Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Sebond Essay, Conclusion

(Part One, Part Two) Finally, I get to the actual essay by Montaigne "An Apology for Raymond Sebond." In this case "apology" means "defense." With Montaigne's great finessing skills, why after he published his translation of Sebond's book did he feel compelled to defend it especially since it was fairly well received? There were several reasons. Among those reasons was the Reformation. Montaigne had fought against the upstart Protestants in the French "Wars of Religion" and things were still unsettled. Montaigne believed that the Catholic Church was the One True Religion. Sebond's Natural Theology showed that through God's illumination Man could read the universal Book of Nature thereby proving that all of Nature conformed to Catholic truth. In the "Apology" Montaigne works to prove that Sebond is right and the Protestants wrong. A more personal reason had to do with Montaigne's Essays. Montaigne maintains throughout his Essays that the reason for them is so that he may know himself and through knowing himself know Man, a sort of particular as universal philosophy. Sebond teaches that the job of each man is to know himself and God. Knowing oneself is a complement to knowing God. This falls in quite nicely with Plutarch, one of Montaigne's heroes. Plutarch wrote about the impermanence of Man and the eternity of God. Plutarch believed that if each transient "I" can know itself, then it can know Man through itself and as a result recognize God who is permanent and unchanging and outside of Time. If Plutarch and Sebond are wrong, then Montaigne's entire essay endeavor is nothing but an exercise in navel gazing. So Montaigne had a lot at stake. No wonder then that the essay is so long. In the essay Montaigne defends two of the most basic and important assertions of Sebond: when enlightened Man can once again read the Book of Nature correctly but unenlightened Man can never be sure if he has read the Book correctly and so can never truly know God and therefore will never receive eternal life. Montaigne begins by addressing Sebond's charge that "Christians do themselves wrong by wishing to support their belief with human reasons; belief is grasped only by faith and by private inspiration from God's grace." Montainge acknowledges that this sounds like "pious zeal" but that it is not. Montaigne counters "so far surpassing Man's intellect as is that Truth by which it has pleased God in his goodness to enlighten us, we can only grasp that Truth and lodge it within us if God favours us with the privilege of further help beyond the natural order." In other words, reason is necessary for Truth but the whole Truth is not possible without God's help, faith need not be blind. Montainge then goes on to give examples of faith without Reason ("It is evident to me that we only willingly carry out those religious duties which flatter our passions. Christians excel at hating enemies") and Reason without faith ("We have seen plenty of people who are egged on by vanity and pride to conceive lofty opinions for setting the world to rights; to put themselves in countenance they affect to profess atheism....Give them a good thrust through the breast with your sword and they never fail to raise clasped hands to heaven"). Within a few pages Montaigne moves on to the second of Sebond's assertions, that without God's illumination Man cannot correctly read the Book of Nature. Most of the "Apology" is spent defending this assertion. First Montaigne begins by chastising Man for his vanity and presumptuousness:

"Man claims the privilege of being unique in that, within this created frame, he alone is able to recognize its structure and its beauty; he alone is able to render thanks to its Architect or to tot up the profit or loss of the world...But who impressed his seal on such privilege? If Man has been given so great and fair a commission, let him produce documents saying so.
He calls Man a "the most blighted and frail of all creatures." Asks if we rely on the movements of the heavens for signs of our fate, how can we call ourselves equal to heaven? And asks if we cannot understand ourselves, how is it we claim to know about the inward motivations of other "animate creatures?" From here Montaigne compares Man with animals and Man doesn't come out looking very good:
We are perfectly able to realize how superior they [animals] are to us in most of their works and how weak our artistic skills are when it comes to imitating them. Our works are coarser, and yet we are aware of the faculties we use to construct them: our souls use all their powers when doing so. Why do we not consider that the same applies to animals? Why do we attribute to some sort of slavish natural inclination works that surpass all that we can do by nature or by art?
I've said it before and I'll say it again, if Montaigne were alive today he'd probably be working for Greenpeace of EarthFirst! or the very least, PETA. His argument is radical even by today's standard's, imagine what it must have been like during his time when Man wasn't even considered part of the natural world and the animals were created by God for our benefit and use. After Montaigne finishes flogging Man into submission to the animals, proving that they are superior in nearly every way, he turns to the philosophers, the paragons of Reason. He uses the likes of Cicero, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others to prove the futileness of philosophy, to prove that on it's own, philosophy gets us nowhere since the only thing it can do is give us permission to kill ourselves when pain and Fortune make our lives unbearable. And in this death we are offered nothing but nonbeing. But even if we move past that and look at the point of philosophy which is to "seek true, certain knowledge" we discover that though all claim to have found Truth, none agree on what Truth is. For you've got the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Pyrrhonians and a whole slew of others each with their own finely reasoned arguments. To add insult to injury, most of the philosophers are hard to understand. Montaigne asserts that "Difficulty is a coin which the learned conjure with, so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies and which human stupidity is keen to accept in payment." Not all philosophers are bad, some have actually managed to see a piece of the Truth, but not having God's illumination, they have made the mistake of assuming they have found Truth in its entirety, "The tiny bit that we know is nothing compared with ALL." But like the blind men, each touching a part of an elephant and none of them understanding the whole elephant but yet declaring that they have the Truth of it, Man has done the same. With our little piece of Truth we have managed to create for ourselves a fine mess, raising our status as we limit the power of God, "In short, both constructively and destructively, we forge for ourselves the attributes of God, taking ourselves as the correlative." But Man is full of imperfection and "our minds are dangerous tools, rash and prone to go astray." The power of our judgment is not certain, one man's judgment differs from another's and our ideas change constantly. It is only "such things as come to us from Heaven have the right and authority to carry conviction; they alone bear the mark of Truth; but even they cannot be seen with our human eyes, nor do we obtain them by our own means." If something is True, than it must be True everywhere and for everyone. The Truth is impossible for Man to obtain on his own. Man can only rely on his imperfect reason, his imperfect senses and his brief moment in Time. Man may not "mount above himself or above humanity....He will rise if God proffers him - extraordinarily - His hand; he will rise by abandoning and disavowing his own means, letting himself be raised and pulled up by purely heavenly ones." Montaigne makes his arguments carefully and precisely, anyone would be hard pressed to knock a hole in them. Whether or not you believe in God and God's grace, it is a thought-provoking essay, reminding the reader that humans are not gods, and even though we have come a long way since Montaigne's time in our science and technology and thought, what we think true today will most certainly be considered quaint and backward in the future. Next week's Montaigne essay (yes, finally back to the shorter regular essays): "On Judging Someone Else's Death"