No apology for Raymond Sebond

The cultural left exerts a tyrannical force policing our speech. To take just one small example, witness the case of novelist Lionel Shriver. The cases can be multiplied endlessly. You don’t need my help on this score.

The cause of free speech threatens to become the exclusive property of conservatives. Wherever the left holds sway, free speech is a dying or dead letter. The utopia implicit in leftist thought provides for thought control as well. The left means to stamp out our heterodox thoughts as well as our nonconforming speech. Guilty thought gives rise to guilty speech!

The concept of free speech arrived late in human history. With the fate of Socrates in mind, writers who took up political subjects from Plato forward nevertheless found the means to express their thoughts. They did so through the use of irony, concealing their true thought beneath the surface or between the lines of their writings.

This is the subject of Arthur Melzer’s superb 2014 book, Philosophy Between the Lines. Melzer is a great teacher. Just about every page of the book provides a model of, and a lesson in, humane learning. Damon Linker’s admiring review for The Week offers a particularly good summary.

Melzer uses the terms “politic irony” and “pedagogic irony” to express the means of those who wrote about politics but obscured their true thought. “Politic irony” is defensive. In illiberal societies, one can’t say what he really thinks about the defects of the powers that be. The fear of persecution counsels prudence. One must write in the most guarded terms. One must speak somehow in Aesopian language, as they put it in the regimes of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

The irony also serves a “pedagogic purpose.” Ironic literature imposes a discipline on the reader. It compels the interested reader to rise to the challenge. Melzer quotes Aquinas: “The very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”

This summer I have studied Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” both with friends for fun together with other essays of Montaigne and for a one-week Summer Classics course at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. The “Apology” is the central essay, the longest essay, and perhaps the most challenging essay of Montaigne’s Essays.

I think that the “Apology” perfectly illustrates the kind of writing that Melzer explores in his book. It comes in the form of a Christian apologetic touting a book by the now obscure Raymond Sebond, yet Montaigne seems gently to mock Sebond. Montaigne says he translated Sebond’s Natural Theology into French at his father’s request while describing Sebond’s book as “constructed from a Spanish rigged up with Latin endings.” Although Montaigne likens Sebond to Aquinas, Sebond sounds like a forerunner of Professor Irwin Corey.

It isn’t long before Sebond drops entirely out of the essay. He is replaced by classic political philosophers, whom Montaigne both criticizes and praises. Montaigne’s praise of Christianity seems to me slight and formulaic. I don’t think it is how a believing Christian would rise to the defense of Christian belief in an essay of book length.

Indeed, Montaigne seems to subject Christian belief to his own brand of skepticism. It becomes visible to me, for example, when Montaigne speaks of “Mohammed” or “Mohammedans,” One can detect in the views attributed to “Mohammedans” Montaigne’s own heterodox attitude toward Christianity.

“In the religion of Mohammed,” Montaigne writes, “there are plenty of Merlins to be found, according to the people’s belief, that is to say, children without a father, spiritually — indeed divinely — in the womb of virgins; and they have a name that has that meaning in their language.”

“Of all forms,” Montaigne explains,” the fairest is man’s; thus God has that form….therefore God is clothed in human shape.”

What is going on here? Montaigne refers to the rise of Protestantism and the resulting civil wars of religion that were tearing France apart. Writing as a nominal Catholic subject to the jurisdiction of a Catholic king and the authority of the Catholic Church, Montaigne criticized “the novelties of Luther.” At the least, he sought to moderate the intensity of the views of Catholics and Protestants that gave rise to the bloodshed. Ideally, I think, he wanted to subordinate religion to civil society. He also sought to save room for philosophy — he calls himself “an accidental philosopher” in the essay — and to reform philosophy by turning it constructively in the direction of science toward human betterment.

Before leaving for St. John’s last week, I studied the “Apology” with my friends Bruce Sanborn and Michael Frost. Bruce takes Montaigne’s professions of faith in the essay at face value. He loves Montaigne and recommends the work of Ann Hartle explicating it (Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher). I love Montaigne and recommend the work of David Schaefer explicating it (The Political Philosophy of Montaigne). If you have read Montaigne’s essay “Of friendship,” I also recommend Allan Bloom’s essay explicating it in Love and Friendship.

Montaigne gives us an example of the free mind at work and play. He is an incredibly witty and companionable writer. He can even teach us how to speak our minds in a tyrannical time. Montaigne’s thought nevertheless transcends his time; the Essays live (or lives). On that we — Bruce, Mike, and I — all agree.

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