Raymond Sebond was a fifteenth century Spaniard who taught philosophy and theology at the University of Toulouse, dying there in 1436. His book Theologia naturalis (natural theology) was published posthumously in 1484 and was a popular success in France. It argues for the truths of Christianity on the basis of the natural world—the book of nature—and Sebond claims that God is in evidence in the Creation more than in theology or Scripture.
The “Apology for Raymond Sebond” is three times as long as any other essay that Montaigne wrote, and it is by far his most puzzling work. Supposedly a defense of Sebond’s Christian doctrine, the essay has been seen as an attack on authoritarian religion and a covert undermining of Christian faith. Less than one-tenth of the essay defends Sebond’s ideas at all. Primarily, the work argues the impotence of human reason and humanity’s inability to determine truth, set as a counterargument to a group of Sebond’s critics.
Montaigne begins with the first objection to Sebond’s theology—that the divine can be conceived only by faith, not by human intelligence. Montaigne admits that faith is more apt to solve the mysteries of religion than reason, yet humans seem improperly suited to divine faith. Humankind’s often immoral behavior testifies to the inability of faith alone to raise it above itself. Faith must be accompanied by ideas and reasonings in order to set humanity on the road to knowledge, to make it capable of the grace of God.
It is at this point that Montaigne addresses the issue of human knowledge, the heart of the essay, and...
(The entire section is 666 words.)