Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 1

It’s time for the long-unawaited return of Monday Morning Montaigne!

You ask, “What is MMM?” It’s me, working my way through the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works (only the essays, which comprise 1,045 pages; I’m on page 450 right now). Every Monday, I’ll post about some aspect of one of the essays that I read in the previous week.

You ask, “Why Montaigne?” Because I’m a sucker for the personal essay and M. is the inventor of the form. Also, I never got around to reading him when I was a grad student at St. John’s College, and I feel bad about that.

You ask, “Why do I have to suffer?” If I had a readership of appreciable size, this would feel like the “Andy Kaufman reads F. Scott Fitzgerald” segment. Fortunately, no one reads this site, and you can always skip to the next post.

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This week’s post begins my rambles about Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond. In 1484, Sebond published Natural Theology. M. translated the book for his father, and wrote the Apology around 1575-1580 (his father died in 1568). I haven’t read Sebond, but Donald M. Frame, the translator of my edition of M., wrote that he “argued that man could learn all about God and religion by reading in the book of God’s work, the world.” M. disagreed with this idea, so rather than an apology/defense of Sebond’s views, he spends his time exploring the limits and faults of human reason. In particular he criticizes the primacy of knowledge.

As with the rest of his essays, M. does this with great erudition, as well as with citations from myriad sources throughout history. Employing a massive library of poetry doesn’t exactly undercut his argument against the limits of reason, but I think it creates a tension when his explanation that man is no better than an animal relies on passages from Plato, Lucretius, Tasso, Juvenal, Virgil, Dante, Homer, Tibullus, Martial, Horace and, of course, Ovid.

Just because it’s contradictory doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. M. takes on innumerable differences between man and beast and turns them on their heads, leaving man the poorer. “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” he asks, and we’re off and running. Honeybees, swallows, spiders, elephants, crabs, crocodiles, lions: over 30+ pages they all get to demonstrate aspects of human character that M.’s philosophical opponents would reserve for men alone. Even my greyhound gets in on the action:

That hare that a greyhound imagines in a dream, after which we seem him pant in his sleep, stretch out his tail, wriggle his legs, and reproduce perfectly the motions of running, is a hare without fur or bones.

M. even turns the idea of human beauty upside-down, contending that our need for clothes, makeup and the like show that humans are naturally uglier than animals. Ultimately, he shows that the wisdom that is supposed to separate us from animals is transient, that the great philosophers in history would gladly have traded it for health.

It all reminds me of a session on Aristotle’s Politics I attended during grad school. One of the students asked why we should take Aristotle seriously, since he was “anthrocentric.” The tutor (read: prof.) was puzzled by the student’s term. The student explained that A. was only exploring HUMAN relationships and society, but his view was incomplete because he wasn’t taking into account the societies of other animals. He added that we couldn’t learn too much from A. because he didn’t also write about dolphins and other primates. “What makes us so different from them?” he asked.

I held up my copy of the book and said, “Uh, THIS? Those animals may be pretty advanced, but as far as I know, they haven’t figured out how to write stuff down and pass it on to future generations. When they do, let me know; I’d love to read it.”

I have to admit that M.’s scorched-earth approach to man vs. beast — “[I]t is not by a true judgment, but by foolish pride and stubbornness, that we set ourselves before the other animals and sequester ourselves from their condition and society” — turned me off.

M. does seem to recognize that there’s a difference between man and animals, but it’s not our brains, our social structures, our dreams, or our use of clothes or artifice. Rather, it’s our belief — not faith, which is more involved and likely to lead us astray, from what I can make out of his argument — that sets us off, and I’m (presently) finding that a difficult pill to swallow.

Still, there are another 120 pages in the Apology, so let’s see where it leads. (The next segment is titled Man’s Knowledge Cannot Make Him Happy, so I don’t exactly have high hopes.)

6 Replies to “Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 1”

  1. I just got to page 400 and started searching the net and found your post. Thank goodness I’m not alone! I was going strong until I got to the Apology; makes me wish M. was an atheist! He could have saved himself (and us) all these twists and turns. Still… I’m too far along to quit now. So I’m right behind you (albeit by about two years). Lead on!

  2. Shortly after the sections you describe (on humans vs. animals and on the value of learning,) M. explains the skeptics’ method of arguing both sides of every question, in an attempt to make it impossible to render a judgment. I would argue that he is doing just that, though very subtly. He says “human reason can’t be trusted because is no greater than animal reason.” But then spends a huge chunk of the essay showing how very impressive animal reason truly is. Likewise, he says “education and the search for knowledge are not advisable.” But then he puts his excellent classical education on full display. You call the essay “contradictory”, but that is exactly what he wants. The skeptic seeks out contradiction.

    I have a forthcoming post on my blog about this very passage. I wonder if my St. John’s background shines through.

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