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Raymond Sebond's Natural Theology

So, who is Raymond Sebond, and why does he need an Apology? If you are not familiar with the classical use of the word "apology" as in Plato's dialogue of that name, an apology is a defense. Raymond Sebond was a Spanish theologian (possibly a Catalan) who wrote a book called Natural Theology or The Book of Creatures, written in the 1420s or 30s. The book, written in scholastic Latin, aims to firmly establish one in the Catholic faith, free of wavering and doubt. M.A. Screech, describing the book writes;

Sebond firmly bases his method on 'illumination.' He does not claim that human reason by itself can establish Christian truths. Quite the reverse. Without 'illumination' reason can understand nothing fundamental about the universe. But, duly illuminated, man can come to know himself, and his Creator as well as his religious and moral duties, which he will then love to fulfill. It is a method of freeing Man from doubts; it reveals the errors of pagan antiquity and its unenlightened philosophers; it teaches Catholic truth and shows up sects as errors and lies. It does all these things by teaching the Christian the 'alphabet' which must be acquired if one is to read Nature aright. (Introduction to An Apology for Raymond Sebond, M.A. Screech, trans, Penguin Books, 1987. Pg. xv)
Screech goes on to explain that in Sebond's view, God gave two books to man -- one the book of creatures or Nature, the other the Bible. In the book of Nature -- given to man at the creation, all created things are like letters of the alphabet; they can be combined into words and sentences which teach lessons about man and God (hence the title of the book Natural Theology or the Book of Creatures). In fact, both the Bible and the book of Nature teach the same lessons. At the Fall, man lost the ability to read the book of Nature. Now, he can only read the book of Nature, if he is enlightened by God and cleansed of original sin. This is why the ancient philosophers could not read the book of Nature.

Pierre Bunel, a Christian humanist from Tolouse, had visited the Chateau Montaigne sometime between 1538 and 1546 and recommended Sebond's book to Montaigne's father as an antidote against Protestantism. Montaigne's father suggested to Michel that h e translate Sebond's Natural Theology. His father died in 1568 and in 1569 Michel de Montainge published his translation of Raymond Sebond's Theologia Naturals. He wrote the Apology for Raymond Sebond in 1576 and it was published as the long twelfth chapter of the second part of the Essays in 1580.

The Apology for Raymond Sebond

Why did Montaigne write a defense of the Natural Theology and given that Sebond's book aimed to remove man's doubts, what role could skepticism play in such a defense? In Montaigne's hands, Sebond's method shows enlightened Christians that revealed truths and the book of Nature properly read say the same things. The Apology is divided into two sections which correspond to two assertions of Sebond. The first is that man, when properly enlightened can read the book of Nature correctly. The second is that without God's grace, man can never read the book of Nature correctly. Sebond had been criticized on the grounds that "...Christians do themselves wrong in wishing to support their belief with human reason; belief is grasped only by faith and by private inspiration from God's grace." (quoted in Screech trans, An Apology for Raymond Sebond Pg. xvi). Montaigne dismisses this view rather quickly. Once one has Faith, it is reasonable to draw on ones other faculties to support it. The second, and much longer section of the Apology is aimed to counter the charge that Sebond's arguments that unaided human reason cannot read the book of Nature are weak. It is here that Montaigne deploys his arsenal of skeptical arguments to show that unaided human reason (not to mention the senses) cannot give us knowledge. If we were to look at a complete translation of the Apology for Raymond Sebond, we would find that all of the reading we are going to do comes near the end of the second and largest part of that work.

(1) Text Map: The complete Apology for Raymond Sebond
Part I of the Apology from Pg. 1 through Pg 10 of the Screech translation
Part II of the Apology from Pg.11 to Pg. 190
Our selection corresponds to Pp. 140-152 of the Screech translation

We can now turn to our text to look at the nature of skeptical reasoning, and the particular kinds of skeptical arguments which Michel de Montaigne deploys. If we consider the eight pages we are studying, Montaigne passes over a variety of topics. It is possible to cut these up in a variety of ways. In what follows I have mapped them to suit my goals to teach you various things about skepticism and Renaissance skepticism.

