What the [Bleep] Can we Know? Montaigne and the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”

By Kevin Currie-Knight


[The following is a transcript of the video linked at the end.]

My sense is that the world today is too full of confidence in belief. It seems like today, it is imperative not only to have a belief about everything – the right politics, the right stance toward religion, what the science really says, thoughts about the latest thing that celebrity did. But more and more, people believe their position with absolute certainty, or at least they make it seem that way. No one backs down in argument, no one sincerely entertains contrary positions, and in conversations – which are really, debates – we all just dig in our heels as if to express any doubt is to cede ground to the enemy. We’re not supposed to be indecisive or see things from multiple perspectives. We’re supposed to know that we’re right and prove it.

In this video, I want to introduce you to a book that might be a great antidote to that, if you think – as I do – that we need an antidote. It was written in the late 1500’s and is by Michel de Montaigne, and essay called “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” The short version is that Montaigne launches a full-on assault on our confidence that reason can give us certain truths. The longer version will take a bit more explaining. Before we do that, let’s introduce a few figures necessary for understanding the book.

First, there’s the author, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne was a French statesman who is today best known for his essays, a style of writing that he played a part in inventing. These are short philosophical reflections that Montaigne wrote in his later leisure years, pondering subjects as wide ranging as sex, the diversity of cultures in the world, death, and religion. The“Apology for Raymond Sebond” is the longest of these essays. It’s the size of a short book.

Sebond was a Catholic writer who lived in the late 1400’s who preached what is now called natural theology, the idea that the truths of Christianity can be proved not by revelation, but purely by human reason. He argued this in a work called Theologica Naturalis, a book that Montaigne would eventually translate into French and respond critically to.

The last introduction we need to make is of Sextus Empiricus, an ancient Greek philosopher who had significant influence on Montaigne and whose doctrine of Pyrrhonean skepticism is evident in Montaigne’s essay. [By the way, I’ve done a video on Pyrrhonean skepticism, and I’ll put a link in the description.] Sextus believed that the way to peace of mind is to never come to firm beliefs on any subject – never take a strong position – and that the best way to do this is always to appreciate the fallibility of human reason.

Now, to the book itself, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” Like Sebond, Montaigne was a Catholic, but unlike Sebond, Montaigne did not believe that the truths of Christianity could be gotten to by reason. To Montaigne, Christianity relied on faith and revelation by Papal authority. To use reason to get to religion was to put your trust in an untrustworthy guide that might not get you to the right place. Now, there’s some debate on how sincere Montaigne was in this. Was he a Catholic who wanted to make sure people relied on faith and Papal authority? Or was he really unsure of the reasonableness of his religion but couldn’t really say that? I guess you’ll have to decide.

First, Montaigne notes the pride humans take in their human ability to reason. Like others, Sebond thinks that reason is what gives us an edge over other animals and also a pipeline to the world’s truths. But does reason deserve this exalted view? Sure, it is a great faculty to have, but other animals have other good faculties too. Some have speed, agility, and strength superior to ours; and besides, reason leads us not only to the joys of contemplation and knowledge, but to worry, doubt and anxiety that other animals seem free from. Montaigne might be most famous for his line from the “Apology” about whether, when we play with a cat, we can be sure we are playing with the cat rather than the cat playing with us. What he means is that humans use their reason and language to judge that their reason and language makes them superior to other animals who don’t have reason and language. But that just seems like predictable self-pride; the animal who judges that by their own judgment, they are superior to all others.

Another problem Montaigne has with reason is that it gives us a sense that we can penetrate the secrets of a world that must have been built with us and our understanding of it in mind. It’s as if God wrote all the answers somewhere in the universe for us to find and that we’re up to the challenge.

If we are dependent upon the disposition of the heavens for such little rationality as we have, how can our reason make us equal to the Heavens? How can their essence, or the principles on which they are founded, be subjects of human knowledge?

For Montaigne, God and the universe are way bigger than us. They didn’t have to write down their secrets somewhere for us to find. There doesn’t have to be a 1:1 fit between our ability to ask questions and the ability of the vast universe to supply answers that are small enough to fit in our human brains. To think differently is, for Montaigne, just hubris.

Next, Montaigne goes into something that shows up in a lot of his essays: cataloging the vast diversity of human thought. If there are answers that we can all get to if we just use reason correctly, why would humans – even the really smart ones – disagree so much over what those answers are? We disagree over what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful, with each party finding convincing arguments that other parties aren’t moved by. In the midst of all this diversity one of two things must be said. Either there are no true answers, or there are true answers and human reason can’t find reliable ways to distinguish the true ones from the ones that just falsely seem true. Either way, reason seems like it will always fall short of allowing us to know truths with the assurance we want.

The matter gets worse, says Montaigne, when contemplating things as vast as the universe or God. Reason can only put things into human terms; terms that we understand. But as we’ve seen, Montaigne thinks that this means humans will always fall short of understanding things that need not be limited to human terms. Here’s how he says it: “God alone can know himself; God alone can interpret his works. And he uses improper, human, words to do so, stooping down to the earth where we lie sprawling.” When religious people rightly say that we cannot understand the will of God, Montaigne agrees, but he would simply wish that we saw the full implications; that we should give up trying to reason about God at all. All of it, says Montaigne, is beyond our puny ability to reason.

