This essay, one of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s longest, sets forth the reasons for the great French humanist’s belief in skepticism. It is the work that was most influential in reviving and popularizing the Greek skeptical theory of Pyrrhonism during the Renaissance and in the seventeenth century. Montaigne’s followers based their arguments on this essay, and many important philosophers, including René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Blaise Pascal, and Nicolas de Malebranche studied it and used some of Montaigne’s ideas in developing their own philosophies. The essay is also one of the first writings that discuss philosophical issues in a modern language. It had a tremendous vogue in the seventeenth century. Late in the century it was put on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. It has remained one of the major classics of French literature and thought and is one of the richest examples of Renaissance humanism and skepticism.

The essay was apparently begun in 1575 when Montaigne was studying writings, recently translated into Latin, of the Greek Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the third century. These works so impressed Montaigne that they caused him to doubt all of his previous views and caused him to undergo his own personal skeptical crisis. During this crisis, he sought to show that the knowledge that people claimed to have gained through the use of their senses and their reasoning capacities was all open to doubt.

A Defense of Sebond’s Views

The “Apology for Raymond Sebond” purports to be a defense of the views of the fifteenth century Spanish rationalist theologian Raymond Sebond. At the outset, Montaigne tells his reader that at the request of his father, he had translated Sebond’s Theologia naturalis, sive Liber creaturarum (1485; the book of creatures: or, natural theology). His father had received the work much earlier from a French theologian who reported that he had been saved from Lutheranism by studying Sebond’s rational arguments in favor of Christianity. After Montaigne’s edition of Sebond appeared in 1569, shortly after his father’s death, he found that many of the readers (especially, he says, women) required assistance in comprehending and accepting Sebond’s message. Objections had been raised against Sebond’s audacious contention that all the articles of the Christian faith can be proved by natural reason.

Because of the difficulties that readers were having with the work and because of the objections, Montaigne reports that he undertook the task of writing an apology (a defense) of Sebond’s work. Because of the character of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” scholars have debated and are still debating the question of Montaigne’s real intent in publishing this essay. Was it to defend Sebond (which seems quite unlikely in view of the contents of the essay)? Was it to offer a different defense of Christianity through skepticism—or was it to...

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Faith and Skepticism

Early in the essay, Montaigne excuses Sebond’s theological rationalism by stating that there is nothing wrong with using reason to defend the faith, as long as one realizes that faith does not depend on reason and that one’s rational capacities are unable to attain supernatural and divine wisdom. As far as Montaigne can see, true religion must be based on faith given to people by the grace of God. Purely human capacities are too weak to support divine knowledge. When one relies on human faculties to find and accept the true religion, one ends up accepting religions because of custom, habit, or geographical location. If, however, one has the real light of faith, then reasons such as those Sebond offers can be employed as aids to faith, although not as proofs of it.

To “defend” Sebond on the second charge—that his arguments are too weak—Montaigne begins a general attack on all human reasoning by arguing that no one can attain certainty by rational means. The first level of skepticism offered purports to show that human capacities are unimpressive when compared with those of animals. Humans, egotistically, believe that they, and they alone, can comprehend the world, which was created and operates for their benefit. However, they cannot tell that this is the case. When they compare their capacities with those of animals, they find that they possess no faculties or capacities that beasts lack; in fact, the beasts surpass humans in many respects. Montaigne introduces various examples from...

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Next, Montaigne presents a more philosophical basis for his complete skepticism in the form of a description and defense of the ancient Greek skeptical view, Pyrrhonism, as well as an explanation of the value of this theory for religion. The Pyrrhonists doubt and suspend judgment concerning any and all propositions whatsoever, even the claim that all is in doubt. They contest every assertion that is made. If they are successful, they exhibit their opponents’ ignorance. If they are unsuccessful, they show their own ignorance. While they are doubting everything, the Pyrrhonists live according to nature and custom. Montaigne tells us that this attitude is both the finest of human achievements and that which is most compatible with religion. The Pyrrhonists show humanity naked and empty, a blank tablet, ready to receive any message that God wishes to write on it. The Pyrrhonists expose humanity as it really is, in total ignorance. This exposé should make people humble and obedient, ready to receive divine truth.

The ancient Pyrrhonists not only reached the summit of human wisdom in seeing that all is in doubt but also, Montaigne and his disciples insisted, provided the best defense of Catholicism against the Protestant Reformation. The complete skeptic would have no positive views and, consequently, no incorrect ones. He or she would accept only the laws and customs of his community. Hence, in sixteenth century France, he or she would accept Catholicism....

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Doubt and Understanding

After making all these points and digressing in many different directions, Montaigne, toward the end of the essay, finally states the evidence offered by the Pyrrhonists to show that all is in doubt. People do not seem able to gain any knowledge either from their experience or from their reasonings. People appear to be unable to tell what it is that they experience and whether they actually experience the things they think they experience. They cannot, for example, ascertain the true nature of heat or of any other experienced quality. Similarly, they cannot tell what their rational faculty is or even where it is. The experts disagree about everything, and when their various opinions are examined, they are revealed as quite uncertain. From these considerations, one concludes once more that people’s only genuine understanding comes from God and not from any information or faculties.

Some philosophers, after seeing how everybody disagrees about everything, have come to the conclusion that nothing can be known, either about oneself or anything else, but that some opinions are more probable than others. This view, developed by the Academic skeptics in antiquity, Montaigne maintains, is more unsatisfactory than the complete doubt of the Pyrrhonists. If people could reach any agreement about probabilities, then they should be able to come to agreement concerning the probable characters of particular things. However, judgments change constantly with various...

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Sense Knowledge

From here, Montaigne moves on to the theoretical basis of the Pyrrhonian position, the critique of sense knowledge, “the greatest foundation and proof of our ignorance.” All knowledge appears to come from sense information, but there are certain basic difficulties with regard to this information that cast it in doubt. First of all, people do not know whether they possess all the necessary senses for obtaining true knowledge. People have five senses, but it may require ten to see nature correctly. Human sense information may be as far removed from the truth as a blind man’s view of colors. Second, even if people possess all the needed senses, there is the possibility that they may be deceptive. The occurrence of illusions...

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From Doubt to Faith

Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond” introduces, in an unsystematic way, many of the traditional arguments of the Greek skeptics. Throughout the essay, Montaigne couples the argument for complete skepticism with an appeal to faith as the way out of doubt. For some of his readers, his important message is that human beings cannot be certain of anything, including the truths asserted by traditional religions. For other readers, both his doubts and his fideistic solution were equally important. For them, Montaigne showed that human beings could not find any certain knowledge by their own devices; they could find it only through faith.

The “Apology for Raymond Sebond” is one of the works that was most...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Burke, Peter. Montaigne. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Consists of ten articles devoted to different aspects of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and his writings. Great resource for students. Each chapter includes its own bibliography, and the whole book is indexed.

Cottrell, Robert D. Sexuality/Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne’s Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981. An advanced study of Montaigne’s writings.

Dikka, Berven, ed. Montaigne: A Collection of Essays. Vols. 1-5. New York: Garland, 1995. A five-part examination of...

(The entire section is 449 words.)