Excerpts from the Essay "In Defense of Raymond Sebond" (1576)

by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Translated and Annotated by Arthur H. Beattie

Chapter I: God and Creation

[Summary ó In the opening section of the essay, here given in its entirety, Montaigne explains how Raymond Sebondís work on the truths of the Christian religion, as proved by the marvels of creation and the nature of man, came into his fatherís hands. Montaigne notes that some Christians believe it impious to utilize appeals to reason to bolster belief in truths which must be accepted on faith. In the course of his argument that manís rational faculties may properly be used in support of religious faith, Montaigne assails the shallowness of the belief of Christians of his day. He points out the opportunistic nature of the teachings of both Catholic and Protestant parties in the bitter civil wars being fought in France, and deplores the absence of true Christianity which would be revealed through the gentle, noble, and virtuous lives of those who profess it. The denial of divine control of the universe is an unnatural attitude, and the atheist himself, faced with the imminence of death, tends to turn to superstition. Creation bears the marks of Godís greatness. Sebondís arguments based on the revelation of Godís nature and his power are more forceful than any his opponents have been able to muster.]

Sebondís book and Montaigneís translation of it.

Knowledge is, in truth, a very useful and important accomplishment. Those who disdain it reveal clearly enough their stupidity; but I do not, however, set its worth at the extremely high value which some attribute to it, like Herillus the philosopher who believed that in it resided the sovereign good, and who considered that knowledge could make us wise and happy. I believe neither this, nor what others have said ó that learning is the mother of all virtue, and that all vice is the product of ignorance. If that is true, it is subject to a long interpretation.

My home has long been open to scholarly men and is well known to them, for my father, who presided over it for fifty years and more, fired by that new zeal with which King Francis I embraced letters and gave them prestige, sought with great care and expense the acquaintance of learned men, receiving them in his home as holy persons whom God had selected to inspire with wisdom, noting their maxims and their sayings as oracles, and this with a reverence and devotion all the greater because he had little authority to judge them, for he had no acquaintance with letters any more than his predecessors had. As for myself, I am fond of them, but I do not worship them.

Among such visitors was Pierre Bunel, a man of great reputation for learning in his time. Having stayed a few days at Montaigne as my fatherís guest, with other men of his sort, he presented him, on leaving, a book entitled Natural Theology, or the Book of Creatures, by Master Raymond Sebond. And because the Italian and Spanish languages were familiar to my father, and because this book is written in a sort of jargon of Spanish with Latin endings, he hoped that with very little help my father might find it of value, and he recommended it to him as a very useful book, especially fitting for the particular time at which he gave it to him. It was the moment when the new ideas of Luther were beginning to gain a following and to shake in many places our long-established belief. In his fear of the consequences of Lutheranism, Pierre Bunel was most clear-sighted, foreseeing well, by logical deduction, that this beginning of illness would readily decline into an execrable atheism; for the masses, not having the faculty of judging things in themselves, and swayed by chance and mere appearances, once they have been allowed the boldness to disdain and to examine opinions which they had earlier held in extreme reverence such as those which pertain to salvation, and once certain tenets of their religion have been weighed and put in doubt, immediately afterwards are prone to cast into a similar uncertainty all the other elements of their belief which had had for them no more authority or no better foundation than those which had been overthrown. They then shake off, like a tyrannical yoke, all the impressions which they had received through the authority of laws or respect for established custom,

For eagerly one tramples underfoot
What he had too much dreaded previously,

[Lucretius V, 1139]

undertaking henceforth to accept nothing to which they have not given, after examination, a special consent.

Now a few days before his death my father, having by chance come across this book under a pile of other abandoned papers, instructed me to put it into French for him. It is good to translate authors like this one, where there is little but the matter to present; but those who have been much concerned with the grace and elegance of their language are dangerous to undertake, especially when one seeks to translate them into a weaker idiom. That was a quite strange and new occupation for me; but being by chance at leisure at that moment, and not being able to refuse anything requested by the best father who ever was, I accomplished the task as best I could. This gave my father a special pleasure, and he left instructions that it be printed. This request was Ďcarried out after his death.

I admired this authorís imagination for the beauties it created, the structure of his work for its logic and order, and his purpose for its piety. Because many people find pleasure in reading it, and especially ladies to whom we must seek more particularly to be helpful, I have often found myself in a position to assist them in freeing their book from two principal objections which are made against it. Its purpose is bold and courageous, for it undertakes by human and natural arguments to bolster and defend against atheists all the articles of the Christian religion. In accomplishing this end, I find it so firm and so successful that I do not believe it is possible to do better in that argument, and I am of the opinion that none has equaled it. This work seeming to me too rich and beautiful for an author whose name is so unfamiliar, and concerning whom all we know is that he was a Spaniard practicing medicine in Toulouse about two hundred years ago, I once inquired of Adrianus Turnebus, who knew everything, what this book might be; he gave it as his opinion that it was drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas and represented the quintessence of a writing of his, for really, he said, the mind of St. Thomas, full of an infinite erudition and admirable subtlety, was alone capable of such inventions. All in all, whoever the author may be (and there is no reason for taking from Sebond that honor without further evidence) he was a very capable man gifted with many fine talents.

Reason may bolster religious truths accepted by faith.

The first criticism that is made of his work is that Christians are wrong to seek to base on human reasoning their belief which is conceived only through faith and by a special inspiration of divine grace. In this objection it seems that there is some zeal of piety, and for this reason we must with all the more gentleness and respect try to satisfy those who propose it. The task would better become a man versed in theology than me who am ignorant of it.

However, it is my opinion that in a matter so divine and lofty, so far exceeding human intelligence as is this truth concerning which it has pleased God to enlighten us, it is indeed necessary that he lend us still his aid, by an extraordinary and privileged favor, so that we may be able to conceive that truth and accept it within us. I do not believe that purely human means are at all capable of this; and if they were, so many rare and excellent souls, and so abundantly endowed with natural gifts, would not have failed in the centuries of antiquity to attain that knowledge. It is faith alone which embraces wholeheartedly and surely the high mysteries of our religion. But that does not mean that it is not a very fine and praiseworthy enterprise to utilize also in the service of our faith the natural and human instruments which God has given to us. One must not doubt that it is the most honorable use that we can make of them, and there is no undertaking or purpose more worthy of a Christian man than to aim by all his studies and thoughts to embellish, extend, and magnify the truth of his belief. We are not limited to serving God in spirit and soul; we owe him also, and we render to him, a bodily reverence; we employ our very limbs, and our movements, and external objects in honoring him. Similarly we must accompany our faith with all the reason that is in us, but always with this reservation that we do not consider that our faith depends upon our reason, nor that our efforts and reasonings can reach a supernatural and divine knowledge.

If that faith does not enter our being by an extraordinary infusion, if it enters it not merely by reasoning, but even by any human means, it is not there in its dignity and its splendor. And certainly I fear, however, that we possess faith only through such channels. If we were linked to God through the bond of a living faith, if we were linked to God in his way, not in our own, if we had a divine footing and foundation, human events would not have the power to upset us as they do; our citadel would not be inclined to surrender to such a weak battery; the love of new things, the authority of princes, the good fortune of a faction, the rash and fortuitous change of our opinions, would not have the power to shake and alter our belief; we should not let it be disturbed by some new argument, not even by the persuasion of all the rhetoric which ever was; we should endure those waves with an inflexible and unmoved firmness . . .

