can with so much learning write

That now we have at last in France

Democritus reborn, whose lance

Cuts through the Schoolmen’s murky light.35

Democritus reborn, no less. After Rabelais died in 1553, Du Bellay wrote another poem, this time from the great jester’s point of view. Thus we have the posthumous Rabelais with these words in his mouth: “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods, when I was alive.” Maybe so, maybe not. In either case, along with Socrates and Ikkyu Sojun, Rabelais was one of doubt’s most prominent jesting, drinking sages.


It was just after the publication of Rabelais’s books that the Inquisition really got going. We should know a few things. The Inquisition had been started to keep an eye on heretics, Jews, and Muslims and then turned its tongs and talons on the Protestants. That led to a lot of documentation about what people actually believed. These records are sketchy, but fascinating. The voice of doubt among common people in Europe had been beyond our hearing, and with these trials it is suddenly audible. These common doubters will draw on many of the sages and poets of doubt that we have seen arise out of the aging world: Greek, Hebrew, Eastern, Roman, and Arab. Yet, we would do well to listen to the independence of thought experienced by the people themselves. A woman from Montaillou was asked where she got her doubts about hell and the resurrection and she said that she got them from no one: she thought of them for herself.36

Information is sometimes very thin, but we get an idea after only a few examples: In 1497 a Gabriele di Salo was tried at Bologna for claiming that Christ’s miracles were natural phenomena.37 In 1533 the Venetian Council of Ten complained that the friars of San Fermo were responsible for many “filthinesses” with the nuns of the Magdalene and “do not want to live under the rule of their founder, but as sons of iniquity … as Epicureans and Lutherans.”38 The weird combination of accusations against the friars is probably to be explained because, this early, the term Lutheran was often used for anyone who questioned religious doctrine.

In 1550 an Anabaptist (radical Protestants best known for rejecting infant baptism) religious council in Venice declared that the impious die with their bodies and the elect sleep until the day of judgment. They believed in no immaterial beings and explicitly denied the divinity of Christ.39 In 1558 Catherine de Medici’s cousin, Pietro Stozzi, a mathematician who translated Caesar into Greek, was dying, having been wounded in the siege of Thionville. On his deathbed he plainly renounced God and denied immortality. The evening before, it was reported, he had asserted that the scriptures were a fiction.40 Others fought the trend, but still reported on it. Consider the revival of ancient Skepticism as described by Guillaume Budé (1467–1540), the French humanist responsible for starting both the Collège de France and the Bibliothèque Nationale:

Oh God, Oh Savior, misery, shameful and pitiless fault: we believe Scripture and Revelation only with difficulty.… Such is the result of frequenting cities and crowds, mistresses of all errors, which teaches us to think according to the method of the Academy and to take nothing for certain, not even what Revelation teaches us concerning the inhabitants of heaven and hell.41

It’s true that the city can give one a case of cosmopolitan relativism, and it is nice to hear him tell us how far it went. A Professor Galland at the Collège de France wrote this:

All of the other sects, including even that of Epicurus, busy themselves with safeguarding some religion, while the Academy strives to destroy all belief, religious or otherwise, in men’s minds. It has undertaken the war of the Titans against the gods. How would he believe in God, he who holds nothing as certain, who spends his time refuting the ideas of others, refuses all credence to his senses, ruins the authority of reason! If he does not believe what he experiences and almost touches, how can he have faith in the existence of the Divine Nature which is so difficult to conceive?

We’ve seen that Diogenes was already in print, and in 1562 Sextus Empiricus was published for the first time in the Renaissance. By 1569 all his work was in print and it was continuously reprinted and translated after that date. This ancient Skepticism would have tremendous impact.

By late in the sixteenth century, tensions that had begun earlier that century among the various versions of Christianity had erupted into unprecedented violence. To take one prominent example: In these years, hundreds of noble families, many of them related to one another, lived at the royal palace in Paris, each installed in their own apartments. Some were Catholic and some Reformed, and these were mixed within families. Before dawn on August 24 in 1572, some of the Catholic noblemen, accompanied by the king’s guard, went around and killed about a hundred of these Reformed Church friends and family members. The king had feared a Protestant coup and meant to stop it; that is, it was a political issue specific to these particular Protestants. But, hearing of it, people felt this was an encouragement to get rid of French Protestantism, and in the next three days Catholic Parisians murdered about three thousand of their fellow townsmen. As the news spread throughout France, several thousand more Protestants were killed. Forever after in the history of doubt, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (named for the feast day on which it began) would be cited as evidence that religion, especially any religion that thinks it has a monopoly on truth, does more evil than good.

Returning to the Inquisition, in a 1573 “denunciation” text we learn that Matteo de Vincenti, a woodworker in Venice, left a sermon about the doctrine of the “Real Presence” on Palm Sunday, saying, “It’s nonsense, having to believe these things—they’re stories. I would rather believe I had money in my pocket.”42 Geoffroy Vallée was executed in 1574 for denying God. He cited the unbelief evident in Ecclesiastes and Psalm 1.43 More people than ever could now read the Bible, and have access to a copy of it, and could thus avail themselves of Ecclesiastes’ graceful-life philosophy. As for the first psalm, we recall that it specifically mentions “the counsel of the ungodly,” the behavior of “the ungodly,” estrangement of “the ungodly,” and the ultimate punishment of “the ungodly.”44 It was enough to suggest to Vallée that some people did not believe in God. On trial, he said that he picked up these opinions from conversations with learned men in his foreign travels.45 Vallée complained that believers recited “like parrots” the irrational views that they had memorized before they left the cradle. Instead, he asserted, one should believe only what one could learn by the senses, and those ideas for which one could show rational proof. The inquisitors asked him if he disbelieved everything for which he had no direct evidence, and it was recorded that he “did not know how to respond.”46 That is understandable. As historian Nicholas Davidson notes, it is one thing to have a gut sense of what rational or reasonable proof might be, but it is something else again to be able to parse probabilities for various hypotheses, recite evidential criteria, and then compare the strengths of various claims. This was tricky stuff and Vallée burned.

Also in 1574 the Venetian Inquisition received a denunciation against Commodo Canuove of Vincenza, accusing him of saying “we have never seen any dead man who has returned from the other world to tell us that paradise exists—or purgatory or hell; all these things are the fantasies of friars and priests, who wish to live without working and to pamper themselves with the goods of the Church.”47 In 1575 a physician named Pietro Sigos was denounced for claiming that images cannot produce miracles—“it’s simply not possible; it’s all an invention of the priests to get more money.”48

In 1579, in Venice, a craftsman named Pietro was said to deny God.49 In 1580 Alvise Capuano was sentenced as an atheist, having been denounced to the Inquisition in 1577. The trial documents summarize his confessions, saying he believed

the world was created by chance… that when the body dies the soul dies also… that Christ was the adopted son of the Madonna, born as other men are, and that angels and demons do not exist… that there are no true witches, and that belief in witchcraft arises from melancholic humors… the world has neither beginning nor end… Christ’s miracles were not true miracles but natural acts… and that the only law that must be obeyed is the law of nature.50

We do not know where Capuano got his ideas, but we know now that they were in circulation in a variety of cultural conversations.