(2) Text Map of
the 8 pages of our reading
PART I: Foundations and First principles
Pg. 74 First two paragraphs
PART II: That reality is determinate while human opinion is various and inconstant
Pp. 74 to 81
This section in turn has a series of parts

Part I: Foundations and First Principles

On the first page we are reading, Montaigne introduces an analogy which compares building up a system of knowledge from first principles to building up a house or other building from a foundation. In this analogy, the bulk of the system depends on the first principles in the way in which the bulk of a building rests on its foundations. Once you have first principles, "...the rest of the parts are easily done, without contradictions. By this path we find our reason well founded, and we argue with great ease."

Read the claims in the next box from the bottom. The ones above depend on the ones below like the stories of a house.
  • Knowledge claims about causal interactions
    "The dagger caused the cut in the upholstery."
  • Knowledge claims about physical objects.
    "I see a dagger in front of me."
  • Knowledge claims about perceptions.
    "I seem to see a dagger in front of me."

This metaphor is one which Descartes adopts and it becomes a program in philosophy for the next three hundred years -- to put knowledge on solid foundations. This effort to base all knowledge in things which we intuitively or self-evidently know for certain is called foundationalism. (It is really only in the twentieth century that philosophers have begun to offer alternatives for acquiring knowledge without needing to have secure foundations.) Note that Montainge rejects this foundationalist approach. He claims that:
If you happen to crash this barrier in which lies the principal error, immediately they have this maxim in their mouth, that there is no arguing against people who deny first principles.
The first part of this sentence is a little ambiguous -- that is open to more than one meaning or more than one interpretation. One might think, for example, that the principal error lies in crashing the barrier -- one should stay within the limits imposed by first principles. This, however, does not seem to be what Montainge has in mind. A more likely interpretation is that the barrier imposed by having first principles is the mistake. Thus it becomes important to crash that barrier, in order to overcome this "principal error." Given Montaigne's skeptical stance, this is far more likely reading. This interpretation is confirmed at least to some degree by the next sentence which suggests that those who use first principles have a defense against those who try to crash the barrier, which is to claim that there is no way to argue with such folks.

The next paragraph suggests that one can only have first principles if the Divinity reveals them -- and without such revelation, the whole structure of knowledge, from so called first principles through the middle to the last inference deduced, is all "dreams and smoke." (This rejection of foundations had a big impact on some later French philosophers, like Blaise Pascal, who held that first principles were assumed but not known.)

Montaigne then goes on to suggest that every proposition has as much "weight" as any other, unless reason says otherwise. Here Montainge introduces another metaphor which is characteristic of skeptics, though certainly not confined to them. He suggests that reason is like a scale and that we are going to weight one proposition against another. The metaphor here suggests that if there is more evidence for the truth of one proposition than a competing one (competing propositions are ones which cannot both be true), it is like there being more weight in a balance scale on one side rather than the other.
Evenly balanced evidence requires
suspense of judgement
If the scale goes down one way we hold that the proposition is true, if it goes down the other we hold that it is false, and if the scales are equally balanced, we suspend judgment. Suspending judgement means that we cannot determine whether the proposition is true or false. It also means that we do not know which determinate state reality is in in this respect. So, the suspense of judgement is the goal which skeptics aim to produce. The ancient skeptics believed that the suspense of judgement stilled worries and put one in a quite desireable psychological state. Still, this idea of weighing evidence and argument is a perfectly reasonable way of thinking about which propositions one should accept as true or reject as false whether one is a skeptic or not.

Montaigne seems to believe that by proceeding in this way, particularly in regard to first principles, we will come to see that certainty "is a certain token of folly and extreme uncertainty." It is somewhat of an irony that Montaigne goes on to deploy what one might call "the first principle of skeptical reasoning." It is well to try to get clear about this, for we shall encounter it again. We now turn to the second and main part of the reading.

(3) Text Map of Part II
of the 8 pages of our Reading


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