Waggish

Montaigne: Apology for Raymond Sebond

For a reputedly humanistic and temperate philosophy, the Apology [sic] for Raymond Sebond comes off as one of the most intemperate of Montaigne’s essays. He works himself into a frenzy of attack against all claims and pretenses of human reason, proclaiming their impotence against the works of God and fate. He quotes the Roman astrologer Manilius in tandem with Lucretius to emphasize the hopeless fatalism that is driving him. His contempt from constructive philosophy from Plato to Aristotle to his time builds, until he is even attacking the Pyrrhonists for the hubris of their claim to not knowing anything:

Ignorance that knows itself, that judges itself and condemns itself, is not complete ignorance: to be that, it must be ignorant of itself. So the profession of the Pyrrhonians is to waver, doubt, and inquire, to be sure of nothing, to answer for nothing. Of the three functions of the soul, the imaginative, the appetitive, and the consenting, they accept the first two; the last they suspend and keep it ambiguous, without inclination or approbation, however slight, in one direction or the other.

The Pyrrhonians have kept themselves a wonderful advantage in combat, having rid themselves of the need to cover up. It does not matter to them that they are struck, provided they strike; and they do their work with everything. If they win, your proposition is lame; if you win, theirs is. If they lose, they confirm ignorance; if you lose, you confirm it. If they prove that nothing is known, well and good; if they do not know how to prove it, just as good. So that, since equal reasons are found on both sides of the same subject, it may be the easier to suspend judgment on each side [Cicero].

Pyrrho did not want to make himself a stump or a stone; he wanted to make himself a living, thinking, reasoning man, enjoying all natural pleasures and comforts, employing and using all his bodily and spiritual faculties in regular and upright fashion. The fantastic, imaginary, false privileges that man has arrogated to himself, of regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth, he honestly renounced and gave up.

(tr. Frame)

Perhaps Montaigne here is susceptible to Hans Blumenberg’s attack on stoics and Epicureans: of abandoning one’s ambitions and will in favor of what minimal pleasure may be grasped from the life at hand. But Montaigne is never consistent nor focused in his views, and the frustration that drives this essay appears as directed at the stoics as at anyone else. As much as it derides the Christian apologists for saying that God will take care of it all, the Pyrrhonists fall under attack for making their practice into a dogma as well. And so at the end, as Blumenberg might have predicted, Montaigne falls into something of an otherworldly Gnosticism, denying our knowledge of God and insisting that faith alone may allow us to escape this awful and uncontrollable world. Hence, again, why he finds so much use in Manilius’s fatalistic astrological texts: to conclusively say that we are not in control of our lives.

The fatalism is the more disappointing aspect of the essay, which elsewhere delves into enough cosmology to make it Montaigne’s Timaeus. I don’t see much orthodox skepticism in it, even if Montaigne was dwelling on the subject. There is too much reference to convenient beliefs, the need for happiness, pleasure, and suffering for Montaigne to attach himself to classical skepticism alone. Nor does he particularly play one belief off against another; each one comes in for attack individually using assaultive common-sense “evidence,” much as Schopenhauer would do centuries later in trying to convince people that the world was truly unbearable.

Instead, I find the constructive aspect of the essay to be the super-Pyrrhonic method that Montaigne employs, jumping around from topic to topic and never finding any satisfaction. Although this method draws Montaigne to assorted conclusions as to humanity’s powerlessness, uselessness, and unhappiness, these are all fallacies on his part, stemming from his self-professed lassitude as a thinker. It is the dissatisfaction that emerges as the constructive attitude, not the purported skepticism or fatalism. It is an emotional and personal method.

One Comment

  1. Joe Miller
    28 July 2011

    How did you feel about his stringent criticisms of anthropocentrism? They took me completely by surprise, considering that none of the commentators I was familiar with at the time ever mentioned that aspect of his thought. I was so thrilled by that discovery that I gave a lecture on Montaigne based on that topic alone.

    The essay also contains one of my favorite passages: “Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty, provincial way of thinking and judging”.

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