In the 1581 confession of Evangelista de Vintura to the Venetian Inquisition, there is something we have not heard before. He confessed in writing that since the plague of 1555 killed his mother, his brothers, and his sisters and separated him from all his property, he had “lived far away from the true and correct Christian way of life.”51 He explained, “I doubted that God could have any providential control over events, since he had treated me so badly.” This was a Job who said no to God, and that is how it stayed for some thirty years. Perhaps such sorrow only ignited doubt in a century in which talk of doubt was available to any reader, or perhaps it was always common to doubt providence when you knew that you had demonstrated more moral character than the world had shown you. The Inquisition notes let us hear it.

In the later sixteenth century, Noel Journet wrote two manuscripts showing inconsistencies in the Bible story and concluded that the whole of the Good Book was a fable.52 He asked his readers how Moses could have written Deuteronomy when the book tells of Moses’ own death. Journet also thought Jesus had been fully human and thus an impostor. Since Journet thought people needed religion, but that Christianity and its idea of God were wicked, he set out to do a better job by starting a new religion. In 1582 the Inquisition burned him on a pyre with his books. We have no copy of them, and know what we know of his thoughts only from the trial documents and from a contemporaneous refutation of one of his destroyed books.

At last we come to a piece of peasant doubt that can be fleshed out a bit: it is the tale of a miller in Italy. The year 1584 saw the first trial of Domenico Scandella (1532–1599), known as Menocchio. Menocchio’s story has been carefully recomposed by the historian Carlo Ginzburg, and was offered in part as a response to Lucien Febvre’s thesis of the impossibility of unbelief in the sixteenth century.53 Menocchio was neither well off nor extremely poor—he rented two fields, looked after a large family, and scraped by milling and selling grain. By the time of his trial he had served as mayor of his village and had been administrator of a parish church. Witnesses at his trial said that they liked him a lot, and that so did most people, but that “He is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing—even with the priest.”54 He was fifty-two years old at the trial, and friends said he’d been intense and vocal about religion for thirty years.

Here are a few of the things he was reported to have said: “The air is God… the earth is our mother” and “Who do you imagine God to be? God is nothing but a little breath, and whatever else man imagines him to be.”55 He also said: “What did you think, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary? It’s impossible that she gave birth to him and remained a virgin. It might very well have been this, that he was a good man, or the son of a good man.”

At his trial Menocchio said, “I believe that the law and commandments of the Church are all a matter of business, and they make their living from this.”56 But this was not all about economics. A version of Menocchio’s cosmology that ended up in the Holy Office read:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.57

Where did he get this stuff? There were Anabaptists around, and some secret Lutheran groups, but when asked about predestination and justification, Menocchio did not know the meanings of the words. Anyway, those ideas have little in common with the cheese-and-worms theory.

The cheese and the worms seem to have belonged to a peasant culture that was many centuries old and that had never really been much more than adjusted to make room for Christian doctrine. Menocchio himself vociferously declared, “Sir, I have never met anyone who holds these opinions; my opinions came out of my own head.”58 Yet books mentioned by him at the trial show there were influences from learned culture: he had borrowed books from a wide group of people, including a woman. One, surprisingly, seems to have been the Koran. One was the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which he said upset him a good deal. After describing a land where cannibalism at death was an act of supreme respect and love, Menocchio wrote, “From there I got my opinion that when the body dies, the soul dies too, since out of many different kinds of nations, some believe in one way and some in another.”59 Elsewhere he says that “what I have said came from that book of Mandeville that I read,” which he later calls “that book of Mandeville about many kinds of races and different laws that sorely troubled me.”60 Mandeville ends his book with a plea for tolerance of all these peoples. Some of them, he says, possess our best virtues without knowing anything of God or of the Bible. Explaining Menocchio, Ginzburg writes that Mandeville’s Travels was “an echo of medieval religious tolerance, [that] reached even the age of the wars of religion, of excommunications, and of the burning of heretics.”61

In his trial Menocchio told the story of the three rings: A king told his three sons that whoever was given his ring would be his successor. Before the king died, he made copies of his ring and gave one, in confidence, to each of them. So, Menocchio explained, did God do with his children: the Christians, the Jews, and the Turks. Said he, “I do believe that every person considers his faith to be right, and we do not know which is the right one: but because my grandfather, my father, and my people have been Christians, I want to remain a Christian, and believe that this is the right one.”62 He’d gotten the story from Boccaccio. Menocchio had borrowed the Decameron from a painter friend of his. It was a prohibited book.

Ginzburg did some historical sleuthing and found a path from the University of Padua and its Averroist circles to this village miller. A childhood friend of Menocchio was a priest and was himself prosecuted for heresy (in part for being a “whoremonger and ruffian”) a few years before Menocchio’s trial. At this trial we learn of a Paduan professor with whom the accused had had some chance, meaningful contact. We hear of a few other possible conduits as well, but Menocchio had a vernacular Bible and that could have been enough. “As for the things in the Gospels, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by the Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and one in another way.”63 His fellow villagers said he used to repeat, in words close to those in Ecclesiastes, “when man dies he is like an animal, like a fly… and when a man dies his soul and everything else about him dies.”64 At other times he appears independent of all books, musing that “If he really was God Almighty he would let himself be seen.”65

The Reformation and the printing press made Menocchio’s philosophy possible by supplying him with the books that he used to support his popular knowledge and his own ideas. At the very least, they gave him courage and loosened his tongue. Of Reformation specifics, Menocchio seems to have thought Luther was a man who had brazenly questioned doctrine and had overthrown the priests, that Lutherans were other people who bravely doubted, and that Geneva was a town that was a haven for such people, where one lived in religious freedom. He once joked with a friend that at his own death, “Some Lutherans will learn of it and will come to collect the ashes.”

In his first trial, although he tried to hold his peace, the examiners goaded Menocchio and he had a wonderful time giving in; for pages and pages he sounded more like he was lecturing than confessing. The result was nasty solitary confinement for years at the expense of his family, which fell apart as a result. His wife and the son to whom he was closest both died. Menocchio finally got out, swearing that he had repented. He fantasized a bit about going to Geneva, but he was not a man to go far from his village—a good thing, too, as Geneva was not at all the place he imagined. He was more careful now, but a few injudicious remarks brought him back before the Inquisition. The twenty years between his trials had been full of turmoil and the Protestant Reformation had become connected with many economic and political upheavals. It was against a sense of social, intellectual, and political free fall that tolerance for doubt began to disappear. Established interests of the Reformation Church and the state governments all wanted to crush that aspect of the movement that encouraged the questioning of authority. Menocchio said less this time, but by now each word meant more, and he was put to death.

The trials keep on coming. In 1586 the Inquisition tribunal in Venice, interrogating Girolamo Garzoni, concluded “that you have not believed anything in our faith and that you are consequently an atheist—that is, that you do not believe there is any God in this world and that the world was created by chance.”66 Pomponio Rustico was executed in Rome in 1587 for many doubts, including the view that “the stories described in the Bible… are worthy only of derision.” There was also some great doubt among more public personalities in this period, and no story was more powerful than that of Giordano Bruno.

