Analysis

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Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond is a defense of the Catalan theologian referred to in the title. And the defense is only part of the work; instead, Montaigne uses the occasion of a defense to discuss matters of skepticism, reason, and faith as befits Catholic theology. Montaigne, who wrote the...

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Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond is a defense of the Catalan theologian referred to in the title. And the defense is only part of the work; instead, Montaigne uses the occasion of a defense to discuss matters of skepticism, reason, and faith as befits Catholic theology. Montaigne, who wrote the essay on the occasion of translating Sebond's Liber naturae sive creaturarum ("Treatise on nature or its creations") as requested by his late father, believes that man occupies a comparatively low position in relation to the divine. It is rife with both discussion of classical philosophers such as Diogenes and Plato as well as metaphors from the natural world. Montaigne approaches the religion with a pragmatic view and occasionally adduces Plato's concept of the soul. When Plato insisted that the soul was immortal, many of his follows killed themselves. That we humans are not doing this is a sign that we are not made of divine substance.

Montaigne insists that man is wretched—barely master of himself, let alone external things to which he lays claim. Small accidents in human affairs would not bother us if we were of divine substance. Moreover, Montaigne notes that certain animals exhibit the qualities that we call exceptionally human (such as mutual defense and membership of a social order). Ultimately, humans' only approach to the divine is to "accompany our faith with all the reason we have," but not assume that we will ever be capable of comprehending divine knowledge fully.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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 employ skeptical thought to undermine all beliefs, including those of Christianity? The essay can be, and has been, read in the latter two ways, and it has greatly influenced the fideists (those who base their religious beliefs on faith alone) and those who are skeptical of all religious beliefs.

The “Apology for Raymond Sebond” is written in Montaigne’s inimitable rambling style. It presents a series of waves of doubt, with occasional pauses to reflect. The various skeptical themes are interwoven with the recurring note that faith and revelation are the only unquestionable sources of any truth.

Montaigne begins his serious discussion by considering two kinds of objections that have been raised against Sebond’s views, one that Christianity should be based on faith and not on reason, and the other that Sebond’s reasoning is not sound. In discussing the first point, Montaigne develops his fideistic theme, and in discussing the second, his skepticism. He alleges to defend Sebond by contending first that Christianity is founded solely on faith, and then that, since all reasoning is unsound, Sebond should not be singled out for blame on this score.

Faith and Skepticism

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

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 the writings of Sextus Empiricus to show that rationality is just a form of animal behavior. Montaigne insists that even religion is not a unique human possession, for even elephants seem to pray. When human behavior is carefully contrasted with that of animals, humans are seen as rather vain, stupid, and immoral. With all their alleged superior faculties, humans are not able to live as well or as happily as the animals. The illustrative material presented by Montaigne is supposed to have the cumulative effect of making people doubt their superior wisdom and knowledge. People think they know the truth, but their knowing is only a form of animal behavior, and it does not enable people to achieve even as much as the rest of the animals can and do. Hence, Montaigne insists, the human disease is the belief that people can know something. This is why religion recommends a state of ignorance as most proper for belief and obedience.

Montaigne continues this attack on intellectual pretensions by comparing the wisdom of the educated European of his day with the ignorance of the “noble savages,” the recently discovered inhabitants of Brazil. The latter are portrayed as living a far superior life, because “they pass their lives in an admirable simplicity and ignorance, without any learning, laws, kings, or any religion whatsoever.”

Christianity, according to Montaigne, teaches people to acquire a similar ignorance in order that they may believe by faith alone. Whatever truths one knows are gained not by one’s own abilities, but by God’s grace. Even one’s religion is not acquired through reasoning and comprehension. Instead, one receives it only by God’s revelation. One’s ignorance is an asset in this regard, in that one’s own inability to know anything leads one to be willing to submit oneself to God’s will and to accept his teachings. To show that Christianity is based on an awareness of one’s ignorance, rather than on any knowledge one might have, Montaigne quotes one of his favorite texts from the Bible, the attack on rational knowledge that appears at the beginning of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Pyrrhonism

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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. Further, by being in doubt about everything, the Pyrrhonist would be in the perfect state to receive the revelation of the true religion. Thus, if God so willed, Montaigne tells us, the skeptic will be a Catholic by custom and tradition as well as by faith.

Montaigne next compares the achievements of the ancient Pyrrhonists with the failings of the more dogmatic philosophers. The latter have quarreled over every possible question without coming to any definite conclusion. In the end, the dogmatic philosophers have had to admit their failure to attain any indubitable knowledge in any field whatsoever. A survey of the attempts of philosophers throughout history to achieve any true knowledge leads one to the conclusion that “philosophy is only sophisticated poetry.” All that philosophers ever offer us are theories that they have invented, not truths about the world. Some of these theories become accepted at various times and are regarded as authoritative and unquestionable. However, there is no more evidence that these theories are true than that they are false. The only true principles that people possess, Montaigne insists, are those that God has revealed to them. All other alleged truths are nothing but dreams and smoke.