CHAPTER II: Man and the Lower Animals

[Summary -- In an effort to attack the validity of the arguments used against Sebond by freethinking critics, sure of the capacity of their reason to deal with all subjects, Montaigne seeks to show that manís pride in his exalted position among the creatures of the universe is but a vain presumption. He presents man as a petty being lost in the infinity of creation. To demonstrate the falsity of human claims to superiority over other creatures, he compares at great length man to the lower animals. Montaigneís aim is to demonstrate that man, for all his proud claims, is one with the other animals, of a status neither more abject nor more exalted than theirs. Put thus in his proper place, man can no longer boast of a privileged rank nor exult in the powers of his reason as a unique gift which permits him to understand all things.]

Manís reason is a puny instrument.

Without realizing it, I have already touched somewhat on the second objection against Sebond to which I had intended to reply.

Some say that his arguments are weak, and unfitted to verify what he sets out to prove, and they undertake to upset them readily. One must strike at these critics a little more roughly, for they are more dangerous and more malicious than the first. One readily bends the meaning of the writings of others in the direction of the opinions which he has preformed within himself; and an atheist is confident that he can interpret all authors in an atheistic way, infecting innocent matter with his own venom. Such persons have certain prejudices which destroy their appreciation of Sebondís arguments. Moreover, it seems to them that they have been given a free rein by being set free to combat our religion with purely human weapons, our religion which they would not dare attack in its full majesty of authority and command. The approach I use to reduce this mad zeal, and which seems to me the most fitting, is to crush and trample under foot pride and human presumption; to make them feel the emptiness, the vanity, and the nothingness of man; to snatch from their hands the puny weapons of their reason; to make them bow their heads and bite the dust before the authority and reverence of divine majesty. To it alone belong knowledge and wisdom; it alone can enjoy self-esteem, and from it we borrow whatever we value and prize in ourselves. ďFor the god allows none but himself to have lofty thoughts.Ē [Herodotus VII, 10]

Let us destroy this presumption, the first foundation of the tyranny of the evil spirit, ďFor God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.Ē [I Peter V, 5] Intelligence is in all the gods, says Plato, and in very few men.

Now it is nonetheless great consolation to the Christian to see our mortal and perishable instruments so properly matched with our holy and divine faith that when he uses them upon matters of a mortal and perishable nature also, they prove no more uniformly or effectively appropriate. Let us see, then, whether man has in his power other arguments stronger than Sebondís, or whether, indeed, he can arrive at any certitude by argument and reasoning. . . .

Chapter III: The Futility of Learning

[Summary -- Continuing his reply to the critics of Raymond Sebond by endeavoring to demonstrate the utter uselessness of all rational arguments, Montaigne asserts that the learning which the scholar painfully acquires is an empty and futile thing. It adds nothing to his health, his happiness, his well-being. Ignorance, indeed, is more effective than philosophy in helping us attain the end of tranquility and peace of mind. Madness, he declares, is akin to the agitations of the keenest intellect. True wisdom doubtless lies, as Socrates taught, in the recognition of one's ignorance. Montaigne presents at length and defends the attitude of the Skeptic who regards all things but suspends his judgment. He then presents the infinite contradictions of philosophic doctrines, and raises the question of the good faith of philosophers. Have they been less concerned with the truth than with displaying the fertile brilliance of their imagination? Among the gross blunders in the works of even the most noted philosophers, every conceivable fancy and fantasy is to be found. Truth is not attained by the vain efforts of the reason. It is a gift of God, through grace. In conclusion, Montaigne warns that while indeed the critic of Raymond Sebond may be defeated by such a demonstration of the inadequacy of the reason and the futility of learning, this weapon must be reserved cautiously for use as a last resort, for it involves abandoning your own weapons to make your opponent lose his. Under all usual circumstances, in argumentation as in living, be moderate and avoid extremes.]

Our reason cannot know God nor understand creation.

And, if one did not view the matter thus, how should we explain such a great inconstancy, variety, and vanity of opinions as we see that these excellent and admirable minds have produced? For, to take one example, what is more vain that to seek to imagine God according to our analogies and conjectures, to subject him and the universe to rules of human measure and to our laws, and to use at the expense of the divinity this little fragment of reason which it has pleased him to bestow upon our nature? And, because we cannot extend our range of vision as far as his glorious abode, to have brought him down to our corruption and our miseries?

Of all the opinions of men of antiquity concerning religion, that one seems to me to have had the highest degree of probability and the best justification which recognized God as an incomprehensible power, source and preserver of all things, all goodness, all perfection, receiving and accepting the honor and reverence which human beings rendered him, no matter in what guise, name, and manner:

Almighty Jupiter, father and mother
Of all creation, of kings and gods themselves. . . .

[Valerius Soranus (quoted by St. Augustine, City of God VII, xi]

Pythagoras vaguely suggested the truth more closely, judging that the knowledge of this first cause and being of beings must be indefinite, without definition, without description; that it was nothing other than the extreme effort of our imagination toward perfection, each amplifying the idea according to his capacity. But if Numa undertook to make the worship of his people conform to this conception, to make it part of a purely intellectual religion, addressed to a vague, unknowable deity and without any material admixture, he was undertaking a useless thing; the human mind cannot remain floating in that vague infinity of shapeless thoughts; it must bring them together into a definite image made according to its own likeness. Divine majesty has thus let itself for us be somewhat circumscribed within corporal limits; its supernatural and celestial sacraments bear marks of our terrestrial condition; its worship is expressed through rites and words which appeal to the senses; for it is man who believes and who prays. I leave aside the other arguments which are used on this subject. But one can scarcely make me believe that the sight of our crucifixes and the depiction of that sorrowful torment, that the ceremonial ornaments and movements of our worship, that the voices matching the devotion of our thought, and that all this appeal to the senses, do not warm the soul of the populace with a religious passion of very useful effect....

It has always seemed to me that for a Christian it is highly improper and irreverent to speak as follows: God cannot die; God cannot contradict himself; God cannot do this or that. I do not think it is fitting to restrict thus the divine power beneath the laws of our speech. And we should present more reverently and more religiously the concept which these propositions offer us.

Our speech has its weaknesses and its faults, as all the rest. Most of the sources of the disorders in the world are grammatical. Our lawsuits are born only out of the debate concerning the interpretation of the laws; and most wars, out of the inability involved in not knowing how to express clearly the conventions and treaties of agreement of princes. How many quarrels, and what important ones, have been produced in the world by doubt concerning the meaning of this syllable: hoc! . . . I see the Pyrrhonian philosophers who cannot express their general conception in any manner of speaking, for they would need a new language. Ours is all formed of affirmative propositions, to which they are completely opposed. As a consequence, when they say: "I doubt," people immediately seize them by the throat to make them confess that at least they affirm and know that much, that they doubt. . . .