It is best to hear the highlights of Bruno’s life straight through, so that the excommunications chime like a musical scale. Born in 1548, Bruno was only fifteen when he entered the Order of Saint Dominic. Nine years later, in 1572, he was ordained a priest. By 1576 a formal accusation of heresy had been brought against him. He went to Rome, and soon enough the accusations were renewed against him at the Convent of the Minerva. Within a few months of his arrival, he left the city and the order. In 1579 he seems to have been in Geneva and to have converted to Calvinism. He later denied having done it (at a Catholic tribunal in Venice!), but we know he was excommunicated by the Calvinist Council and asked to leave Geneva. He stayed out of trouble in France for a few years and in 1583 he went to England and for a while was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. But when Oxford’s theologians mocked his ideas and would not hire him, he attacked the professors in print and was back in hot water. In 1585 he returned to France. He went to Germany in 1587 and was there excommunicated by the Lutherans. In February 1593 Bruno was sent to Rome, where he was thrown in a dungeon for six years. He was burned at the stake in 1600.

How could anyone get into so much trouble? Well, let’s check his tone first. Here is a snippet of what he wrote about his interview with the Oxford theologians:

They spoke Latin well, [were] proper men, … of good reputation… fairly competent in learning but mediocre in education, courtesy and breeding…, for ’tis yes my master; yes my Father, or my mistress; yes sir forsooth;… elect indeed, with their long robes, clad in velvet. One wore two shining gold chains about his neck while the other, by God, whose precious hand bore twelve rings on two fingers, had rather the appearance of a rich jeweler.… Did they know aught of Greek? Aye and also of beer.… One was the herald of the idol of Obscurity and the other the bailiff of the goddess of Presumption.67

They had treated him badly when they found he could not speak to them in their own Scholastic terms. Bruno disagreed with the Church on countless points. The one that was most shocking was his complete conviction that the universe was infinite and filled with many other suns like ours. Bruno was one of the earliest supporters of the Copernican model. He believed that planets like ours go around these other suns, and that these planets were populated and busy with life.

Bruno read Lucretius and he read Copernicus. He also knew some pre-Socratic philosophy and a good deal of Neoplatonism. He put it all together with one terrific insight: the Copernican heliocentric system—and its destruction of the stable and contained Earth-centered universe—gave weight to Epicurus’s claim that our world might be one among many. Adding the Neoplatonism and the pre-Socratic philosophers, he believed that the universe was all one great divine singularity, and the sun at the center of our system seemed a reasonable direction for one’s admiration. It added up to materialistic pantheism: God and the world were one. God did not make the universe, which was eternal; rather, God was the universe. Christianity, then, was meaningless. Bruno believed that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, and he rejected the virgin birth and the resurrection.

His scientific theses were so outrageous that he began his On the Infinite Universe and Worlds of 1591 with a preface that insisted he was not joking. The preface also praised Democritus and Epicurus for arguing “that everything throughout infinity suffereth renewal and restoration,” and for “alleging a constant and unchanging number of particles of identical material that perpetually undergo transformation one into another.”68 Many future doubters would find Democritus and Epicurus through the attention thrown on them by Bruno. The main text is presented as a conversation. In one wonderful scene for the history of doubt, we see a character called Burchio listen to the idea of an infinite universe. Says Burchio, “Even if this be true I do not wish to believe it, for this Infinite can neither be understood by my head nor brooked by my stomach.” His friend Philotheo replies that, while infinity does seem bizarre to us, we must remember that “we have experience that sense-perception deceiveth us concerning the surface of this globe on which we live, much more should we hold suspect the impression it giveth us of a limit to the starry sphere.” Anyway, for Philotheo “it appeareth to me ridiculous to affirm that nothing is beyond the heaven” as Aristotle would have it. There is drama in his next words:

Thus let this surface be what it will, I must always put the question, what is beyond? If the reply is Nothing, … let us now see whether there can be such a space in which is naught. In this infinite space is placed our universe (whether by chance, by necessity or by providence I do not now consider). I ask now whether this space which indeed containeth the world is better fitted to do so than is another space beyond?

They go on, talking out the issue, but we pause at that remarkable parenthetical phrase. He has been remembered best for such frank little statements of doubt.

In another text Bruno offers relativism in a close paraphrase of Epicurus. As Bruno puts it: “There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.”69 That is a powerful idea and Bruno’s revival of it would have tremendous influence, despite his usually being seen as decidedly quirky. Bruno’s science was so full of fantastic imaginings, and his verse so full of passion for the natural world, that in every age he has always been a bit of an oddball. Without making any real discovery or passing down a coherent, lasting philosophy, Bruno made a big impact on the history of doubt.

Bruno said he was not an atheist, because even though God, for him, was the same thing as the universe, the world we know is somehow the result of this God-universe he posited, so they were not exactly the same thing. Bruno’s God was not the creator or even the first mover, but the soul of the world. When Bruno was sentenced to death by fire, he famously said, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.” He was invited to repent but would not. As the flames got going, someone offered him a crucifix, but Bruno pushed it away with an expression of sharp disdain.

Another great doubter of the late sixteenth century was Lucilio Vanini. Although he is not as famous as Bruno today, in the centuries that followed his own, Vanini was often cited by doubters as an influence. He was born in 1585, was educated by the Jesuits, joined the Carmelites, earned a doctorate in law, and was in Padua after 1608. Rumors of his unorthodoxy led to his leaving Italy for England and travel in northern Europe, during which time he wrote two books, published in 1615 and 1616 in France. The first book, in which he was already showing the influence of Pietro Pomponazzi and Girolamo Cardano, protested that God could not have personality and struggled with the problem of evil, but it still argued from within the Christian tradition. The second book was called Of the Marvelous Secrets of the Queen and Goddess of the Mortal Ones, Nature and it went further. Of the Marvelous Secrets… of Nature was set up as a debate between a student character called Alexander and a teacher character called Julius Caesar. Since Lucilio had changed his name to Julius Caesar Vanini, the teacher character was plainly identifiable with the author.70From the start he casts doubt on every aspect of Christianity, wondering whether an immaterial God could make a material world and whether an immaterial spirit of any sort could speak to human beings, and concluding that the only true worship is the worship of nature.

What of creation then? Vanini believes in the eternity of matter, makes jokes about the idea of creation, and even proposes that the animals and human beings had come into being through some kind of putrefaction—the same way life always arises from rotting things. He insists that there are no real nonmaterial beings, so neither ghosts nor spirits nor the independent human soul exists. He even writes that all religions, including Christianity, are human inventions, fictions cooked up by kings and clergy for the sake of power. All miracles associated with prayer are just coincidences or have natural explanations; all inner knowledge is just reason; and immorality is simply the result of illness or bad diet. It was far-reaching doubt. He was burned to death at the age of thirty-four, in 1619. The charge was blasphemy and atheism.

Paolo Sarpi started out as the Venetian government’s theological consultant, but only a year later, in 1607, he was excommunicated. He published descriptions of the universe as he saw it that left no place at all for God. He also wrote that “the end of man is to live, just like any other living being.”71 Sarpi also rejected all supernaturalism. Most notably, he argued that the human sense of God comes from our ignorance and frailty—that is, it is about human needs—and that these needs can be transcended. Intelligent people could see past the myths and live moral lives without fear of God or death. When the Church investigated Sarpi, Rome came to believe he was the “head of an atheist company” located in Venice, and Sarpi was reported to have said that there were many atheists in Venice.


