In the Apology for Raymond de Sebonde, Montaigne writes a long treatise supporting the religious arguments of Raymond de Sebonde. Montaigne does not analyze the specific arguments Sebonde presents to counter the arguments of atheists, but rather he presents his own evidence for justifying a radical skepticism toward all knowledge except knowledge obtained directly from the divine.
One of the primary motivations for writing this treatise was the Protestant Reformation. Montaigne believed that the movement inspired by Martin Luther would cause widespread atheism because the vulgar multitude does not have the capacity to independently judge things. Montaigne believes that if some religious beliefs are proven to be mistaken, then the multitude will renounce all their previously held religious beliefs without consideration.
The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance of Europe was driven by a zealous devotion to the power of reason. Most of mankind believed that everything could be achieved through the power of this intellectual faculty. Montaigne casts significant doubt on our capacity to attain any truth through reason alone. He criticizes our intelligence as nothing more than presumption. He even criticizes Christian intellectuals who seek to establish their belief in the divine upon reasoned arguments rather than faith. He admits that humans ought to endeavor to extend and amplify their faith with rational arguments, but he does not think that it is possible for humans to arrive at the understanding of God without divine inspiration and faith.
Furthermore, humans are not the only creatures that manifest a capacity for reason. Montaigne enumerates several instances that demonstrate the foresight and reasoning capacity of a variety of animals. For example, he recounts the story of a dog that proceeded to drop stones into a bottle of water until the water level rose sufficiently for him to drink. This particular comparison of men and animals is amazing when one considers that Montaigne arrived at this insight nearly two centuries before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species.
Montaigne is perhaps the most learned man since Aristotle. He is knowledgeable in seemingly every subject. Consequently, he provides several anecdotes related to his topic of concern, but also has a tendency to digress to other topics. His writing sometimes becomes disorganized. In the following paragraphs, I have referenced some of the more interesting insights and assertions made by Montaigne throughout this relatively long essay.
He criticizes Christians who fear death. Christians ought to joyfully seek death because of the happiness promised to them in the afterlife.
He asserts that men do not know what will make them happy. Therefore, the best course of action is to trust in the Divine Power of the Universe to provide what one needs rather than vainly seek for happiness by one’s own capacities.
He states that wisdom is evil; ignorance and obedience is good. He supports his argument by alluding to the biblical story of the Fall of Man and the scene in the Odyssey where the sirens attempt to lure Odysseus to his demise. The serpent tempts Eve with knowledge of good and evil. The sirens tempt Odysseus with wisdom.
He argues that God’s hand is evident in all of creation, but our frailties often hinder us from seeing this truth.
Many posit that though our capacity to reason causes us tremendous suffering, it also enables us to experience the highest pleasures. Montaigne counters this argument. He states that there is much more to be avoided than to be enjoyed in our miserable condition. “The extremest pleasure does not affect us to the degree that a light grief does.”
He recounts many of the opinions formed by men about nature that have changed over the centuries – the earth is the center of the universe, Europe is the only continent on the earth, the earth is flat, etc. He also describes the prodigious variety of religious opinion – polytheism, monotheism, atheism, etc. He argues that one ought to consider every opinion with great care, and recognize that there was a different opinion that prevailed in the minds of men before the opinion now in favor, and that it is very likely that the current opinion will be changed for another in the future.
“Had he but the same place in our affections that riches, Pleasures, glory, and our friends have: The best of us doth not so much feare to wrong him as he doth to injure his neighbour, his kinsman, or his master. Is there so simple a minde who, on the one side having before him the object of one of our vicious pleasures, and on the other to his full view perfect knowledge and assured perswasion, the state of an immortall glorie, that would enter into contention of one for the other? And so we often refuse it through meere contempt: for what drawes us to blaspheming, unlesse it be at all adventures, the desire it selfe of the offence? The Philosopher Antisthenes, when he was initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest saying unto him that such as vowed themselves to that religion should after death receive eternall and perfect felicities, replied, ‘If thou beleeve it, why dost thou not die thy selfe?’ Diogenes more roughly (as his manner was) and further from our purpose, answered the priest who perswaded him to be one of his order, that so he might come unto and attaine the happinesse of the other world: ‘Wilt thou have me beleeve that those famous men, Agesilaus and Epaminondas, shall be miserable, and that thou, who art but an asse, and doth nothing of any worth; shalt be happy, because thou art a Priest?’ Did we but receive these large promises of everlasting blessednesse with like authoritie as we do a philosophicall discourse, we should not then have death in that horror as we have.”
