Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"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.
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.