Montaigne lived his life in a changeable age. In his lifetime whole new worlds had been found by explorers, and in those worlds there were new plants, new animals, and most surprising of all, new cultures. The ancient world had become vividly present as an alternative reality. Politics in his time was also pure upheaval: the government and official religion of England had changed several times during his own life. Also, the intellectual world was coming to know of the Copernican model of the solar system and was beginning to take it seriously, and that model called for an unparalleled imaginative shift. We should also note that Montaigne was reared Catholic but was the son of a Catholic man and a “New Christian” woman; that is, his mother’s family had been Jewish.

Montaigne invented the genre of the essay; the word means “try” in French. We now have his work in one volume called Essays. The overall project of the book was new: Montaigne had set out to describe his personality; to get to know himself psychologically. In his time—one normally labored to keep oneself and one’s imperfections hidden, especially in a text. He confessed he had had a best friend for four important years of his young life, and then the guy died. Montaigne seems to have opted out of affective ties at that point. He did not seem to think of his wife as a companion, and he did not find true friends again until the last years of his life, when he had stopped looking. Montaigne decided instead to make a friend out of his essays. One of them, “The Defense of Raymond Seybond” (1576), is one of the greatest works in the history of doubt. It was early vintage and is less interested in psychological self-exploration and the voice of the best friend than most others (it’s also much longer than most). Still, although this was a published book, it had some of the tone of a private conversation.

“The Defense of Raymond Seybond” was written at the request of a princess friend of Montaigne’s, Margaret. Margaret was married to Henri of Navarre (a great-grandson of that other Margaret we saw leaning over her dying maid and raising a glass with Dolet and Rabelais). Montaigne had translated a book by Seybond because his father had asked him to, and the princess had read the resulting work. Now the princess wanted help understanding Seybond so she could use him to defend Catholicism against those who were rejecting it at her court. Montaigne’s answer dismissed Seybond early on though it said he was “bold and courageous” for having tried to “prove against the atheists all the articles of the Christian religion” by means of human reason.72 Montaigne even attested that he knew “a man of authority, nurtured in letters, who confessed to me that he had been brought back from the errors of unbelief through the medium of Seybond’s arguments,” and Montaigne conceded that these arguments will probably do—against the average attacker. But he could not say he believed it. Instead, Montaigne answered the princess’s questions more broadly: what did he really think was true, and what is the best Catholic defense? The answer was a marvel in the history of doubt.

Montaigne set out his great bombshell immediately: Custom and law defined religion, not some inner knowledge of truth or any rational argument for truth. Sense experience and reason tell us nothing of God, and so we should simply believe. Of course, if we cannot know anything about God through reason; we cannot know anything about religion either. We have a religion because “we happen to have been born in a country where it was in practice,… we regard its antiquity or the authority of the men who have maintained it, [and]… we fear the threats it fastens on unbelievers.”73 If we lived someplace else, we would believe other things.

Ancient Skepticism was shocking stuff to the Renaissance doubter. These sophisticated philosophical texts announced that the questioning of religion in favor of rationalism led to belief in nothing and the acceptance of death as real. Montaigne agreed that philosophy does lead to believing nothing for certain and accepting death. That was, however, a little hard to take. According to Montaigne, God seemed to have communicated himself to a few ancient individuals so that we would all know of him. That is all we had to go on. Why should anyone be willing to burn for details, when they were so unknowable? We should all just do as the ancients suggested and follow the religion of tradition, in this case Catholicism. If both sides could accept that all was ignorance, the Catholic versus Reformed Church debate would fall to his side, the Catholic, by the advice of the ancients.

Montaigne’s essays, including this one, are all festooned with quotations from ancient writers set off with indentations or, in the later ones, italicized within the text. The style has a kind of family resemblance to the Scholastic practice of questioning and answering the ancients, but the voice of the sixteenth-century individual has grown chatty and uses the ancients a bit like pearls decorating a bodice. It is worth noting that especially in this essay, but in many ways throughout the Essays, Montaigne cites Lucretius’s Epicurean On the Nature of Things more than anything else. Cicero—mostly from his On the Nature of the Gods—comes in a close second. Indeed, with these two books, things go further: there are times in Montaigne’s argument when he casually starts speaking to these two works, mentioning Balbus and his questions, for instance, and arguing or agreeing point by point. Montaigne also quotes Lucian saying things such as “They fear their own imaginings.”74 The essay also mentions many mechanistic understandings of the world: Archelaus, Socrates’ teacher, said that “both men and animals were made from a milky slime squeezed out by the heat of the earth.” Whatever he believed, Montaigne laid out centuries of doubt’s ideas, heroes, and poetry for young modernity to read.

Montaigne did not want to join the argument over philosophy and religion; he wanted to escape it through Skepticism. “What good can we suppose it did Varro and Aristotle to know so many things? Did it exempt them from human discomforts? Were they freed from the accidents that oppress a porter? Did they derive from logic some consolation for the gout?”75 They were famous for knowledge in the time when knowledge was greatest, “but we have not for all that heard that they had any particular excellence in their lives.” An inset quote from Horace reads: “Does the illiterate’s tool stand less erect?”76 Montaigne knew how to use a joke from Horace to lighten things up, but the point was to ask what smartness gets you. Even if philosophy “would actually do what they say, blunt and lessen the keenness of the misfortunes that pursue us, what does it do but what ignorance does much more purely?”77 Pyrrho had told of a time on a storm-tossed ship when all were panicking but himself and the swine on board. Pyrrho used it as an example of natural calm. Montaigne notes the story and says if the learned and the ignorant are both calm and happy, why not take it easy with the pigs?

Montaigne forgets about Seybond early in the essay, pushing on to rehearse every ancient argument against God or the gods, against life after death, and against religion. When Montaigne tells about Anaxagoras’s claim that the sun was a glowing stone, he teases that “he did not stop to think that fire does not blacken those whom it looks on.”78 It was a nice little catch about needing ultraviolet rays to get a tan. Xenophanes was a favorite of ancient doubt for Montaigne, and he brings the old philosopher’s metaphor to life: “Xenophanes,” he writes, “used to say wittily that if the animals make gods for themselves, as it is likely they do, they certainly make them like themselves, and glorify themselves as we do. For why shall a gosling not say thus: … I am the darling of nature?”79

Montaigne complains that the tricks for living dreamed up by Stoics and Epicureans, tricks such as not having desires or not attending to one’s pain, are just not that great: one wants to want things and feel things, and usually one cannot help it anyway. He accuses the Stoics of faking their calm as they suffered inside, and he laughs at “the other advice that philosophy gives, to keep in our memory only past happiness,” chiding, “as if the science of forgetfulness were in our power.”80 Of the Cynics, he tells a story of Aristippus walking by Diogenes one day wearing a robe given to him by Dionysius the Tyrant. Diogenes, washing cabbages, shouts out to Aristippus, “If you knew how to live on cabbage you would not pay court to a tyrant.” Aristippus answers, “If you knew how to live among men, you would not be washing cabbages.”81 Not a bad point on both sides, which, of course, was what Montaigne meant by telling the story: “See how reason provides plausibility to different actions.”