“We only receive our religion after our own fashion, by our own hands, and no otherwise than as other religions are received. Either we are happened in the country where it is in practice, or we reverence the antiquity of it, or the authority of the men who have maintained it, or fear the menaces it fulminates against misbelievers, or are allured by its promises. These considerations ought, ’tis true, to be applied to our belief but as subsidiaries only, for they are human obligations. Another religion, other witnesses, the like promises and threats, might, by the same way, imprint a quite contrary belief. We are Christians by the same title that we are Perigordians or Germans. And what Plato says, “That there are few men so obstinate in their atheism whom a pressing danger will not reduce to an acknowledgment of the divine power,” does not concern a true Christian: ’tis for mortal and human religions to be received by human recommendation. What kind of faith can that be that cowardice and want of courage establish in us? A pleasant faith, that does not believe what it believes but for want of courage to disbelieve it! Can a vicious passion, such as inconstancy and astonishment, cause any regular product in our souls? “They are confident in their judgment,” says he, “that what is said of hell and future torments is all feigned: but an occasion of making the expedient presenting itself, when old age or diseases bring them to the brink of the grave, the terror of death, by the horror of that future condition, inspires them with a new belief!” And by reason that such impressions render them timorous, he forbids in his Laws all such threatening doctrines, and all persuasion that anything of ill can befall a man from the gods, excepting for his great good when they happen to him, and for a medicinal effect. They say of Bion that, infected with the atheism of Theodoras, he had long had religious men in great scorn and contempt, but that death surprising him, he gave himself up to the most extreme superstition; as if the gods withdrew and returned according to the necessities of Bion. Plato and these examples would conclude that we are brought to a belief of God either by reason or by force. Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride, to be the authors of extraordinary and reforming opinions, and outwardly to affect the profession of them; who, if they are such fools, have, nevertheless, not the power to plant them in their own conscience. Yet will they not fail to lift up their hands towards heaven if you give them a good thrust with a sword in the breast, and when fear or sickness has abated and dulled the licentious fury of this giddy humour they will easily re-unite, and very discreetly suffer themselves to be reconciled to the public faith and examples.”
“This world is a sacred temple, into which man is introduced, there to contemplate statues, not the works of a mortal hand, but such as the divine purpose has made the objects of sense.”
“Desires are either natural and necessary, as to eat and drink; or natural and not necessary, as the coupling with females; or neither natural nor necessary; of which last sort are almost all the desires of men; they are all superfluous and artificial.”
“The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mould; the weight and importance of the actions of princes considered, we persuade ourselves that they must be produced by some as weighty and important causes; but we are deceived; for they are pushed on, and pulled back in their motions, by the same springs that we are in our little undertakings. The same reason that makes us wrangle with a neighbour causes a war betwixt princes; the same reason that makes us whip a lackey, falling into the hands of a king makes him ruin a whole province. They are as lightly moved as we, but they are able to do more. In a gnat and an elephant the passion is the same.”
“Let us observe, as to the rest, that man is the sole animal whose nudities offend his own companions, and the only one who in his natural actions withdraws and hides himself from his own kind. And really ’tis also an effect worth consideration, that they who are masters in the trade prescribe, as a remedy for amorous passions, the full and free view of the body a man desires; for that to cool the ardour there needs no more but freely and fully to see what he loves. It is not modesty, so much as cunning and prudence, that makes our ladies so circumspect to refuse us admittance into their cabinets before they are painted and tricked up for the public view.”
