1902 Encyclopedia > Pierre Charron

Pierre Charron
French philosopher
(1541-1603)




PIERRE CHARRON (1541—1603), a French philosopher, born in Paris in 1541, was one of the twenty-five children of a bookseller of that city. After studying law at Orleans and Bourges, and obtaining the degree of doctor from the latter university, he settled at Paris to practise as an advocate. But, having met with no great success during five or six years, he entered the church, and soon gained the highest popularity as a preacher, rising to the dignity of canon, and being appointed preacher in ordinary to Queen Margaret. At length, when about forty-seven years of age, he determined to fulfil a vow which he had once made to enter the cloister; but, being rejected by the Carthusians and by the Celestines, and having taken the advice of some professed casuists, he held himself absolved, and continued to follow his old profession. He delivered a course of sermons at Angers, and in the next year passed to Bordeaux, where he formed his short but famous and important friendship with Montaigne. Its intimacy is shown by the fact that at the death of Montaigne, in 1592, Charron was requested in his will to bear the arms of his family.
In 1594 Charron published (at first anonymously, after-wards under the name of " Benedict Vaillant, Advocate of the Holy Faith," and also, in 1594, in his own name) Les Trois Vérités, in which, by methodical and orthodox argu-ment, he seeks to prove that there is a God and a true re-ligion, that the true religion is the Christian, and that the true church is the Roman Catholic. The last book (which is three-fourths of the whole work) is chiefly an answer to the famous Protestant work entitled Le Traité de l'Église by Du Plessis Mornay ; and in the second edition (1595) there is an elaborate reply to an attack on the third Vérité which had been published anonymously by a Protestant writer. Les Trois Vérités gained considerable popularity, ran through several editions, and obtained for its author the favour of the bishop of Cahors, who appointed him grand vicar and theological canon. It also led to his being chosen deputy to the general assembly of the clergy, of which body he became chief secretary. It was followed in 1600 by Discours Chrestiens, a book of sermons, similar in tone, half of which treat of the Eucharist.
In the following year (1601) Charron published at Bordeaux his third and most remarkable work—the famous De la Sagesse, a complete popular system of moral philosophy. Usually, and so far correctly, it is coupled with the Essays of Montaigne, to which the author is under very extensive obligations ; but though it is avowedly com-posed in great part of the thoughts and even the words of others, there is distinct individuality in the book. It is specially interesting from the time when it appeared, and the man by whom it was written. Conspicuous as a champion of orthodoxy against atheists, Jews, and Protest-ants—without resigning this position, and still upholding practical orthodoxy—Charron suddenly stood forth as the representative of the most complete intellectual scepticism.
His psychology is sensationalist. With sense all our knowledge commences, and into sense all may be resolved. The soul, located in the ventricles of the brain, is affected by the temperament of the individual ; the dry tempera-ment produces acute intelligence ; the moist, memory ; the hot, imagination. Dividing the intelligent soul into these three faculties, he shows—after the manner which Bacon subsequently adopted—what branches of science correspond with each. With regard to the nature of the soul he merely quotes opinions. The belief in its immortality, he says, is the most universal of beliefs, but the most feebly supported by reason. As to man's power of attaining truth his scepticism is decided ; and he plainly declares that none of our faculties enable us to distinguish truth from error. In comparing man with the lower animals, Charron insists that there are no breaks in nature. " Those parts which approach and touch one another are more or less similar. So between man and the other animals there is much near-ness and kindred." The latter have reason ; nay, they have virtue ; and, though inferior in some respects, in others they are superior. The estimate formed of man is not, indeed, flattering. His five most essential qualities are vanity, weakness, inconstancy, misery, presumption. Upon this view of human nature and the human lot Charron founds his moral system. Equally sceptical with Mon-taigne, and decidedly more cynical, he is distinguished by a deeper and sterner tone. Man comes into the world to endare; let him endure then, and that in silence. To be grieved by others' sorrows is a weakness ; our compas-sion should be like that of God, who succours the suffer-ing without sharing in their pain. Avoid vulgar errors;
cherish universal sympathy. Let no passion or attachment become too powerful for restraint. Follow the customs and laws which surround you. Such are the maxims he lays down.
Special interest attaches to Charron's treatment of reli-gion. He has been lauded for his piety, and condemned for his infidelity; but he is justly to be regarded as a sceptic of the school of Montaigne. He insists on the diversities in religions; he dwells also on what would indicate a com-mon origin. All grow from small beginnings and increase by a sort of popular contagion; all teach that God is to be appeased by prayers, presents, vows, but especially, and most irrationally, by human suffering. Each is said by its devotees to have been given by inspiration. In fact, however, a man is a Christian, Jew, or Mahometan, before he knows he is a man. One religion is built upon another; the Jewish, for instance, on the Egyptian and other Gen-tile religions, the Christian on the Jewish, the Mahometan on the Jewish and Christian combined. But while he openly declares religion to be " strange to common sense," the practical result at which Charron arrives is that one is not to sit in judgment on his faith, but to be " simple and obedient," and to allow himself to be led by public autho-rity. This is one rule of wisdom with regard to religion; and another equally important is to avoid superstition. What superstition is he boldly ventures to define. It is the belief that God is like a hard judge who, eager to find fault, narrowly examines our slightest act, that He is revengeful and hard to appease, and that therefore He must be flattered and importuned, and won over by pain and sacrifice. True piety, which is the first of duties, is, on the other hand, the knowledge of God and of one's self, the latter knowledge being necessary to the former. It is the abasing of man, the exalting of God,—the belief that what He sends is all good, and that all the bad is from ourselves. It leads to spiritual worship; for external ceremony is merely for our advantage, not for His glory.
Charron's political views are neither original nor inde-pendent. He pours much hackneyed scorn on the common herd, declares the sovereign to be the source of law, and asserts that popular freedom is dangerous.
At once the De la Sagesse brought upon its author the most violent attacks, the chief being by the Jesuit Garasse. A second edition was nevertheless soon called for. In 1603, notwithstanding much opposition, it began to appear ; but only a few pages had been printed when Charron died suddenly in the street. A summary and defence of the Sagesse, written shortly before his death, appeared in 1606. In 1604 his friend Michel de la Rochemaillet prefixed to an edition of the Sagesse a Life, which depicts Charron as a. man of the most amiable disposition and purest character. His complete works, with this Life, were published in 1635. An excellent abridgment of the Sagesse is given in Tenne-mann's Philosophic, vol. ix.









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