That notion is more adequately expressed in the form of a question: "What do I know?", as I bear it as a motto along with the image of a balance. . . .

When we say that the infinite number of centuries, both past and future, are to God only an instant; that his goodness, wisdom, power are one with his essence, our words declare it, but our intelligence does not understand it. And yet our presumption wishes to sift the divine through our sieve. And from that are born all the fanciful ideas and errors which this world has seized upon, bringing to its balance and weighing therein something so remote from its measure. "It is a marvel how far the arrogance of the human heart goes, encouraged by the slightest success." [Pliny, II, 23]

May it please nature one day to open her bosom and to reveal to us as they are the means and operation of its movements, and to prepare our eyes for that revelation! O God! What errors, what misconceptions we should find in our poor science! I am mistaken if science has grasped a single thing correctly; and I shall leave here ignorant of everything except my ignorance.

The teachings of Philosophy are mere Poetic speculations.

Have I not read in Plato this divine remark, that nature is nothing but an enigmatic poem? As perhaps one might say a veiled and obscure painting, gleaming with an infinite variety of reflections to invite our conjectures. "All those things are enveloped and hidden in thick darkness, and there is nothing in the human mind sharp enough to penetrate to heaven and to probe into the depths of the earth." [Cicero, Academica II, 39]

And certainly philosophy is only a sophisticated poetry. Where do those ancient authors draw all their authorities if not from poets? And the first philosophers were poets themselves and treated philosophy in their art. Plato is only a poet writing in a loose, disconnected style. Timon calls him, as an insult, a great forger of miracles.

Just as women use ivory teeth to replace their own that are missing and, instead of their real complexion, make a false one of foreign matter; as they pad their thighs with cloth and felt, and their busts with cotton, and obviously and to everyoneís knowledge embellish themselves with a false and borrowed beauty, so too does science (and even our jurisprudence has, they say, legal fictions upon which it founds the truth of its justice).

Our science offers us as an explanation, and as underlying principles of the universe, things that she herself informs us were the product of human imagination. Those epicycles, eccentrics, and concentrics which astrology uses to explain the movement of its stars, it gives them to us as the best it has been able to invent on this subject. Similarly, moreover, philosophy presents to us not what is, or what it believes, but the most pleasant and imposing of its inventions. Plato, speaking of his discussion of the state of our body and that of beasts, declares : "That what we have said is true, we should affirm it if we had on that point the confirmation of an oracle; we can only declare that it has the greatest appearance of truth of what we could say." . .

I am grateful to the woman of Miletus who, seeing the philosopher Thales occupy himself continually in contemplation of the celestial vault and always keep his eyes turned heavenward, placed something in his way to make him stumble, in order to warn him that it would be time to amuse his thought with things that were in the clouds when he had taken care of those which were at his feet. She surely gave him good advice in advising him to look to himself rather than to heaven. For, as Cicero has Democritus say,

What lies before his feet, no man regards;
His eyes explore the vaulted arch of heaven.

[Cicero, De divinatione II, 13]

But our condition makes the knowledge of what we have within our hands as remote from us, and as far above the clouds, as knowledge of the stars. As Socrates says in Plato, to whoever dabbles in philosophy one can reproach what that woman reproached Thales with, that he sees nothing of what is before him. For every philosopher is ignorant of what his neighbor does, yes, and of what he does himself, and of what they both are, whether beasts or men.

Our own being is beyond our understanding.

Those people who consider Sebondís arguments too weak, who are ignorant of nothing, who govern the universe, who know everything,

What causes rule the sea; what regulates the seasons;
If stars move at their own free will or by command;
What veils in darkness the moonís orb, and what reveals it;
What is the will and power in natureís complex plan
Which joins in perfect harmony discordant things;

[Horace, Epistles I, xii, 16]

have they not sometimes probed, amid their books, the difficulties which stand in the way of their knowing their own being? We see indeed that the finger moves and that the foot moves; that some parts move by themselves, without our leave, and that our will controls others; that a certain fear makes us flush, and a certain other turn pale; this notion affects our spleen only, and that one our brain; one makes us laugh, and another weep; a certain other chills us and paralyzes all our senses, and stops the movement of our limbs. At a certain sight, our stomach rises; at a certain other, some lower part. But how a spiritual impression produces such an effect in a massive and solid subject, and the nature of the linking and union of these admirable mechanisms, never has man known that. "All these things are impenetrable to human reason and hidden in the majesty of nature," says Pliny [Natural History II, 37]; and St. Augustine declares: "The manner in which the spirit is united with the body is completely marvelous, nor can it be understood by man; yet that union is man himself." [City of God, XXXI, x] Such considerations, however, do not arouse menís doubts, for their opinions are received according to ancient beliefs, with authority and credit, as if the were religion and law. One accepts, as by rote, what is commonly held; one accepts this truth with all its structure and appendages of arguments and proofs, as a firm and solid whole which one no longer shakes, which one no longer judges. On the contrary, each vies with the others in plastering and fortifying this accepted belief with all that his reason can add and the reason is an adaptable instrument, which can be made to serve any form. Thus the world is full of, and steeped in, inanities and falsehood.

The most logically constructed systems are based on uncertain principles.

The reason that people rarely doubt things is that they never test common ideas; they donít probe their foundations, where the fault and weakness lie; they debate only about subordinate matters; they donít ask if that is true, but if it was understood in this way or in that. They donít ask if Galen said anything worthwhile, but if this is what he said, or something else. Really it was right that this check-rein on the liberty of our judgments, and this tyranny over our beliefs, should extend to the schools and the arts. The god of scholastic learning is Aristotle; it is sacrilegious to debate his laws as it was those of Lycurgus at Sparta. His doctrine serves as magisterial law, though it may by chance be as false as any other. I donít know why I shouldnít accept as readily either the ideas of Plato, or the Atoms of Epicurus, or the Plenum and the Void of Leucippus and Democritus, or the Water of Thales, or the Infinity of Nature of Anaximander, or the Air of Diogenes, or the Numbers and Symmetry of Pythagoras, or the Infinite of Parmenides, or the One of Musaeus, or the Water and Fire of Apollodorus, or the Similar Parts of Anaxagoras, or the Discord and Harmony of Empedocles, or the Fire of Heraclitus, or any other opinion of that infinite confusion of ideas and maxims which this fine human reason produces by its certitude and clear-sightedness in everything it dabbles in, as I should accept the opinion of Aristotle, on this subject of the principles of natural things. He builds these principles out of three elements: matter, form, and privation. And what is more vain than to make emptiness itself a cause of the production of things? Privation is a negative; by what strange whim could he have made it the cause and origin of things which are? No one would dare disturb that belief, however, except as an exercise in logic. One debates nothing in Aristotleís teaching in order to put it in doubt, but only to defend the creator of the school against objections from outside: his authority is the limit beyond which it is not permitted to push any inquiry.

