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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

IV.4 - Pierre Charron, Of Wisdom (1608)

from PART IV - History and philosophy


About the author and translator

Pierre Charron (1541–1603) was a French Roman Catholic theologian, moral philosopher and preacher. After undertaking legal training at Bourges, Charron commenced his studies in theology. He was a preacher and adviser to Margaret of France, Queen of France and Navarre. His two major works are Les Trois Vérités (1594) and De la sagesse (1601). Samson Lennard (d. 1630) translated several important works in the Jacobean period, including Tomasso Buoni's Problems of Beauty (1606), Philippe Mornay's History of the Papacie (1612), and J. P. Perrin's Luther's Forerunners (1624). As an antiquary, he also held several distinguished positions in the College of Arms.

About the text

Charron was deeply influenced by the philosophy of his friend Michel De Montaigne. Montaigne's scepticism, though not as extreme as academic or Pyrrhonian variants, urges the exercise of doubt in evaluating propositions in order to obtain wisdom. In De la sagesse, Charron outlines a moral theory indebted to such neo-scepticism, but his style, unlike Montaigne's, eschews personal anecdotes, seeking rather to describe the universal condition of pursuing knowledge. The contemporary intellectual movement of neo-stoicism (for example, in the works of Justus Lipsius and Guillaume Du Vair) also influenced Charron's practical philosophy. He discusses the weakness of man's mental capabilities to distinguish truth from falsehood, although it is not man's fault for not knowing something; he is, however, at fault if he assumes he does know. Charron's general thesis is that the individual should not be swayed by either popular beliefs (often erroneous) or their own passions. Thus scepticism about all knowledge outside received truths is to be encouraged.

The work consists of three parts. The first ‘book’ discusses ‘knowledge of ourselves and the human condition’. The second outlines the principal rules of wisdom. And the third discusses the four moral virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Lennard's translation was immediately popular in print and new editions and reprintings were published regularly throughout the seventeenth century.

The arts of memory

The first excerpt derives from the first book's thirteenth chapter, ‘Of the intellective faculty and truly human’. The seat of the intellective faculty is the brain, where the reasonable soul has three separate capacities: understanding, memory and imagination. Charron's commentary stands out for its critical attitude towards the value of memory, both natural and artificial.

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Levine, Alan, ed., Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999).
Soll, Jacob, ‘Healing the Body Politic: French Royal Doctors, History, and the Birth of a Nation 1560–1634’, Renaissance Quarterly, 55.4 (2002), 1259–86.