Montaigne then sets out a wonderful and wandering explanation of Skepticism. The first problem of knowledge is the relativism of judgment. Of beauty, “the Indies paint it as black and dusky, with large swollen lips and a wide flat nose … in Peru the biggest ears are the fairest,” and in Basque country the women are more beautiful when they shave their heads and “plenty of other places.”82 As for pure forms, Plato loved the circle, but Epicureans liked the pyramid or the square. There is also the problem of the interpretation of someone else’s judgment: “some have considered Plato a dogmatist, others a doubter.”83 Then there is the matter of madness, which Montaigne described as a heretofore ignored topic in Skepticism and a fertile one.84 How can we ever be certain of our sanity and its conclusions? Then there is the issue of perception, that wine tastes different in the mouth of a sick man. “Do you think that the verses of … Sappho smile to an avaricious and crabbed old man as they do to a vigorous and ardent young man?”85 Sexual desire, to which Montaigne admitted never having been very susceptible, could make some people befuddled. For his own part, when he was dragged into sex by some seduction, he was surprised by how single-minded he became until the urge was relieved. While he was aroused, he lost his values and approved only of arguments that encouraged him to become satisfied: “I would see my soul regain another kind of sight, another state, and another judgment.”86 Yet, that, too, would disappear fast once desire was sated.

Montaigne’s general phlegmatic disinterest in sex is its own little lesson in doubt, for the most extreme torture Augustine ever felt was of having to put aside sex, and here is our pious Skeptic, free to indulge but never having had much taste for it. There are different types of people, he reminds us, and what is more, any given person changes constantly. “He who last night was invited to come to dine this morning, today comes uninvited, seeing that he and his hosts are no longer themselves: they have become others.”87 We change our minds, fast sometimes. No ideas, opinions, desires, or perceptions stay put. Even time “is a mobile thing, which appears as in a shadow together with matter, which is ever running and flowing, without ever remaining stable or permanent.”88 We disagree not only with each other, but with ourselves across our lifetimes. How can we bear to trust our own opinions over and over again? “Has it not happened to me, not once, but a hundred times, and every day, to have embraced with these same instruments, in this same condition, something else that I have since judged false?”89 After all, “if my touchstone is found to be ordinarily false … Is it not stupidity to let myself be fooled so many times by one guide?”90 Inset, Montaigne has the Epicurean poet whisper:

The latest find

Kills prior things and spoils them in our mind.


Worse yet is the problem of mood. Montaigne declares himself to be moody—now sad, now happy, now angry—and says that the world looks wholly different to him in these various states. Hunger can be enough to change one’s attitude toward everything from art to ethics. “Preachers know that the emotion that comes to them as they talk incites them toward belief.” Some people will believe things just because they reject the “pressure and violence of authority.” In fact, pride or reputation has “sent some men all the way to the stake to maintain an opinion for which, among their friends and at liberty they would not have been willing to burn the tip of their finger.” A terrific observation. An investigation of social and personal pressures sometimes makes nonsense of convictions—even fatal ones.

Montaigne may have rejected the ancient philosophies, quoting chapter and verse from Sextus, but he was also ardently respectful of them.

The writings of the ancients, I mean the good writings, full and solid, tempt me and move me almost wherever they please; the one I am listening to always seems to me the strongest; I find each one right in his turn, although they contradict each other. The facility that good minds have of making whatever they like seem true, and the fact that there is nothing so strange but that they undertake to color it enough to deceive a simplicity like mine, shows evidently the weakness of their proof.91

Unable to prove any of the various brilliant voices wrong, he knocks their heads together: with so many, none can be true. The shock of Skepticism must have been intense. The Greeks, after all, developed philosophy slowly, coming slowly to the sense that the schools of philosophy were problematically numerous, varied, and sure of themselves. Eventually they developed a great deal of circumspection about philosophy altogether. Skepticism counted Socrates as one of its founders, in his doubting that we can know, but it was only with the later Pyrrho that it became a doctrine that took seriously the disagreements among thinkers. When Montaigne found the Pyrrhonists, he was smacked with a wallop of relativism. He tells us that he had been moving toward this relativism before he read Sextus. When he found him, Montaigne carved quotations from Sextus into the rafters of his study.

Explaining the Skeptics’ position, Montaigne said that if you say snow is white, they say it is black, if you say it is neither black nor white, they argue that it is both. If you say you are sure you don’t know, they will say you do. “Yes, and if by an affirmative axiom you assure them that you are in doubt about it, they will go and argue that you are not.” It is “by this extremity of doubt that shakes its own foundations” that they reject even opinions that support their own claims. All they ask you to agree with is their right to it. Says Montaigne, “Why, they say, since among the dogmatists one is allowed to say green, the other yellow, are they not also allowed to doubt?”92 People usually come to their beliefs by the “custom of their country,” or by parental upbringing, “or by chance—as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion,” and then “to such or such an opinion, enslaved, and fastened as to a prey they have bitten into and cannot shake loose”; bizarrely, to “whatever doctrine they have been driven, as by a storm, to it they cling as to a rock.” The italicized phrase is Cicero’s. Isn’t it better, Montaigne asks, to free oneself from certainty and thereby glide above the fray?

How do we live in such a situation? Well, we cannot trust our senses, nor can we believe the world to be as it appears to us. But we can accept things as they come to us and simply enjoy them. For this, he paraphrases the Skepticism of Ecclesiastes: “‘Receive things thankfully,’ says the Preacher, ‘in the aspect and taste that they are offered to thee, from day to day; the rest is beyond thy knowledge.’”93 Montaigne had these words inscribed on the ceiling of his library. He was a man who liked to live around his words. He worked up a motto and symbol for himself and had that carved into the wall, too, among the Sextus and Ecclesiastes: the image was of a scale, its two plates at empty balance. The motto was Que sçais-je? (What do I know?) Not a bad symbol for the history of doubt.

Montaigne’s answer to the princess was through Sextus: We cannot know anything—the only evidence for even God, let alone any dogma, is ancient hearsay—so we might as well stick with the Catholic Church, just as the ancients advised.94 This sort of approach to religion is called fideism—explicitly blind belief—but it is hard to know how much faith Montaigne really had. On another page he casually mentions that his argument tends against belief in God, and that religion is a human invention for the sake of social peace:

How could that ancient god [Apollo] more clearly accuse human knowledge of ignorance of the divine being, and teach men that religion was only a creature of their own invention, suitable to bind their society together, than by declaring as he did, to those who sought instruction… that the true cult for each man was that which he found observed according to the practice of the place he was in?95

Montaigne says his own custom-based idea of religion clearly accuses humanity of no real knowledge of God.

The ancient world brought colossal doubt. As for the modern, we might think that the Copernican revolution would have felt like a great new certainty, but it did not:

The sky and the stars have been moving for three thousand years; everybody had so believed, until it occurred to Cleanthes of Samos, or (according to Theophrastus) to Nicetas of Syracuse, to maintain that it was the earth that moved, through the oblique circle of the Zodiac, turning about its axis and in our day Copernicus has grounded this doctrine so well that he uses it very systematically for all astronomical deductions. What are we to get out of that, unless that we should not bother which of the two is so? And who knows whether a third opinion, a thousand years from now, will not overthrow the preceding two?96

Hard to say, but his take on this is stunning doubt. With so much written history, cosmopolitanism now had a deep temporal dimension.

