In 1580, while he was in Rome, Montaigne was invited by the papal censor to respond to a report on his Essays prepared by several theologians. This report charged him with using the word “fortune,” referring to heretical poets, arguing against the use of torture to extract confessions from suspected wrongdoers, and defending the emperor Julian. The censor judged these charges as minor imperfections that need not be corrected, and urged Montaigne to continue in “the devotion he had always borne to the Church.” Montaigne did not, however, make the changes suggested in the report. During the years of the Counter-Reformation, the ruling argument of his Essays, that trust in individual reason and conscience is at once destructive of civil order and conducive to atheism, was used by many Catholic apologists, including Jean-Pierre Camus and Pierre Charron.
A thoroughgoing skeptic who was never convinced of humankind’s capacity to find ethical guidance through individual reasoning, Montaigne was a staunch conservative throughout his adult life. “A private fantasy can have but a private jurisdiction,” he emphasized in his influential, long, sustained attack on deism, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In accordance with that principle, Montaigne repeatedly maintained the Church’s authority as the only valid interpreter of Scripture. His belief that a divinely sanctioned teaching from faith, rather than a humanistic reliance...
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