Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 2

Wow. This Apology for Raymond Sebond continues to flummox me. Last week, I wrote about the nature of the Apology and “covered” pages 387-435 of the Everyman’s translation of the essays. This week, I only managed to read another 50 pages, since I was busy with work and a much more entertaining book called When Genius Failed.

So this week’s Monday Morning Montaigne stays in the Apology, and covers the sections that translator Donald Frame calls Man’s knowledge cannot make him happy (435-446) and Man’s knowledge cannot make him good (446-449). I have about 20 pages left in Man has no knowledge (449-508), but it’s a rough slog. The bulk of that section consists of refutations of various schools of philosophy, particularly pre-christian ones, as a way of showing the futility of man’s pursuit of knowledge. With a tease like that, you’re sure to come back for more next Monday!

Man’s knowledge cannot make him happy:

[W]e have as our share inconstancy, irresolution, uncertainty, grief, superstition, worry over things to come, even after our life, ambition, avarice, jealousy, envy, unruly, frantic, and untamable appetites, war, falsehood, disloyalty, detraction, and curiosity. Indeed we have strangely overpaid for this fine reason that we glory in, and this capacity to judge and know, if we have bought it at the price of this infinite number of passions to which we are incessantly a prey.

See, instead of reason, M. contends that humility and obedience to God should be our highest values: “From obeying and yielding spring all other virtues, as from presumption all sin. . . . Do you want a man to be healthy, do you want him disciplined and firmly and securely poised? Wrap him in darkness, indleness, and dullness. We must become like animals in order to become wise, and be blinded in order to be guided.”

M. cavils a bit by letting us know that there’s a place for knowledge and some feeling — “he who would eradicate the knowledge of evil would at the same time extirpate the knowledge of pleasure, and in fine would annihilate man” — but he still contends that philosophy, reason, memory and the like are delusions. The good life, he says, seems to derive from ignorance-become-innocence. I’m just lost.

Man’s knowledge cannot make him good:

Christians have a particular knowledge of the extent to which curiosity is a natural and original evil in man. The urge to increase in wisdom and knowledge was the first downfall of the human race; it was the way by which man hurled himself into eternal damnation. Pride is his ruin and his corruption; it is pride that casts man aside from the common ways, that makes him embrace novelties and perfer to be the leader of an erring troop that has strayed into the path of perdition, perfer to be a teacher and tutor of error and falsehood, rather than to be a disciple in the school of truth, led and guided by another’s hand, on the straight and beaten path.

Got that? Curiosity is an evil. I’m finding it awfully difficult to reconcile these passages with the writer who so deftly explored his own character and aspects of man’s nature throughout the preceding essays. Further, wisdom — by which M. means the choice between good and evil — has no relation to God: “What has he to do with reason and intelligence, which we use to arrive at apparent things from things obscure, seeing that there is nothing obscure to God?” And since evil cannot touch God, then wisdom comes only from man, while faith is “a pure present of another’s liberality.”

More bothersome to me than M.’s message is his sheer stridency, an “Onward Christian soldiers” mode of writing. Perhaps he was writing in this style because of the nature of the piece and its publication — a long apologia, as opposed to his typical essays — but I find it utterly off-putting. I’ll struggle through the rest of the Apology, but I’m hoping he manages to regain some of his charm as he moves away from his all-encompassing topic.

Comments

2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Art,

    Re: “Curiosity is an evil.”
    I’m hoping M. is either being (a) sarcastic; showing the inconsistencies of ‘wise men,’ or (b) covering his behind; considering the times he was living in. If I’m not mistaken, people could get themselves burned at the stake or worse for publishing stuff about questioning religion or acting too much like a know-it-all. Still, one wonders with all the stuff to write about, why M. would bother messing with such a dangerous topic only to waffle about like he does.
    Well, “Onward Christian soldiers,” as I read past page 150.
    Thanks again for your posts to keep me company.

    • My take on this is that he is intentionally subverting his own argument by saying “the pursuit of knowledge is not good” and then flamboyantly showing off his excellent classical education.
      Right after this section, he describes the method of the skeptics and their willingness to argue either side of any question. I don’t think that he wants to be “right” or “wrong” about the pursuit of knowledge being more trouble than it is worth. Rather, he wants to show that there is no way to make that judgment rationally, so we should withhold judgment on the question altogether.

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