Before the principles which Aristotle introduced were in credit, other principles satisfied human reason, as his satisfy us at this moment. What letters-patent have these, what special privilege, that the course of our invention stops at them, and that to them belongs possession of our belief for all time to come? They are no more exempt from being thrown out than were their predecessors.

We have to keep in mind the magnitude of the sense of weirdness that hung over people in this period, and the sense that they had learned their lesson about reality: we must not take anything for granted. The very earth had unfurled another inhabited world alongside their own:

Behold in our century an infinite extent of terra firma, not an island or one particular country, but a portion nearly equal in size to the one we know, has just been discovered. The geographers of the present time do not fail to assure us that now all is discovered and all is seen,

For what we have at hand always seems best of all.


The question is, if Ptolemy was once mistaken on the grounds of his reason, whether it would not be stupid for me now to trust what these people say about it; and whether it is not more likely that this great body that we call the world is something quite different from what we judge.97

When he wrote of the amazing peoples in this other world, he could be hostile to religion. He explained that among their customs we find “coincidences between a great number of fabulous popular opinions and savage customs and beliefs, which do not seem from any angle to be connected with our natural reason. The human mind is a great worker of miracles.” The Brazilians, he said, died only of old age because they were so serene that they were ultra-healthy, because they spent their lives “in admirable simplicity and ignorance, without letters, without law, without king, without religion of any kind.”98

Montaigne says we may not have enough senses to know the world. Perhaps one needs eight or nine senses to get a decent view of the universe, and we are hopelessly missing crucial information. But look where he takes it: “The properties that we call occult in many things, as that of the magnet to attract iron—is it not likely that there are sensory faculties in nature suitable to judge them and perceive them, and that the lack of such faculties causes our ignorance of the true essence of such things?”99 It is a nice insight, and he got there not by discovering refraction patterns or X rays or infrared vision but by engaging his faculties of doubt.

Montaigne tells the princess that “for an ending to this long and boring discourse” he will quote Seneca’s line that man is a vile thing unless he ascends above humanity, but he quickly despairs that we cannot “make the handful bigger than the hand.”100 Montaigne’s advice is that life is good, but in order to live well one must study one’s own psychology with patience and intensity. His aggressive yet humble doubt was immediately popular. The Catholic Church in France adopted it as a credo; others took it as a guide for further challenge to religion. Intellectually, it supported widespread skepticism, and someone was going to have to find a way to know things again.

Before we leave Montaigne, we can note that this cranky man had a few years of real happiness toward the end of his life, when two brilliant fans showed up. In fact, in his final essay he advises fellow writers never to put off publication until they’re older out of fear of trouble, because there is too much possible pleasure to be lost: publication brought intellectual companionship. The two fans were Marie de Gournay and Pierre Charron, and Montaigne came to call them his adopted daughter and adopted son. For the next several centuries, Charron’s name would be well known to the history of doubt, and I’ll consider his impact when it happens, a little later in this chapter. As for Marie de Gournay, she was born in 1566 and like most reasonably well-born women of her time, she had been given just a little education. Yet even as a child she was thrilled by the new ideas of her time. To take part, she taught herself Latin by comparing French and Latin texts and studied Greek as well, eventually becoming a teacher. In 1580, when she was only about fifteen, she read Montaigne’s essays and was swept away by their ideas and their style. She wrote of wanting to meet him from that time on, and finally did in 1588, in Paris. At twenty-three she was much his junior, but their friendship—which by all attestations was never romantic—seems to have been a great delight for Montaigne. The first work Marie de Gournay published was about their discussions and included a novel of hers, followed by poems and some passages she had translated from the Aeneid.

She and Montaigne met only four years before he died in 1592, but he left her full control of his work. She became the principal editor of the Essays, writing the preface to the 1595 edition and editing the 1598 and the 1641 editions. Her own work was fiercely Skeptical, and her approach to religion followed suit. Skepticism was infinitely preferable to the arrogance of the reformers. “Who can also suffer these new Titans of our time… not wanting anything as true if it does not seem probable to them.”101 Nothing seemed probable to her. The only thing reasonable was to act respectfully, but to doubt everything. Marie de Gournay was treated abysmally by so many male intellectuals that she ended up spending much of her creative energy on sexism; her great works on the subject were The Equality of Men and Women (1622) and Grief des dames (1626). She also wrote about religion and philosophy and translated Virgil and Ovid and, although ridiculed by the university men, her work sold well. After Christine de Pisan, she was one of the first successful, professional women writers. She was a crucial figure in the history of doubt: a keen skeptic who lived a philosophical life, wrote about real-world problems, as well as poetry, and also edited and introduced the Essays, the magnum opus of Renaissance skepticism.



The year Bruno burns, Hamlet first broods. The young Dane asks whether or not to be. It was a question about whether, and how, to stay in a world where people could be impostors, where truth could be contradictory and unavailable to reason, where mood and madness might be responsible for our experience, where authority had gone so far awry that one could not tell if a given act was a gesture of submission or rebellion. Think of Hamlet reducing the universe to a quintessence of dust as he reels in uncertainty, cursing the inconstant world. There is something dryly secular and loosely skeptical about Shakespeare’s whole project. Think of Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Is God not that idiot, or is there no God? Scholars have noted that prayers for help or safety often directly precede death and disaster throughout these plays, and many characters are given irreligious speech. Twelfth Night tells us: “What is love? ’tis not hereafter. Present mirth hath present laughter.” Since we are dealing with fiction, such specifics do not make as strong an argument as does the character of the entirety. Think of The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The grace of Shakespeare is that there is always another side to things; there is always doubt.

Meanwhile, in 1601, Montaigne’s “adopted son” Pierre Charron published Of Wisdom, which was a description of Montaigne’s philosophy. Montaigne’s Essays wove his intellectual ideas in with his private thoughts on all manner of things. Even within a given essay, one found little structure and many digressions, and the collection of them is a hodgepodge of its own. Charron, by contrast, was a great organizer and laid out Montaigne’s modern skepticism in a nice theoretical style. He added a bit of Machiavelli and hammered on the points about cultural relativism: things are done differently everywhere, and if you were born there, you’d do it that way, too. Custom is more powerful than nature. Of Wisdom is also important in the history of doubt because it speaks straightforwardly about how to write a book that seems pious enough, but that wise readers will recognize as sending a different message indeed.102

For centuries the book would be described as a seminary of atheism.103 Right away, it was a triumph: it was put on the Index of Forbidden Books fast, in 1605, but it sold like hotcakes right through the century. Charron even came out with a mini version of it the next year. Here he dealt with his surprise that people could find doubt uncomfortable. Charron said of doubt:

It alone can provide true repose and security of our spirits. Have all the greatest and most noble philosophers and wise men who have professed doubt been in a state of anxiety and suffering? But they say: to doubt, to consider both points of view, to put off a decision, is this not painful? I reply, it is indeed for fools, but not for wise men. It is painful for people who cannot stand freedom, for those who are presumptuous, partisan, passionate and who, obstinately attached to their opinions, arrogantly condemn all others.… Such people, in truth, know nothing. They do not even know what it is to know something.