Next, he points out that reasoning often disturbs our well-being. It often makes us discontent, because we are always vested either in moving beyond our present state of probably-illusory knowledge. At other times, reason vests us into defending some position that there will always be others to dispute. We are either reasoning our way into self-doubt or righteous certainty, neither of which, whatever their benefits, seems good for peace of mind.

This is where we bring in Sextus Empiricus and that Pyrrhonian skepticism we talked about. Remember, Sextus believed that the key to well-being was never to take a firm side in a debate, to realize humbly that the jury is always still out, and at best, to form very tentative conclusions and avoid certain ones. Montaigne recommends this approach too.

Here’s what Montaigne says about the wise Pyrrhonean skeptic: “They use their reason for inquiry and debate but never to make choices or decisions. If you can picture an endless confession of ignorance, or a power of judgment which never, never inclines to one side or the other, then you can conceive what Pyrrhonism is.”

Let’s remember, though, that Montaigne’s skepticism is not the skepticism of the person who doubts as an antidote to authority. It’s not the skepticism that challenges dogma with reason. It’s actually the opposite. Montaigne is using skepticism about reason to restore faith in the Catholic church. His problem was not that of Martin Luther, who wanted everyone to use their own reason to reach their own understanding of the Bible. That’s the result Montaigne feared. He believed that reason would lead people astray in a million different directions, and Montaigne thought it would be best if we all had faith in the same Papal authority.

We must not let everyone work out for himself what his duties are. Duty must be laid down for him, not chosen by him from his own reasoning; otherwise, out of the weakness and infinite variety of our reasons and opinions, we will… end up forging duties for ourselves which will have us eating each other.

I don’t really like Montaigne’s conclusion here, but I think we can learn a lot from Montaigne, especially in this age where the proliferation of information leads so many of us to cling hard to whatever certainties we can find. Montaigne gives us compelling reasons for humility and to doubt the dogmatism of others and ourselves. Reason is a great tool, but a tool it is. The universe is not obligated to give us answers just because we have burning questions. Reason might give us answers, but that feeling of certainty we have might well be our overestimation of our ability. Those just as convinced as us have been shown wrong, and in the face of such diversity of belief, why would we think we have a better shot than anyone else at achieving final truths?

As I said earlier, the irony is that while Montaigne wrote the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” in defense of the Catholic faith [with emphasis on ‘faith’], some at the time and since have speculated that maybe Montaigne wasn’t as confident in his faith as he let on. Some even suspect he might have been an atheist who introduced his arguments as a way to undermine faith as well as reason. Early in the book, he writes: “We accept our religion only as we would fashion it, only from our own hands.” He’s saying that we practice our religion less because it is the true one than that we find it congenial to practice it. Had we been born elsewhere or happened to find scripture incompatible with what we want to believe, we might have thought false the religion that today we think is true.

And if Montaigne is saying that human ability to know truth is so fallible, why trust Papal authority to be immune from that fallibility? Did Montaigne just not think about that, or did he purposefully leave out that part of the argument, waiting for us to make the connection? At any rate, while the “Apology” is ostensibly grounded in religion, the nonbeliever can get as much out of it as the believer. Properly understood, I think the book offers to all of us a renewed senses of awe at the bigness of the world and the humility that comes from pondering the small place we occupy in it. It’s like Montaigne is asking us: “In light of all that, are you are sure as you were before?”


3 responses to “What the [Bleep] Can we Know? Montaigne and the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.””

  1. henryharlow

    Thank you kindly for this post. I really liked your Pyrrho/Sextus video. I have already passed it on to others along with a link to the post. I totally agree with what you wrote.

  2. Terranbiped

    “Who ever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason”. Marten Luther

    Your Sextus link was far more logical, comprehensive and satisfyingly digestible. Many questions asked were considered and an answer attempted. Conversely, Montaigne was a house of mirrors that has one chasing one’s tail in circles of contradictions. He sends the mixed message of trust no one but read what I say anyway with a grain of salt. Laughably to what effect? An internal stalemate he chides the Pyrrhronians for?

    Of course absolute certainty has probably been the world of men’s greatest scourge. And what is more absolutely certain than religion with the eyes of its reason ripped out?

    KCK – Enjoyable as usual.

  3. “The universe is not obligated to give us answers just because we have burning questions.”

    I love that. I think people often feel they are entitled to the answers. If X is true then I should be able to prove it or have evidence of it. But that assumes reality is obligated to give us the evidence to answer those questions. And I don’t see why we would think that.

    “For Montaigne, God and the universe are way bigger than us. They didn’t have to write down their secrets somewhere for us to find. There doesn’t have to be a 1:1 fit between our ability to ask questions and the ability of the vast universe to supply answers that are small enough to fit in our human brains. To think differently is, for Montaigne, just hubris.”

    I think it is also naïve. Which makes for quite the combination.