It is very easy, on accepted premises, to build anything you like, for, according to the principle and organization of this beginning, the rest of the pieces of the structure are easily put in place without any contradiction among them. By following this route, we find our argument well founded, and our reasoning rolls along easily. For our masters seize and occupy in our minds in advance as much ground as they need to conclude afterwards what they will, in the manner of geometricians, with their concessions demanded beforehand, the consent and approval which we accord them permitting them to lead us to left or right, and to spin us about at will. Whoever is believed in his presuppositions is our master and our god; he will take for his foundations a base so broad and so easy that, upon them, there will be no limit to the structure up which he can take us. In this practice and manner of conducting learning, we have taken at face value the statement by Pyathagoras that each expert must be believed in his field. The logician refers to the grammarian on the meaning of words; the rhetorician borrows from the logician the structure of his arguments; the poet borrows rhythms from the musician; the geometrician borrows proportions from the arithmetician; the metaphysician takes as a foundation the conjectures of physics. For each field of learning has its presupposed principles by means of which human judgment is held in check from all sides. If you happen to strike against this barrier in which lies the principal error, they straightway declare that there is no arguing with those who deny the principles.

Now there can be no universally valid principles for men unless the divinity has revealed them to them; all the rest, the beginning, the middle, and the end, is only dream and smoke. Against those who argue by presupposition, you must, contrary to all reason, presuppose the very axiom which is the subject of debate. For any human presupposition and any declaration has as much authority as any other, unless the reason establishes a difference. Thus one must weigh them all, and first of all the general ones and those which exercise a tyranny over us. . . .

Philosophers must not say to me: "It is true, for you see it and feel it thus ; they must tell me whether what I think I feel , I feel it therefore in reality; and if I do feel it, they must tell me afterwards why I feel it, and how, and what it is. They must tell me the name, the origin, the limits and the extent of heat, of cold; the nature of him who acts and him who undergoes; or they must abandon their profession, which is never to receive or approve anything except through the avenue of reason. Reason is their touchstone for all sorts of tests, but certainly it is a touchstone full of falsity, error, weakness, and incapacity. . . .

In the reproaches which philosophers address to one another over the dissensions of their opinions, an infinite number of such examples are to be found - not of arguments which are merely false, but arguments which are inept, inconsistent, and which convict their authors not so much of ignorance as of imprudence. Whoever would put together a sufficiently large collection of the stupid productions of human wisdom would reveal some marvelous things. I gladly assemble some as an exhibit, from a certain point of view no less useful to consider than sound and moderate opinions would be.

Let us judge in this way what we must think of man, his sense, and his reason, since in these great personages, who have carried human abilities so far, there are such obvious and such gross blunders. I prefer to believe that they have treated learning casually, as a plaything anyone can handle, and have sought amusement from reason as from a vain and frivolous instrument, setting forth all kinds of inventions and fancies, sometimes with more serious effort, sometimes with less. This same Plato who defined man as a chicken said elsewhere, following Socrates, that he does not know in truth what a man is, and that he is one of the elements of creation most difficult to know. By this variety and instability of opinions, they lead us as by the hand, tacitly, to this solution of their irresolution. They profess not to present always openly and in an obvious way what they think; they have hidden it sometimes beneath the fabulous shadows of poetry, and sometimes under some other disguise. As a consequence of our imperfection, raw meat is not always right for our stomach; we must dry it, modify it, and corrupt it. They do the same; they obscure sometimes their true opinions and judgments, and falsify them, in order to conform to public usage. They do not wish expressly to admit the ignorance and weakness of the human reason in order not to frighten children; but they reveal it to us sufficiently under the aspect of a confused and uncertain science.

In Italy I advised someone who had difficulty speaking Italian that, so long as he was seeking merely to make himself understood, without wishing to excel more brilliantly in it, he just employ the first words which came into his head, Latin, French, Spanish, or Gascon, and that by adding to them the Italian ending he would never fail to hit upon some dialect of the country, either Tuscan, or Roman, or Venetian, or Piedmontese, or Neapolitan, and to coincide with one of so many forms. In my opinion the same applies to philosophy; it has so many faces and so much variety, and has said so many things, that all our dreams and reveries have a place in it. Human fancy has never been able to imagine anything, for good or evil, which is not there. "Nothing so absurd can be said that it has not been said by some one of the philosophers." [Cicero, De divinatione II, 58] And in consequence I write more freely, according to my whims; the more so since I know that even though my ideas are born within me and follow no model, people will find them related to some old idea, and someone is sure to say: "Thatís where he got it!" . . .

The only certain truth is revealed by God.

All things produced by our own reasoning and powers, whether true or false, are subject to doubt and debate. It is for the punishment of our pride and the instruction of our wretchedness and incapacity that God brought about the trouble and confusion of the old tower of Babel. All that we undertake without his assistance, all that we see without the lamp of his grace, is only vanity and folly; the very essence of truth, which is uniform and constant, we corrupt it and bastardize it by our weakness when fortune puts it in our hands. However man may seek his way by himself, God permits that he always reach this same confusion, of which he offers us such a vivid image by the just punishment with which he crushed the presumption of Nimrod and toppled the vain undertaking of the building of his pyramid: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." [I Corinthians I, 19] The diversity of languages and tongues with which he troubled that work, what else is it but that infinite and perpetual altercation and discordance of opinions and reasonings which accompany and confuse the vain structure of human learning? And confuse it to a useful purpose. What would restrain us, if we had a grain of knowledge? The saint pleased me greatly who declared, "The very obscurity concerning what is useful exercises humility or wears down pride." [St. Augustine, City of God XI, 22] To what point of presumption and insolence do we not car our blindness and our stupidity?

But to come back to my subject, it was really right that we should be beholden to God alone, and to the goodness of his grace, for the truth of so noble a belief, since by his liberality alone we receive the fruit of immortality, which consists in the enjoyment of eternal bliss.

Let us confess ingenuously that we acquire truth through God alone, and by faith, for it is not learned from nature and by our reason. And he who probes his being and his powers, within and without, without this divine privilege, he who sees man without flattering him, will see in him neither efficacity nor faculty which can perceive anything other than death and the earth. The more we give, and owe, and restore to God, the more Christian is our attitude. . . .

Really Protagoras was telling us a pretty tall story when he made man the measure of all things, man who never even knew his own measure. If it is not he, his dignity will not admit that another creature should have that advantage. Now since he is himself so contrary, and since one judgment of his constantly invalidates another, that favorable proposition was only a mockery which led us to conclude by necessity the vanity of the measuring stick and of the measurer.

When Thales considers the knowledge of man very difficult for man, he lets him know that knowledge of anything else is impossible for him.

Montaigne warns against using the attack on reason he has just outlined.

You, for whom I have taken the trouble to expand so long a development more than is my wont, do not hesitate at all to defend Sebond by the ordinary form of debate in which you are every day instructed, and you will exercise in so doing your mind and your ingenuity. This last fencing trick must be used only as a final resort. It is a thrust of desperation, for which you must abandon your own weapons in order to make your opponent lose his, and a secret trick which must be used rarely and with caution. It is a very bold stroke to ruin yourself in order to ruin another.