The debacle of human intellectual undertakings is so complete that even the Pyrrhonist is unable to survive unscathed. If the Pyrrhonist declares, after looking at the sad history of humanity’s intellectual achievements, that all is in doubt, then he or she has asserted something positive and is no longer in doubt about everything. The Pyrrhonist, Montaigne says, cannot state doubts without contradicting himself or herself. The fault lies with language, which is basically assertive. Only a negative language would allow for a genuine statement of the Pyrrhonian view.

Doubt and Understanding

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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 bodily and emotional states; people do not find one view more probable than another, except at specific times and under specific conditions. As views change, people find that they disagree with what they formerly thought was probable and with what others think is probable. Thus, people cannot take probabilities as guides to truth, but can only fall back on the Pyrrhonian view that everything can be doubted and on the truths that God gives them.

When scientific achievements are examined, they are found to be as dubious as anything else because in every science, the experts disagree, and what is accepted as true at one time is rejected as false at another. For example, Montaigne points out, earlier astronomers said that the heavens moved around the earth, and now a new astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, says that the earth moves. Perhaps centuries from now, Montaigne says, another astronomer will disprove all of them. Prior to Aristotle, other theories seemed acceptable. Why should Aristotle’s theory be accepted as the last word? Even in a science as apparently certain as geometry, there are difficulties that render it dubious. Paradoxes such as those developed by Zeno of Elea in the fifth century b.c.e. indicate that geometry is not completely certain. The recent discoveries in the New World indicate that the accepted beliefs about human nature are not so certain. (Montaigne was perhaps the first to realize the extent to which the information about the cultures in America indicated that the beliefs of Europeans about human nature were relative to their own experience and civilization.) Similarly, information about ancient Greece and Rome, as well as about the various cultures in Europe itself, shows that views about law, religion, social customs, and the like change all the time and that what has been accepted as true in one culture has been rejected by another.

Sense Knowledge

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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 provides some grounds for distrusting the senses. Further, sense experience seems to vary according to people’s emotional states. Besides the many reasons that Sextus Empiricus offered for distrusting the senses, there is also the problem that people cannot tell whether their sense experience is part of a dream or a genuine reflection of what the world is like. When all the Pyrrhonian arguments about sense knowledge are considered, one realizes that people can know only how things appear to them and not how they are in themselves.

Besides, Montaigne argues, the senses may distort what people perceive in the same way that certain kinds of lenses do. The qualities people perceive may be imposed on objects rather than actually being in them. What people experience differs with their condition, location, and so on. Unless they possess some standard by which to judge when they have the right experience, people have no way of distinguishing true information about the world from false information. However, this raises the classical skeptical problem of the criterion—how does one tell what standard is the true one? To answer this question, another standard is needed. If one tries to use reason to decide, one will need further reasons to justify the ones that were employed, and so on to infinity.

Hence, if senses are the sources of all ideas, people can be sure of nothing. They have no completely certain standard to use to judge when or if their ideas or sense impressions correspond to the real, external objects. People are forever in the position of the person who tries to determine whether a picture of Socrates is a good likeness without ever having seen Socrates.

These successive waves of skepticism leave one finally with the realization that trying to know reality is like trying to clutch water: It cannot be done. Until God decides to enlighten one, all of one’s supposed knowledge will remain uncertain. It is only through the grace of God, Montaigne concludes, that one can ever achieve any contact with reality.

From Doubt to Faith

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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 important in setting the stage for the beginning of modern philosophy, for it provided a series of doubts about all previous theories. The new philosophers of the seventeenth century had either to find a way of answering the many skeptical arguments of Montaigne or to accept his skeptical conclusion. In the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne provided the starting point for “the quest for certainty,” as well as a skeptical resolution of the problems he considered.

Bibliography

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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 Montaigne. Each volume concentrates on a different topic such as Montaigne’s rhetoric, sources of his thought, and the relationship between Montaigne and the contemporary reader.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. A useful source of information about Montaigne’s life and work.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955. The development of Montaigne’s philosophy is examined against the background of his life experiences.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Essais: A Study. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. This book examines Montaigne’s influence on philosophy in the past four centuries. It also takes a detailed look at his life and development as a thinker. Includes a chronology, bibliography, and index.

O’Brien, John, and Malcolm Quainton, eds. Distant Voices Still Heard: Contemporary Readings of French Renaissance Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2000. A collection of paired essays on five major authors, including Montaigne.

Paulson, Michael G. The Possible Influence of Montaigne’s “Essais” on Descartes’s Treatise on the Passions. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. This work examines Montaigne’s influence on René Descartes’s philosophy of the passions.

Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the “Essais.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. This work examines Montaigne’s concern with the ethical basis of society.

Sayce, Richard A. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. An important study on Montaigne’s essays. Very readable.

Schaefer, David Lewis. The Political Philosophy of Montaigne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. This book examines The Essays and argues that Montaigne is primarily concerned with political matters. Schaefer portrays Montaigne as a consistent and systematic thinker.

Sichel, Edith. Michel de Montaigne. London: Constable, 1911. An enjoyable biography that takes a personal view of Montaigne and his times based on quotations from The Essays. Contains facsimiles of portraits and manuscript and bibliographical notes.

Van Den Abbeele, Georges. Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. This book studies the relation between critical thinking and the metaphor of travel in French Renaissance philosophy. The first chapter concentrates on Montaigne.

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