Monday, May 30, 2005

The Sebond Essay, Part Two

To continue with Montaigne's essay, "An Apology for Raymond Sebond," which I saw yesterday while browsing at the used book store can be bought all by itself. Raymond Sebond wrote his book Natural Theology in the late 1420s to early 1430s. It was a good Catholic book and read even by the Pope. In it Sebond argued that God gave Man two Books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. The Book of Nature was given at the time of creation where all created things were like letters of the alphabet and could be combined into words and sentences, teaching Man about God and himself. But then came The Fall and Man could no longer read the book correctly. Still, the book remains and it is common to all. The Book of Scripture is not common to all. To read Scripture a person must be a clerk at least. Scripture and Nature both teach the same lessons, however. But unlike the Book of Nature, Scripture can be falsified. This does not make one better than the other, they are both the same, but each is written in a different language. The only way to be able to read the Book of Nature is to be "enlightened by God and cleansed of original sin." Some truths in Nature can be glimpsed as evidenced by some of the great philosophers from antiquity, but without God it is only part of the truth and subject to misunderstanding. All this was fine with the Catholic censors. At that time the doctrine of "learned ignorance" was popular. Learned ignorance claims that human knowledge is nothing compared to the infinity of God. Such a person does not know or aspire to know anything beyond the "saving law of Christ." The problem with Sebond's book was his Prologue. In it he claimed that his book would give "illumination" to Christians of the knowledge of God and of themselves. Sebond insisted that the reader did not need formal education or any kind. It promised results in less than a month, results "without toil and without learning anything off by heart." But wait, there's more! Natural Theology would not only give you knowledge of God, but of morality too, making all who studied it "happy, humble, kind, obedient, loathing all vice and sin, loving all virtues, yet without puffing up with pride." You can see why the Church did not like the Prologue, it would put them out of business. But the laity loved it, especially smart upper class women who were not allowed to have a formal education. Eventually the Prologue, but not the book, was condemned and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Natural Theology continued to be published, just minus the Prologue. But along came Montaigne who translated the entire book, Prologue and all, into French and published it to great acclaim. The Prologue was still on the Index, how did Montaigne, a good Catholic, manage it? With a little translating finesse. The problem with the Prologue is that Sebond insisted that his book was "necessary", Montaigne changed it to "useful." Where Sebond claimed his work taught "every duty" Montaigne translated it as "nearly everything." Here's a little comparison. Sebond wrote:

In addition this science teaches everyone really to know, without difficulty or toil, every truth necessary to Man concerning both Man and God; and all things which are necessary to Man for his salvation, for making him perfect and for bringing him through to life eternal. And by this science a man learns, without difficulty and in reality, whatever is contained in Holy Scripture.
Here's how Montaigne translated it:
In addition this science teaches everyone to see clearly, without difficulty or toil, truth insofar as it is possible for natural reason, concerning knowledge of God and of himself and of what he has need of for his salvation and to reach life eternal; it affords him access to understanding what is prescribed and commanded in Holy Scripture.
Tricky Montaigne. Where Sebond's original Prologue could be read to mean that his methods were equal to Scripture--heresy--Montaigne worked it over to present it as a means to access truths in the Scriptures. Big difference. Why Montaigne didn't leave off the Prologue entirely and just translate the book I don't know. Perhaps he thought the Prologue, even craftily revised, too important. Whatever the case, Montaigne's translation was acceptable to the Church and generally well received. So why then did he have to write his essay, "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"? Keep in mind that in this case "apology" means "defense." At last we get to it. But here I will leave you in suspense. Stay tuned... Note: This historical and analytical information is gleaned from the introduction to The Complete Essays translated by M.A. Screech