One must not seek to die in order to avenge oneself, as Gobrias did. As he was locked in hand to hand battle with a lord of Persia, Darius came up with sword in hand, but he was afraid to strike for fear of smiting Gobrias; the latter cried out to him to strike boldly, even though he were to cut through both of them.

Arms and conditions of combat so desperate that it is beyond belief that either party should escape, these I have seen condemned when men have had recourse to them. The Portuguese captured fourteen Turks in the Indian Ocean who, impatient at their captivity, resolved and successfully undertook to reduce themselves, their masters, and the vessel to ashes by rubbing together nails from the ship until a spark fell on the kegs of gunpowder which were there. Here we are coming up against the limits and remotest barriers of knowledge , in which extremes are vicious as they are in conduct. Keep to the middle road; it is not at all good to be so subtle and so clever. Remember what the Tuscan proverb says: "Who grows too sharp, cuts himself." [Petrarch, Canzoniere XXII, 48] I advise you, in your opinions and reasonings, as in your mode of living and everything else, moderation and temperance, and the avoidance of novelty and strangeness. All out of the ordinary ways annoy me. You who, by the authority which your high station lends you, and still more by the advantages which your personal qualities give you, are in a position to command whom you please, you ought to have turned over this task to someone who had made of letters his profession, and who would have aided you much better, and provided something richer than my fancies. However, this suffices for the use to which you are to put it.

Chapter IV: The Unreliability of the Senses

[Summary ó Montaigne points out that both truth and error enter our consciousness through the channel of the senses, and that we are powerless to distinguish between them. Our perceptions vary with our state of health, our moods, our age. They are not uniform and cannot furnish a source of certain knowledge. Prejudices of all sorts affect our judgments. Montaigne ó a former magistrate himself ó cites the example of the judge whose findings are necessarily determined in part by personal considerations having nothing to do with an absolute and unattainable "justice." Since he recognizes how slight are the influences which shape our opinions, Montaigne considers it wise to retain the fundamental beliefs of the religion in which he was reared. He develops the notion of the relativity of justice and truth. Like everything in nature, beliefs, judgments, and opinions go through cycles of birth, development, and decay. While philosophers claim there are certain universal natural laws governing man, they are far from being in accord about them. All knowledge comes through our senses, and the senses are, as experience shows, completely unreliable. Animals doubtless possess senses we do not have, and for this reason our notion of the nature of things is incomplete. Montaigne cites numerous examples of the error and uncertainty of the operation of the senses. He further shows that our judgment is modified by attending sensual stimuli; our senses deceive our understanding. Indeed, life is, as it were, a kind of dream. Then he presents the modifications of our sense perceptions. Our senses grasp only their own feelings, and not the true essence of exterior things. Nothing remains unchanged in the flux of nature - neither our perceptions nor the objects we perceive. Essences cannot, then, be grasped, for they are changing constantly. God alone is, in a true sense; all else is in evolution. Only through his grace can we attain any real knowledge.]

. . . Out of the recognition of his changeable nature, Montaigne has drawn a certain constancy of beliefs.

Being of a mild and dull disposition, I do not have much experience with those vehement agitations, most of which suddenly take our soul by surprise, without giving it leisure to gather its wits. But that passion that they say is produced by idleness in the heart of young men, although it develops with leisure and a measured progress, reveals quite obviously, to those who have tried to oppose its efforts, the force of that change and alteration which our judgment suffers. In other days I undertook to hold myself tense in order to meet and resist it (for so far am I from being one of those who invite vices, that I do not even follow them unless they sweep me along); I felt it awakening, growing, and increasing in spite of my resistance, and finally, like a seeing and living being, seize me and take possession of me in such a way that, as in a drunkenness, the images of things began to appear to me other than they usually did. I saw the charms of the object of my constant desires obviously growing and increasing, and magnified and swollen by the breath of my imagination. I saw the difficulties of my undertaking eased and evened out; my reason and my conscience seemed to withdraw into the background. But, this fire having burned itself out, all of a sudden I saw, as in a flash of lightning, my soul regain another sort of view, another state, and another judgment. I saw the difficulties of retreat seem to me great and invincible, and the same things of a quite different taste and appearance than the warmth of desire had made me find in them. Which was the truer impression? Pyrrho doesnít know at all. We are never without illness. Fevers have their beat and their cold; from the effects of a burning passion we fall back into the effects of a chilling passion.

As far as I had rushed forward, just so far do I hasten back:

As when the sea, rushing with rhythmic swirl of waves,
Now pours ashore to hurl its breakers on the rocks,
And, foaming, floods in its embrace the farthest sands;
And now speeds backwards as it sucks the rolling stones,
And with receding waters withdraws again from shore.

[Virgil, Aeneid XI, 624]

Now out of the knowledge of this changeable nature of mine, I have by chance engendered within myself some constancy of opinions, and I have scarcely altered my early and natural ones. For, whatever plausibility there may be in new ideas, I do not change readily lest I have occasion to, lose in so doing. And, since I am not capable of choosing, I take the choice of others and remain in the position where God placed me. Otherwise, I could not keep myself from rolling constantly. So, by Godís grace, I have kept completely, without agitation and disturbance of my conscience, the old beliefs of our religion, in spite of all the sects and divisions which our century has produced. The writings of the ancients (I mean the good writings, substantial and solid) attract me and stir me almost as they wish; the one I am listening to seems to me always the strongest; I find that each in turn is right, even though they contradict one another. One must recognize that facility which great minds have to make whatever they wish seem plausible, and the fact that there is nothing so strange but they undertake to color it sufficiently to fool a simple nature such as mine; that shows obviously the weakness of their proof. The sky and the stars revolved for three thousand years; everyone had believed so until Cleanthes of Samos or, according to Theophrastus, Nicetas of Syracuse took it into his head to maintain that it was the earth which moved around the oblique circle of the Zodiac, spinning on its axis; and, in our day, Copernicus has so well established that doctrine that he uses it in a quite systematic way for all astronomical computations. What shall we draw from that, if not that we should not worry which of the two systems is true? And who knows that a third opinion, a thousand years from now, may not overthrow the two previous ones?

So rolling time affects the status of all things:
What once was held in high esteem, from honor falls;
Now something new prevails, emerging out of scorn ó
Each day itís more desired, receives bouquets of praise,
And among men it holds a place of highest honor.

[Lucretius V, 1275]

Distrust of new doctrines.

Thus when we encounter some new doctrine, we have good reason to distrust it, and to consider that before it was produced its contrary was in vogue; and as that earlier doctrine was overthrown by this one, there can well be born in the future a third discovery which will similarly upset the second one. Before the principles which Aristotle introduced were generally accepted, other principles satisfied the human reason as his satisfy us now. What warrant do his have, what special privilege, that the course of our seeking ends with them, and that to them belongs for all time dominion over our belief? They are no more exempt from being ousted than were the ideas which preceded them. When a new argument is urged upon me, it is up to me to consider that, where I cannot find a satisfactory answer, someone else will; for to believe all the appearances which we cannot explain away is to be a great simpleton. Such willingness to believe would lead the common throng of men (and we are all of the common throng) to have beliefs which spin about like a weathervane; for their soul, being soft and without resistance, would be forced to receive unceasingly new impressions one on top of the other, the latest always effacing the trace of the preceding one. He who feels weak must answer, as they do in the law courts, that he will seek advice on the matter, or rely upon those wiser men under whom he served his apprenticeship. How long has the art of medicine existed? They say that a newcomer, Paracelsus by name, is changing and overthrowing the whole order of ancient rules, and maintains that heretofore medicine has served only to kill men. I believe that he will easily verify that; but as for submitting my life to the test of his new experience, I think that would not be great wisdom.