It was a claim that doubt can make you happy, can ease your pain, and can be a home. It may have been the first time anyone in modernity spelled it out like that.

People loved it. The new Pyrrhonism fueled two movements: the French Catholic Counter-Reformation, as I have mentioned, and the libertin erudits. Of the first, I offer only the foremost example, Cardinal du Perron: On the occasion of a dinner with King Henry III, du Perron had regaled the table with a series of proofs of the existence of God. When the king praised him, du Perron said, “Sire, today I have proved by strong and evident reasons that there is a God. Tomorrow, if it pleases Your Majesty to grant me another audience, I will show you and prove by as strong and evident reasons that there is no God at all.”104 Du Perron, by the way, was a close friend of Marie de Gournay and had read Charron. As the story goes, the king threw the cardinal out on his ear. The joke, though, was on the king, who had shown his ignorance of the surprising new French orthodoxy. The French clerics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation saw Skepticism as a broom to sweep away rationalism, such that faith, or at least calm obedience, would have to take its place. For his help in the cause, Sextus was never put on the Forbidden Books index, and neither was Montaigne until 1676.

The other major inheritors of Montaigne’s Skepticism were the “Libertines,” sometimes called the “Erudite Libertines,” a French phenomenon of the early seventeenth century. They read Pomponazzi and other doubting Italian philosophers. It was an interesting crowd. There was François de La Mothe le Vayer (1585–1672), who was such a skeptical fideist that he thought all scientific research was both silly and impious in its arrogance and became an actual defender of irrationalism. He wrote of “the divine Sextus,” which is fun for us, given that we have already seen Epicurus “divinized” by Lucretius. La Mothe le Vayer himself was often called “the Christian Skeptic” or an “Epicurean unbeliever.” Then there was Gabriel Naudé (1600–1653), whom Cardinal Bagni took to Rome to be his librarian. He became a medical doctor at the University of Padua and was King Louis XIII’s physician. Richelieu hired Naudé to be his librarian, but the cardinal died and Naudé stayed on as Mazarin’s librarian (both were important French cardinals and statesmen). Naudé held that a library should not be without Sextus Empiricus. For several centuries now, Naudé has usually been remembered as an atheist. When Cardinal Bagni asked him what were the best books in the world, he said, the Bible first, then Charron’s Of Wisdom, and the story goes that the Italian cardinal blinked unknowingly at the brazen choice and promised to read it.105These anecdotes all suggest that the clergymen choosing faith through classic Skepticism knew that the idea seemed outrageous.

Guy Patin, who was a scholar, medical doctor, and rector of the Sorbonne medical school was another member of these Libertines. Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), a leading mathematician and influential figure in science and philosophy, is among the best known of them today. Isaac laPeyrère pioneered an extraordinary new kind of Bible criticism that questioned every aspect of the text, including that the Five Books were written by Moses. His favorite critique could be summed up in what he called his “pre-Adamism”—his belief that there were people in the time before the Bible story begins.106

The Libertines were seen as having a kind of bacchanal of irreligion, and we have been left with the image of a period overrun with “Skeptical banquets” and “Pyrhonnian debauches.” Here’s a letter written by Patin in which he explains that “M. Naudé, librarian of Cardinal Mazarin, intimate friend of M. Gassendy, as he is of mine,” had arranged for all three of them “to go and sup and sleep in his home at Gentilly” the following Sunday,

provided that it will only be the three of us, and that there we will have a débauche; but God knows what a débauche! M. Naudé regularly drinks only water and has never tasted wine. M. Gassendy is so delicate that he would not dare drink it.… As for me, I can only throw powder on the writings of these great men. I drink very little, and nevertheless it will be a débauche, but a philosophical one, and perhaps something more. For all three of us, being cured of superstition and freed from the evil of scruples, which is the tyrant of consciences, we will perhaps go almost to the holy place. A year ago, I made this voyage to Gentilly with M. Naudé, I alone with him. There were no other witnesses, and there should not have been any. We spoke most freely about everything, without scandalizing a soul.107

They were an odd group, but still, the idea of doubters forming a delicious, hidden resistance is plainly in full force here. Whatever they said, they were experiencing a pleasant frisson from the scandalous talk—the atmosphere is charged.

In the 1620s Marin Mersenne claimed that there were fifty thousand atheists in Paris—this at a time when the whole city held only four hundred thousand. Did he really mean “atheist” when he said atheist? Did he really mean to say that one in eight Parisians entirely ignored religion? It’s hard to know, but it certainly suggests a good deal of doubt. Mersenne was the hub of science in his time: new ideas were brought to him and he disseminated them. He had long friendships with Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, and Gassendi, to mention only the best known. In the book in which fifty thousand atheists are claimed, Mersenne’s catalog of atheists included our Bonaventure des Périers (Febvre’s Oops I found one), Charron (Montaigne’s adopted son), Machiavelli (who was said to have demolished moral order), Vanini (whom we saw burn), and Bruno (also lost to the stake). Whether or not we agree that all these characters were atheists, the list was a fine little history of doubt. In a later book wonderfully called The Impiety of Deists, Atheists, and Libertines of These Times, Mersenne narrowed his sights upon three chief opponents: Giordano Bruno, Pierre Charron, and Girolamo Cardano (the French champion of Pomponazzi). For Mersenne, the Skeptic problem was not a problem—and he seems to have been the first to articulate this—because we are free simply to investigate the phenomena that our senses present to us, whether or not we trust our senses in some ultimate fashion. Skepticism becomes irrelevant as soon as you stop asking how we can know the real truth about the anthill or the atom, and just ask what we can determine about phenomena as they appear to us. That’s a major answer to the Skeptical question and it lets us out through a wormhole in an otherwise claustrophobic little corner of thought.

Pierre Gassendi was also very much responsible for this first conceptual leap past Skepticism and into empirical science. His scientific work was mainly in the fields of astronomy and cartography, but in 1647 he published his On the Life and Character of Epicurusand by 1649 had followed it up with two more works on Epicurus. Through these works, Gassendi showed that atomism explained how the world could have made itself, by itself—but, he assured his readers, God made the atoms. Owing to this innovation, for the first time atomism was not necessarily atheism. Gassendi’s interest, however, clearly did not stop at the atoms; he lauded Epicurean ethics as well, and generally took Epicurus as his hero. Gassendi also knew his Sextus. On the Skeptic question, like Mersenne, Gassendi explained that if we are worried because our senses now tell us honey is sweet, and later tell us it is bitter, we must not give up the project of knowledge, but rather must come to understand honey and taste buds on such a minute level that we can fathom their variation. Whatever else they did, Mersenne, Gassendi, and the rest of the Erudite Libertines brought many ancient and later doubters to the consciousness of a new generation.


In the sixteenth century nothing remained of the Christian communities founded in China by the Nestorian missionaries in the seventh century, or by the few Catholic monks in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. If they made an impact, it was not exactly Christian, especially the ones who learned to fit in, met a nice Chinese woman, and disappeared into China’s history and into its hills. Now that the Protestant Reformation had taken so many Europeans from the Roman Church, though, the Church set out to make up for it with converts in Asia, Africa, and Brazil. Off sailed the Jesuits, who had come into being in 1540 for just such purposes.

