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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

"An Apology for Raymond Sebond" is, as the title suggests, a defense of the fifteenth-century theologian Raymond Sebond and his much-maligned views about the nature of Christianity.

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In his essay, Montaigne outlines a number of criticisms that have been leveled against Sebond and then systematically dismantles these criticisms.

The first criticism of Sebold is that Christians should not, as Sebold seems to suggest, rely upon rationality or reason as a basis for their faith—that is, Christians shouldn't expect faith to be proven by reason. On this basis, Sebond's "Natural Theology" was prohibited by the church in the sixteenth century. Montaigne argues that what Sebond was actually saying was that science teaches men to see everything clearly, including God—science and learning enable people to understand scripture better. So, a combination of God's divinity and human reason can help us see the world more clearly: rationality on its own is meaningless, but in combination with faith it can elevate us to a higher plane. This, according to Montaigne, is what Sebold was really saying.

Next, Montaigne tackles the criticism that Sebold made weak arguments, i.e. used inadequate logic to support what he said. Montaigne argues that Sebold was entitled to his own opinion and was no better or worse at making his arguments than those who would criticize him.

Montaigne then diverges into what seems to be his own theories about intellectualism and rationality. He suggests that man should not set himself up above animals, and that having knowledge does not make us either happy or good—indeed, being too curious can lead to sin. Also (confusingly), Montaigne then goes on to argue that we can't actually attain knowledge at all because, in the end, we won't ever know whether we really know things (as only God can know this).

There then follows a long section about pyrrhonism, dogmatism, skepticism, and how these things interconnect. Montaigne refers to Aristotle and Plato. He explains that pyrrhonism is refraining from judgement entirely; dogmatism is a dogged insistence that one thing is true. Montaigne argues that holding any theological opinion too strongly is vain and evidence that a person has not put sufficient faith in God and his infinite power; if we really knew anything about God, we would not put any faith in philosophers.

Ultimately, Montaigne reiterates that humans can't really know anything at all; we can't have even limited knowledge because we don't know whether what we know is true—we have no concept of the reality of things, which is known only to God. We can derive some knowledge from our own senses, but ultimately we have to rely upon God for any sense of what is really true and what isn't.

In his conclusion, Montaigne states again that any reason or rationality man has is entirely dependent on God, without whom we wouldn't know anything. So, we can search for knowledge, and that's not in itself anti-Christian, but we must understand that any knowledge we have is only what God will let us have.

This is a very confusing essay—Montaigne does seem to be contradicting himself at times. The basic idea, however, is that all our knowledge is dependent upon God's grace, but that Sebold should not have been criticized as he was.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

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 his reflections reveal a deep despair about the human condition, an undercurrent of pessimism found in such other Renaissance works as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and John Donne’s sermons and devotions. Humankind is a puny and miserable creature, swollen with vanity, who calls itself master of the universe while unable even to master its own passions and weaknesses. Viewing itself as the equal of God, it is actually no better than an animal. “When I play with my cat,” Montaigne says, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” Citing the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being, an orderly universe in which each thing is in its properly fixed place, Montaigne insists that there is a natural order that constrains and limits humanity’s vain ambitions to become a god, and that people must be forced to accept the barriers of this order.

If people are made in God’s image, then God is, like them, an animal. If He is an animal, then He has a body, and if He has a body, then He is also subject to corruption. However, if God has no body, then He has no soul, for the soul exists only in the body. This paradox is unthinkable to Montaigne. Similarly, if a person has a divine soul that knows all things, then it would at least know itself, if nothing more than its outward body. Montaigne sees medical doctors everywhere disputing even simple matters of human anatomy, however, and for all its science, arts, and learning, humanity knows very little about itself. Therefore, Montaigne concludes, the human mind can never penetrate the dark recesses of hidden truth. Learning consists of nothing more than an infinite confusion of opinions, and people are in agreement about nothing. They can never know truth.

The ultimate truth is knowledge of God, and at the end of the essay, Montaigne more or less returns to Sebond, adding a few paragraphs stating that humankind is nothing without God and that God must lend a helping hand if humans are to attain knowledge of Him. By then, however, it is too late. Montaigne has raised profound questions about humankind, God, and human knowledge, and his candid reasoning has led him (and the reader) to unsettling conclusions.

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