The sixteenth century was a poor time for philosophy; theology absorbed the active thinkers, and faith, ruling every roost, kept reason in its train. Luther rejected reason as inclining to atheism,93 but cases of atheism were rare. A Dutch priest was burned at The Hague (1512) for denying creation, immortality, and the divinity of Christ,94 but he was not clearly an atheist. “This year,” wrote an English chronicler under 1539, “there died in the University of Paris a great doctor, which said there was no God, and had been of that opinion since he was twenty years old, and was above fourscore years old when he died; and all that time he had kept that error secret.”95 Guillaume Postel, in 1552, published a book Contra atheos, but the word atheist was seldom distinguished from deist, pantheist, or skeptic.
Skeptics were numerous enough to win a blow from Luther. “For the blind children of the world,” he is reported to have said, “the articles of faith are too high. That three persons are only one God, that the true Son of God was made man, that in Christ there are two natures, divine and human, etc.—all this offends them as fiction and fable”; and some, he added, doubted whether God had created men whose damnation He had foreseen.96 In France there were some skeptics of immortality.97 Bonaventure Desperiers, in hisCymbalum mundi (1537), ridiculed miracles, the contradictions of the Bible, and the persecution of heretics. His book was condemned by Calvin and the Sorbonne, and was burned by the official hangman. Marguerite had to banish him from her court at Nérac, but she sent him money to keep him alive at Lyons. In 1544 he killed himself, leaving his manuscripts to Marguerite, “prop and safeguard of all goodness.”98
The spirit of doubt appeared in politics in the form of attacks on the divine right and inviolability of kings; and here the skeptics were usually Protestant thinkers uncomfortable under Catholic rulers, or Catholic thinkers smarting under the triumph of the state. Bishop John Ponet, resenting Mary Tudor, published in 1558 A Short Treatise of Politique Power, which argued that “the manifold and continual examples that have been, from time to time, of the deposing of kings and killing of tyrants, do most certainly confirm it to be most true, just, and consonant to God’s judgment.... Kings, princes, and governors have their authority of the people... and men may recover their proxies... when it pleaseth them.”99 John Major, a Scottish professor who helped to form the mind of John Knox, argued likewise that since all secular authority derives from the will of the community, a bad king may be deposed and executed, but only by due process of law.
The most interesting opponent of royal absolutism was a young Catholic who achieved a modest immortality by dying in Montaigne’s arms. Étienne de la Boétie, said the incomparable essayist, “was the greatest man, to my mind, of our age.”100 Son of a high official in Périgord, Étienne studied law at Orléans, and, before the prescribed age, was admitted as a councilor to the Parlement of Bordeaux. About 1549, as a youth of nineteen inspired with republican ideas by his study of Greek and Roman literature, he wrote—he never published—a passionate attack on absolutism. He called it Discours sur la servitude volontaire, but as it denounced the dictatorship of one over many, it came to be called Contr’un, Against One. Hear its flaming appeal:
What a shame and disgrace it is when countless men obey a tyrant willingly, even slavishly! A tyrant who leaves them no rights over property, parents, wife, or child, not even over their own lives—what kind of a man is such a tyrant? He is no Hercules, no Samson! Often he is a pygmy, often the most effeminate coward among the whole people—not his own strength makes him powerful, him who is often the slave of the vilest whores. What miserable creatures are his subjects! If two, three, or four do not revolt against one, there is an understandable lack of courage. But when hundreds and thousands do not throw off the shackles of an individual, what remains there of individual will and human dignity? .... To free oneself it is not necessary to use force against a tyrant. He falls as soon as the country is tired of him. The people who are being degraded and enslaved need but deny him any right. To be free only calls for the earnest will to shake off the yoke.... Be firmly resolved no longer to be slaves—and you are free! Deny the tyrant your help, and like a colossus whose pedestal is pulled away, he will collapse and break to pieces.101
La Boétie proceeded to formulate Rousseau and Tom Paine. Man naturally longs for liberty; inequalities of fortune are fortuitous, and lay upon the fortunate the obligation to serve their fellow men; all men are brothers, “made from the same mold” by the same God. Strange to say, it was the reading of this radical pronouncement that attracted the normally cool and cautious Montaigne to La Boétie, and led (1557) to one of the most famous friendships in history. Montaigne was then twenty-four, Étienne was twenty-seven; perhaps Montaigne was then young enough to harbor radical sentiments. Their friendship was soon ended by La Boétie’s death at the age of thirty-two (1563). Montaigne described the final days as if remembering Plato’s account of the death of Socrates. He so keenly felt the loss of the warmhearted youth that seventeen years later he spoke of it with deeper feeling than of anything else in his experience. He had not favored the printing of the Discours, and mourned when a Genevese pastor published it (1576). He ascribed the composition to the generous spirit of youth, and predated it to the age of sixteen. It was almost the voice of the French Revolution.