One must not believe everyone, the saying goes, because everyone can say all manner of things. . . .

Influence of environment on attitudes and temperament.

If nature includes also within the course of its ordinary development, as it does all other things, menís beliefs, judgments, and opinions; if they have their cycle, their season, their birth, their death, as cabbages do; if heaven agitates them and sweeps them along in its usual way, what permanent authority to guide us can we attribute to them? if by experience we learn that the form of our being depends upon the air, the climate, and the soil where we are born, not merely our complexion, stature, temperament, and bearing, but also the faculties of the soul ó "and the climate contributes not only to bodily strength, but likewise to intellectual powers," [Vegetius I, 2] ó and if the goddess who founded the city of Athens chose for its site a climate which made men prudent, as the priests of Egypt taught Solon ó "The air at Athens is rare, and as a consequence, then, the Athenians are considered more keen; the air at Thebes is heavy, and therefore the Thebans are dull and coarse" [Cicero, De fato, IV] ó just as fruits and animals are born different from one another, men are born also more or less pugnacious, just, temperate, and docile: here subject to drunkenness, elsewhere to thievery or lewdness; here inclined to superstition, and elsewhere to incredulity; in one place to liberty, and in another to servitude; capable of learning a science or art, dull-witted or ingenious, obedient or rebellious, good or evil, according to the influence of the place where they are put, and they acquire a different temperament if, like trees, they are transplanted. That is why Cyrus refused to allow the Persians to abandon their harsh and mountainous homeland to settle in a gentle and level region, saying that rich and soft soils make men soft, and fertile soils make minds unproductive. If we see sometimes one art or one opinion flourish, and sometimes another, through some influence of heaven; if we see a certain century produce certain natures and form men of a certain bent; if we see the minds of men sometimes vigorous and sometimes barren like our fields; what, then, becomes of all those fine prerogatives of mankind of which we are wont to boast? Since a wise man can be mistaken, and a hundred men, and many nations, indeed since the whole of mankind, as we see, can be mistaken for several centuries on this subject or that, what assurance have we that sometimes it ceases to be mistaken, and that in our own age it is not in error?

We do not know our own needs nor our true good.

It seems to me, among other evidences of our weakness, that this one ought not to be forgotten: that even through desire man is unable to identify what he needs. Neither through enjoyment, nor through imagination and wishing, can we agree on what we need in order to be satisfied. Let us permit our thought complete freedom to cut its cloth and sew it as it will; even then it will not succeed in desiring what is suitable for it, and in satisfying itself.

What fear, or wish, does reason eíer inspire in us?
The very thing we longed for ardently, and won
With full success, makes us repent of our desire.

[Juvenal X, 4]

That is why Socrates asked nothing of the gods except to give him what they knew to be salutary for him. And the prayer of the Lacedemonians, public and private, asked simply that those things that are beautiful and good be granted them, leaving to the discretion of the gods their selection and choice.

We pray for wife and offspring; but only heaven knows
What theyíll be like, that bride, and children to be born.

[Juvenal X, 352]

And the Christian prays to God that his will be done, so as not to fall into the predicament which poets depict in the case of King Midas. He asked of the gods that everything he touched might be changed into gold. His prayer was answered: his wine became gold, his bread was gold, and the down of his couch, and of gold, too, were his shirt and his raiment; so that he found himself overwhelmed under the enjoyment of what he had sought, now that he was granted the gift of a good thing which had become unendurable. He had to unpray his prayers,

Bewildered by his strange misfortune, rich yet poor,
He seeks to flee his wealth, and loathes what he had sought.

[Ovid, Metamorphoses XI, 128]

Letís speak of myself. When I was young, I used to ask of fortune, as much as anything else, the Order of St. Michael; it was then the highest mark of honor of the French nobility and quite rare. Fortune mockingly granted it to me. Instead of raising and exalting me from my place, in order to attain it, she treated me more graciously; she debased it, and brought it down to the level of my shoulders, and even lower. . . .

God could grant us wealth, honors, life, and even health itself sometimes to our disadvantage, for everything that is pleasing to us is not always salutary. If, instead of healing, he sends us death or the worsening of our woes ó "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" [Psalms XXII, 5] ó he does it for reasons of his providence, which considers much more surely what is due us than we can do; and we must accept it in good part, as from a very wise and very friendly hand:

If youíll take my advice,
Youíll let the gods decide what may be best for us,
And what is advantageous for our lifeís success:
Dearer to them than to himself is man.

[Juvenal X, 346]

For seeking from the gods honors or position is praying to them to cast you into a battle or into a game of dice, or some other such thing of which the outcome is unknown to you and the profit doubtful.

There is no dispute among philosophers so violent and so harsh as the dispute which rises over the question of the supreme good for man, out of which, by Varroís calculation, two hundred and eighty-eight sects were born. "He, then, who disagrees concerning the highest good, disagrees concerning the whole system of philosophy." [Cicero, De finibus V, 5]

Itís much as if three guests were seen to disagree,
Demanding different things to suit their appetites.
What shall I serve? what not? For you refuse the dish
Another wants, and what you like is clearly sour
And odious to the other two.

[Horace, Epistles II, ii, 61]

Nature ought thus to answer their contestations and their debates.

Some declare our highest good to reside in virtue, others in pleasure, others in the full acceptance of nature; some see it in learning, some in the absence of pain, some in not letting oneself be deceived by appearances, and to this last idea seems to be related the following one, of ancient Pythagoras,

Let nothing rouse your wonder and desire, my friend
For that is just about the only way for man
To find and keep some share of happiness

[Horace, Epistles I, vi, 1]

which is the goal of the Pyrrhonian sect. Aristotle attributes to greatness of soul the ability to marvel at nothing. And Arcesilas said that to hold the judgment in a rigid and inflexible state was good, whereas to yield and to choose were vices and evils. It is true that in so far as he set it up as a firm rule he was deviating from Pyrrhonism. The Pyrrhonians, when they say that the supreme good is ataraxia, which is suspension of the judgment, do not make of this a truly affirmative declaration; but the same sensitivity of their being which makes them avoid precipices and protect themselves from the chill air presents to them this idea and makes them refuse any other.

Justus Lipsius is the most learned man left to us today, of a most cultivated and judicious mind, truly akin to my Turnebus; how I wish that while I live either he, or someone else, might resolve (and have the health and the leisure to carry it out) to collect in a compilation, according to their divisions and categories, sincerely and carefully, in so far as we can see them, the opinions of ancient philosophy on the subject of our being and our morals; I should want him to note the quarrels, reputation, and following of the various schools, and the fidelity of the authors and their disciples to their precepts in the memorable and exemplary events of their lives. What a beautiful and useful work that would be!