Matteo Ricci was the founder of the Catholic missions of China. At the Jesuit school in Rome he had studied mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy, as well as philosophy and theology. In 1577 he asked to be sent on the missions in farthest Asia, and he embarked from Lisbon the next year. Ricci knew the Chinese would not tolerate an overt conversion mission (they had already rebuffed a few attempts), so his plan was to awe them with science and technology first. Once they trusted Europe to be possessed of great truths—then he would start talking about Jesus.

Ricci took with him mathematical and astronomical instruments, glass prisms and other optical toys, large and small clocks, musical instruments, oil paintings and prints, and diagrammed works of architecture, cosmology, and geography. He also had a big, beautiful map of the world that impressed people a great deal. It was actually based on European and Chinese sources and Ricci first used it just to show his route, but everyone wanted a copy. Some of the math and science was much more profoundly surprising, but even so the Chinese were merely impressed and interested, not swept away into a state of shocked obedience. Furthermore, when it became clear that Ricci’s real goal was religious, people were annoyed at the subterfuge, and there is a line of Chinese hostility to the West that is always traced from this deception.

Ricci’s superior in this adventure died early on, yet Ricci continued his mission. He was soon able to dismiss his interpreters and began to dress in the style of the educated Chinese. He’d been working his way to the capital, starting small flocks in large cities, when he was summoned by Emperor Wan-li in 1601. Ricci brought his library, museum, music, and scientific devices; and many educated Chinese flocked to learn everything they could. Ricci himself wrote books of Christian morals, such as On Friendship, in Chinese, and these seem to have deeply impressed them.

His T’ien-chu-she-i, or True Doctrine of God, was a brief rundown of the philosophical proofs of God’s existence, the creation of the world, the immortality of the soul, and the coming reward or punishment in a future life. All were demonstrated as philosophical propositions; the Europeans offered no burning bushes. The True Doctrine also included proofs against the worship of idols and the belief in the transmigration of souls. Confucians liked this part, as compared to the fanciful metaphysics and practices of many sects of Chinese Buddhism. In general, however, the Christians seemed more like the Buddhists with their priests and monks, concern for the afterlife, and talk of God or gods.

Ricci may have had the most impact on the history of doubt in the matter of ancestor worship and ritualized respect toward the image of Confucius. Ricci could tell there was no way any of the Chinese were going to stop tending their family shrines anytime soon. It would have been illegal, for one thing, but it also seemed like a bizarre request. Ricci decided that these were purely civic rites and gestures, and so there was no need to stop them.

The honor they pay to their parents consists in serving them dead as they did living. They do not for this reason think that the dead come to eat their offerings or need them. They declare that they act in this manner because they know no other way of showing their love and gratitude to their ancestors.… Likewise what they do, they do to thank Confucius for the excellent doctrine which he left them in his books, and through which they obtained their degrees and mandarinships. Thus in all this there is nothing suggestive of idolatry, and perhaps it may even be said that there is no superstition.

Nicely done, but it had its problems. It meant that he was able to claim a nice batch of Christians (two thousand baptized in 1608), but that he had defined all Confucians as atheists. The Jesuits liked this idea in general because it made the Chinese look more sophisticated and therefore a more valuable conversion. It is funny to see the religious of Europe impressed with a sober civil rite while mildly disgusted by the genuflections of a pagan religion.

Meanwhile, in defense of the argument of universal agreement (there must be a God since all people know of him), Dominicans and Franciscans argued that the Chinese customs were actually religious rites. It was the Jesuits who won the day, and China was increasingly thought of as the land of atheism.108 Contact with China brought doubt to Europe along a number of lines; for instance, the French libertine Isaac la Peyrère asserted that the Bible must be wrong because, after all, Chinese history goes back ten thousand years whereas biblical history has the world in existence for only about six thousand years. The Jesuits’ insistence on the country’s atheism, however, was the biggest factor by far. Ricci told new converts that they could speak to Jesus at the family shrine, so Catholics were a lot like anybody else in China, but with a few crosses. Another problem was what to call God. Having studied ancient Chinese texts, Ricci concluded that they spoke of T’ien, heaven, and Shang-ti, sovereign lord, in the same way Europeans spoke about God—as the source of all power and order. Meanwhile, modern Chinese scholars of Ricci’s time used T’ien and Shang-ti to apply to the actual sky in the material world. Ricci knew this, but he argued that this material interpretation did not do justice to the ancient Chinese texts. So Ricci had them call God a name that meant sky, which lent many prayers and doctrines a distinct flavor of natural science. Ricci made all these decisions by the book, getting the authorities to sign off on policy, but in the centuries to come he was blamed for having introduced Jesus to China as a force small enough to fit into a world of polytheism and atheism without much of a ripple.

Ricci’s three famous, elite converts (the “Three Pillars” of the early Christian church in China) were all fascinated by science and math. One, Xu Guangqui (1562–1633), worked with Ricci on translations of European books on astronomy, hydraulics, geography, and math, including a modern study of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Xu rose to the position of grand secretary, one of the highest political offices in the empire. Li Zhizao (died 1630) held out for a while over the issue of his concubine—the one Christian issue Ricci was strict about was monogamy. Li wrote on astronomy as well as God, and his cleverly titled First Collection of Writings on Learning about Heaven told of the shock of introduction both to the European cosmology and to a God who was explained using Plato and Aristotle. It must have been a wondrously strange experience. The last of the three pillars was converted by Li just after Ricci’s death. He was Yang Tingyun (1557–1627). He, too, struggled before managing to send away his concubine, the mother of his two sons; and he, too, did as much to disseminate European science as he did to disseminate Christianity. He also represents well many of his contemporaries in coming to see the world in relativist terms, in which the Chinese way of life was only one of many valid human cultures.

Things went awry when the Ming dynasty fell, because some Jesuits fled with the court while others remained in Beijing and served the new court. The educated Han Chinese never forgave them for this easy shift in alliance. Meanwhile, the upshot of all the new knowledge was not only a golden age of studying Western science but also a simultaneous revival of the rationalist sciences of China’s own history. It was the Jesuits, the shock troops of the papacy, of all people, who brought European rationalism to China and brought news of a world of atheists to Europe.

Just as Buddhism was born in India but died there just before it took off in China, Zen was born in China but had its greatest life in Japan. As various ideas of doubt swirled around Asia, they tossed up marvelous materialist philosophers and poets, and new nontheistic psychophysical enlightenment programs. Europe was at this time beginning to laugh openly at the posturing of its major religion, such that Rabelais and his giants sloshed beer and, when things got serious, philosophized. Meanwhile, in the same moment that Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus were providing a relativist shock to educated Europeans such as Montaigne with their voyages of discovery, the great medieval Mandeville’s Travels was catching up with villagers like Menocchio, and providing an equal jolt of the strange. The Inquisition allowed us to hear the voice of common doubt; its place in the larger story is that, henceforth, the Christian churches will be constantly criticized for their cruelty and intolerance, a theme that we had not seen much of until now. The coming Enlightenment will be fueled by it—and by new solutions to the problem of Skepticism.

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