“Doubtless, we have strangely overpaid this fine reason, upon which we so much glorify ourselves, and this capacity of judging and knowing, if we have bought it at the price of this infinite number of passions to which we are eternally subject. Of what advantage can we conceive the knowledge of so many things was to Varro and Aristotle? Did it exempt them from human inconveniences? Were they by it freed from the accidents that lay heavy upon the shoulders of a porter? Did they extract from their logic any consolation for the gout? Or, for knowing how this humour is lodged in the joints, did they feel it the less? Did they enter into composition with death by knowing that some nations rejoice at his approach; or with cuckoldry, by knowing that in some parts of the world wives are in common? On the contrary, having been reputed the greatest men for knowledge, the one amongst the Romans and the other amongst the Greeks, and in a time when learning did most flourish, we have not heard, nevertheless, that they had any particular excellence in their lives; nay, the Greek had enough to do to clear himself from some notable blemishes in his. Have we observed that pleasure and health have a better relish with him that understands astrology and grammar than with others? Or shame and poverty less troublesome to the first than to the last?”
“We stand very little more in need of offices, rules, and laws of living in our society, than cranes and ants do in theirs; and yet we see that these carry themselves very regularly without erudition.”
“That which is told us of those of Brazil, that they never die but of old age, is attributed to the serenity and tranquillity of the air they live in; but I rather attribute it to the serenity and tranquillity of their souls, free from all passion, thought, or employment, extended or unpleasing, a people that pass over their lives in a wonderful simplicity and ignorance, without letters, without law, without king, or any manner of religion.”
“Would you have a man healthy, would you have him regular, and in a steady and secure posture? Muffle him up in the shades of stupidity and sloth. We must be made beasts to be made wise, and hoodwinked before we are fit to be led. And if one shall tell me that the advantage of having a cold and dull sense of pain and other evils, brings this disadvantage along with it, to render us consequently less sensible also in the fruition of good and pleasure, this is true; but the misery of our condition is such that we have not so much to enjoy as to avoid, and that the extremest pleasure does not affect us to the degree that a light grief does.”
“This story of a famous and great philosopher very clearly represents to us that studious passion that puts us upon the pursuit of things, of the acquisition of which we despair. Plutarch gives a like example of some one who would not be satisfied in that whereof he was in doubt, that he might not lose the pleasure of inquiring into it; like the other who would not that his physician should allay the thirst of his fever, that he might not lose the pleasure of quenching it by drinking.”
“The things that are most unknown are most proper to be deified.”
“’tis here with us, and not elsewhere, that the force and effects of the soul ought to be considered; all the rest of her perfections are vain and useless to her; ’tis by her present condition that all her immortality is to be rewarded and paid, and of the life of man only that she is to render an account It had been injustice to have stripped her of her means and powers; to have disarmed her in order, in the time of her captivity and imprisonment in the flesh, of her weakness and infirmity in the time wherein she was forced and compelled, to pass an infinite and perpetual sentence and condemnation, and to insist upon the consideration of so short a time, peradventure but an hour or two, or at the most but a century, which has no more proportion with infinity than an instant; in this momentary interval to ordain and definitively to determine of her whole being; it were an unreasonable disproportion, too, to assign an eternal recompense in consequence of so short a life.”
“It is certain that our apprehensions, our judgment, and the faculties of the soul in general, suffer according to the movements and alterations of the body, which alterations are continual. Are not our minds more sprightly, our memories more prompt and quick, and our thoughts more lively, in health than in sickness? Do not joy and gayety make us receive subjects that present themselves to our souls quite otherwise than care and melancholy? Do you believe that Catullus’s verses, or those of Sappho, please an old doting miser as they do a vigorous, amorous young man?”
“Very often, as I am apt to do, having for exercise taken to maintain an opinion contrary to my own, my mind, bending and applying itself that way, does so engage me that way that I no more discern the reason of my former belief, and forsake it. I am, as it were, misled by the side to which I incline, be it what it will, and carried away by my own weight. Every one almost would say the same of himself, if he considered himself as I do.”
“The writings of the ancients, the best authors I mean, being full and solid, tempt and carry me which way almost they will; he that I am reading seems always to have the most force; and I find that every one in his turn is in the right, though they contradict one another.”
“And yet we foolishly fear one kind of death, whereas we have already passed, and do daily pass, so many others; for not only, as Heraclitus said, the death of fire is generation of air, and the death of air generation of water; but, moreover, we may more manifestly discern it in ourselves; manhood dies, and passes away when age comes on; and youth is terminated in the flower of age of a full-grown man, infancy in youth, and the first age dies in infancy; yesterday died in to-day, and to-day will die in to-morrow; and there is nothing that remains in the same state, or that is always the same thing.”