Relativity of virtue and justice.

Moreover, if it is from ourselves that we draw the government of our lives, what confusion we are casting ourselves into! For the most acceptable advice our reason can offer us is in general for each to obey the laws of his own country. This is the opinion of Socrates, inspired, he declares, by divine counsel. And what does our reason mean by this declaration except that the only principle governing duty is a fortuitous one? The truth must be always and universally one. If man knew any virtue and justice which had a real form and essence, he would not make them dependent upon the set of customs of this country or of that; it would not be from the peculiar notions of Persia or India that virtue would derive its form. There is nothing subject to more continual dispute than laws. During my lifetime I have seen those of our English neighbors changed three or four times, not only laws of a political nature (where one is willing not to demand constancy), but laws on the most important subject which can be, namely religion. I feel grief and shame because of it, the more so since it is a nation with which the people of my province used to have an especially close connection so that there still remain in my family some traces of our old kinship.

And in our own country, I have seen some things which used to be for us capital crimes become legitimate; and we, who hold other things as legitimate, run the risk, according to the uncertainty of the fortunes of war, of being one day guilty of high treason against both the King and God, our justice falling under the mercy of injustice and, in the space of a few years of subjection, assuming a contrary essence.

How could that god of antiquity more clearly mark in human knowledge our total ignorance concerning the divine being, and inform men that religion was only a product of their imagination, useful as a unifying bond to their society, than by declaring, as he did to those who inquired about it before his tripod, that the true worship for each man was the one that he found observed by the custom of the place where he was? O God! what obligation do we not have to the goodness of our sovereign creator for having rid our belief of those stupid, vagabond, and arbitrary forms of worship, and for having established it upon the eternal foundation of his holy word!

What, then, will philosophy tell us in this need of ours? That we should follow the laws of our country, that is to say that billowing sea of opinions of a people or of a prince, which will paint justice for me with as many colors and will recast it into as many aspects as there will be changes of passion among them? I cannot have so flexible a judgment. What virtue is it which I saw yesterday esteemed, and which tomorrow will be so no more, and which becomes a crime as soon as one crosses a river?

What kind of truth is it for which these mountains mark the limit, and which is falsehood for those people who dwell on the other side?

So-called natural laws lack universality.

But they are amusing when, to give some certitude to the laws, they say that there are some firm, perpetual, and immutable, which they call natural laws, which are imprinted in the human race by the nature of manís very essence. And of those laws, some consider there are three, some four, others more or fewer - an indication that they are of as doubtful a stamp as all the rest. Now the philosophers are so unfortunate (for how can I call that anything but misfortune, that out of so infinite a number of laws there does not happen to be at least one that the fickleness and changeability of fate has permitted to be universally accepted by the consent of all nations?) they are, I repeat, so luckless that of those three or four chosen laws there is not a single one which is not contradicted and disavowed, not by one nation, but by many. Now the universality of their acceptance is the only probable sign by which one can deduce the existence of any natural laws. For what nature would really have ordained for us, we should doubtless follow by common consent. And not only every nation, but every individual man, would recognize the force and violence exercised over him by anyone who should seem to make him go against that law. Let them show me, as an example, just one such law.

Protagoras and Aristo gave to the justice of the laws no other essence than the authority and opinion of the legislator; and, except for that, "good" and "honest" lost their meanings and remained vain names of indifferent things. Thrasymachus, in Platoís Republic, considers that there is no other right than the good pleasure of the stronger man. There is nothing in which the world offers greater variety than in customs and laws. A certain thing is here abominable which elsewhere brings commendation, as does in Lacedemonia the light-fingered skill of the thief. Marriages between close relatives are among our capital offenses; they are elsewhere held in honor:

It is reported there are nations of the world
Where mothers wed their sons, and fathers may be joined
In marriage to their daughters, increasing doubly thus
Filial affection by uniting it with love.

[Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 331]

The murder of children, of parents, traffic in women, trade in stolen goods, freedom for every sort of sensual excess, there is, after all) nothing so extreme that it is not accepted by the custom of some nation.

It is believable that there are natural laws, as is seen among other creatures; but among us they are lost, for this fine human reason insinuates itself everywhere in order to dominate and command, befogging and confusing the appearance of things according to its vanity and inconstancy. "And so nothing is our own any more; what I call ours is a product of art." [Based on Cicero, De finibus V, 21]

Diversity of viewpoints results in diversity of judgments and customs.

The same subjects may be viewed according to various lights and ways; that is the principal source of the diversity of opinions. One nation looks upon a subject according to one of its aspects, and stops there; another nation considers another aspect.

There is nothing so horrible to imagine as eating oneís father. Peoples who in antiquity had that custom saw in it, however, a proof of loyalty and true affection, seeking in that way to give to their parents the most worthy and honorable sepulcher, making the bodies and remains of their fathers dwell within themselves and, as it were, in the very marrow of their bones, giving them a sort of life and regenerating them by transmutation into their living flesh by means of digestion and assimilation. It is easy to consider what cruelty and abomination it would have been, to men steeped in and imbued with this superstition, to cast the remains of parents into the corruption of the earth to become food for beasts and worms.

Lycurgus considered in theft the swiftness, dexterity, boldness, and skill necessary in surreptitiously taking something from oneís neighbor, and the utility which the public derives from it, for each sees more carefully to the protection of what is his; and he concluded that from this double teaching, in attack and in defense, was to be drawn a profit for military discipline (which was the principal knowledge and strength which he wished to inculcate in the Spartans) - and this, he felt, was of greater consideration than the disorder and injustice involved in appropriating what belongs to others.

Dionysius the tyrant offered Plato a robe of Persian style, long, damasked, and perfumed; Plato refused it, saying that, being born a man, he would not willingly clothe himself in a womanís costume; but Aristippus accepted it, with the answer that no accouterment could corrupt a chaste heart. His friends chided him for his cowardice in taking so little to heart the fact that Dionysius had spit in his face. Fishermen, lie replied, endure being bathed in the waves of the sea, from head to foot, in order to catch a gudgeon. Diogenes was washing his cabbages, and seeing Aristippus said to him: "If you knew how to live on cabbage, you wouldnít pay court to a tyrant." To this Aristippus answered: "If you knew how to live among men, you wouldnít wash cabbages." Thatís how reason lends plausibility to various conclusions. Itís a two-handled jar, which one can seize with the right or the left hand:

Itís war you bring, o land which is to be our home;
For war your horses are equipped; they threaten war.
Yet these same horses oft are trained to wear the gear
Of peaceful vehicles and join to bear the yoke
Under a friendly rein. Hope there is for peace!

[Virgil, Aeneid III, 539]

People urged Solon not to shed for the death of his son useless and impotent tears. It is precisely for that reason, he said, that I shed them with greater justification, since they are indeed useless and impotent. Socratesí wife was bemoaning her loss in this wise: "Oh, how unjustly those wicked judges put him to death." "Would you prefer, then, that it be deserved?" they answered her.

We have our ears pierced; the Greeks considered that a mark of servitude. We hide in order to have intercourse with our wives; the Indians do so in public. The Scythians sacrificed foreigners in their temples; elsewhere temples serve as a place of refuge.

Thence stems the madness of the mass of men,
For everywhere they hate their neighborís gods,
And hold that those alone to which they bow
Are worthy of belief.

[Juvenal XV, 37]

I have heard of a judge who, when he encountered a bitter conflict between Bartolus and Baldus, and a case confused by many contradictions, would write in the margin of his book, "Find for the friend"; that is to say that the truth was so confused and debatable that in such an affair he could favor whichever party might seem good to him. It was only a matter of lack of wit and capacity which kept him from writing everywhere: "Find for the friend." Lawyers and judges of our day find in all cases a great enough number of angles to justify whatever decision may seem good to them. In such an infinitely varied field of knowledge, dependent on the authority of so many opinions and of such an arbitrary nature, there must necessarily arise an extreme confusion of judgments. And so there is scarcely any lawsuit so clear that there are not different views concerning it. What one court has judged, another court judges in quite the opposite way, and even the same court does so at another time. Of this we see constant examples in the freedom with which the decrees of our courts are disregarded, and people run from one judge to another to decide the same case. This is a noteworthy blemish upon the ceremonious authority and reputation of our justice. . . .

Laws receive their authority from practice and custom. It is dangerous to trace them back to their source; they swell and grow nobler as they roll along, like our rivers. Follow them upstream to their source, and it is only a trickle of water, scarcely recognizable, which grows thus in pride and strength as it flows along. Observe the original considerations which first set in motion this famous torrent, full of dignity, and inspiring awe and reverence; you will find them so slight and so tenuous that it is no wonder those people who weigh all things and subject them to reason, and accept nothing on authority and faith, are often in their judgments very far indeed from those of the public. . . .

Conflicting interpretation of events and of texts.

Heraclitus and Protagoras, because wine seems bitter to the sick man and pleasing to one in health, because the oar seems bent in the water and straight to those who see it out of the water, and because of such other contrary appearances which are found in things, argued that all things had in themselves the causes of these appearances, and that there was in the wine some bitterness transferred to the taste of the invalid, and in the oar some nature of curvature made perceptible to one who saw it in the water. And so on with other things. Which is to say that everything is in all things, and consequently nothing in any, for nothing is where everything is.

This opinion puts me in mind of the experience we have that there is no meaning or appearance, either straight, or bitter, or sweet, or curved, that the human mind does not find in the writings which it undertakes to examine. And out of the clearest, purest, most perfect utterance which is possible, how much falseness and lying has not been drawn? What heresy has not found in it sufficient basis and testimony to proclaim and defend itself? It is for that reason that the authors of such errors are never willing to deviate from this sole proof - the testimony of the interpretation of words. A person of dignity, wishing to make me approve on good authority the search for the philosopherís stone to which he has devoted himself completely, offered me recently in support of his claim five or six passages of the Bible in which he said he had at the outset found justification in order to keep his conscience clear (for he is of the ecclesiastical calling); and, in truth, his discovery of these texts was not only amusing, but even, well calculated to serve as a defense of that fine science.

It is in this way that prophecies come to be believed. There is no prophet, if he has sufficient prestige that people will bother to thumb through his writings, and seek carefully all the hidden recesses and reflections of his words, whom you cannot make say anything you wish, as was the case with the Sibyls; for there are so many manners of interpretation that it is difficult for an ingenious mind, by an oblique or direct interpretation, not to find on any subject something which seems plausibly to serve its purpose.

That is why a cloudy and ambiguous style is in such frequent and traditional use! Let the author thus succeed in attracting and absorbing posterity (an end which not only ability can attain, but, equally well or better, the chance popularity of the subject); moreover, let him express himself, out of stupidity or by cleverness, in a somewhat obscure and contradictory way - it matters not a whit to him! Many minds, shaking and sifting his writings, will extract from them a quantity of ideas either in accordance with his own, or on a tangent, or quite opposed to them, and all these ideas will redound to his honor. He will see himself enriched by the gifts of his disciples, like schoolmasters during the Lendit fair.

That is what has caused the success of many worthless things, what has given many writings a reputation, and filled them with whatever matter one wished - a single one receiving thousands and thousands of values, and as many various images and ideas as we please. Is it possible that Homer meant all that interpreters make him say? Is it possible that he intended such numerous and varied interpretations that theologians, legislators, captains, philosophers, and all sorts of people who treat learned subjects, however differently and conflictingly they treat them, should base themselves on him, should refer to him, should make of him the general master for all functions, works, and trades, and the general counselor for all undertakings? Whoever has had need of oracles and predictions has found them for his purpose in Homerís works. It is remarkable how a learned person, a friend of mine, draws from them in support of our religion so many and such admirable passages! And one cannot easily convince him that such is not Homerís intention (and Homer is as familiar to him as to any man of our day). And what he finds in support of ours, many in antiquity had found in support of their religions.

Just see how Plato is tormented and disturbed! Each one, for his own reputation, seeks to find support in his works, and puts him on the side he wishes. Plato is paraded out, and inserted into all the new opinions people receive; and they even set him against himself according to the new directions that thought takes. They make him disavow in their judgment the legitimate customs of his day, the more so because they are not legitimate in ours.

All that is done with a keenness and force in proportion to the interpreterís forcefulness and keenness of mind.

Upon the same foundation which Heraclitus had, and from which he drew his dictum that all things had in them the qualities which one found in them, Democritus drew a quite contrary conclusion, namely that objects did not possess at all what we found in them; and from the fact that honey was sweet to one and bitter to another, he concluded that it was neither sweet nor bitter. The Pyrrhonians would say that they know not whether it is sweet or bitter, or neither one nor the other, or both, for they reach always the highest point of doubt.

The disciples of Aristippus of Cyrene held that nothing was perceptible from the outside, and that only what touched us inwardly was perceptible, such as pain and pleasure, not recognizing either tone or color, but only certain sensations which came to us from them, and teaching that man had no other foundation for his judgment. Protagoras considered that the truth for any person is the way things seem to him. The Epicureans place every judgment in the senses, both in regard to the knowledge of things and in regard to pleasure. Plato wished that the judgment of truth, and truth itself, be completely separated from opinions and from the senses, and that they should belong to the mind and to cogitation. . . .


NOTES (After reading the appropriate note, click on your browser's "Back" button in order to return to your place in the text.)

1. Excerpted from In Defense of Raymond Sebond (New York: Ungar, 1959).

2. Adrianus Turnebus: French scholar, and translator of many Greek texts (1512-1565).

3. "You," in this passage, refers to Marguerite de Valois, daughter of the French King Henry II and wife of Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV of France. It was to her that Montaigne addressed this essay.

4. Justus Lipsius: Flemish scholar (1547-1606), best known for his edition of Tacitus.

5. Bartolus and Baldus: Famous Italian legal authorities of the 14th century.

6. Lendit Fair: An important academic festival in June; supplies of parchment were purchased at the Lendit Fair, and students paid their tuition fees to their professors.