Montaigne’s essay, Of Prayers, reveals that Montaigne was filled with piety. He was a conservative Catholic who believed that God existed and ordered reality. But Montaigne’s god is a distant god, an inscrutable god whose wisdom and knowledge is so far beyond human reason as to be impenetrable. That Montaigne sets a limit on human reason is of course consistent with the Essays. In contrast, divine wisdom, justice, and order are unchanging. Montaigne’s words reveal that he had a sense of dutiful reverence and awe toward this unknown being, so much so that he did not agree with the common person praying to God, for prayer must be completely pious, pure, uncorrupted by human motives and desires. One must have a certain basis in religious knowledge to approach God.
In the Apology for Raimon Sebond, Montaigne shows how much we do not know, just how unstable human reason really is. If there is absolute knowledge, and if we are so distant in our relation to that knowledge, then is makes sense that Montaigne would go to the only sure source of knowledge, the only sure thing we humans might know, and that is himself. If we realize that in our instability we cannot penetrate the inscrutability of God, yet as humans we cannot help but seek knowledge, then we must go to that single source, human knowledge, as the only real means of ever hoping to approach knowledge of something more than just passing temporal affairs. If we cannot rely on human philosophers, theologians, arguments and counterarguments, etc., well at least we might be able to rely on ourselves for whatever knowledge we gain. Who am I to know God? Who am I to gain a relationship with God? Who am I but a mere human? How can I truly know God? These questions, and the doubts of the possibilities of human knowledge to ever approach the divine, reveals piety. Montaigne had tremendous awe and respect regarding the distance of God to humans, and the inconstancy of human knowledge and constancy of divine knowledge.
Montaigne during the time of the Protestant Reformation was a consistent thinker: God is inscrutable. Knowledge of God is nearly impossible. Knowledge of human affairs likewise is in general difficult for such inconstant thinkers; so by reduction we come to just ourselves—personal knowledge might just be obtainable. By relying on himself for standards and knowledge, Montaigne went to the one place where, if any kind of awareness of God can be found, it will be found, there, in the self. Luther and Calvin looked within, but along with Scripture. Montaigne looked within, joined by other introspective thinkers, seeking himself in all nakedness. Luther and Calvin on the other had spent their lives examining the relationship of God to man even though they believed He was inscrutable, Calvin, and distant, Luther. Montaigne thought that knowledge was the sine qua non of life. It is the creation of God, the Knower. Hence knowledge is the route to know God.
Montaigne declared that the life and teachings of Jesus “is not a story to tell, it is a story to revere, fear, and adore.” Montaigne went out of his way to place his Essays before the judgment of the Church, comparing himself to a child seeking “to be instructed, not to instruct.” He worried that the “sacred mysteries” of Christianity were being “bandied about a hall or a kitchen” in a “promiscuous, reckless, and indiscreet” way by the “wicked” and the “ignorant.” As Montaigne predicted, modern writers and scholars have taken it upon themselves to expose, redact, interpret, discount, doubt, reconstruct, and discard the teachings of Jesus and accounts of his life. That this is a symptom of a secular and atheistic age is shown clearly, and the point driven home forcefully, by the number of modern scholars who have laughed at Montaigne’s confession that the Essays are “always very religious,” declaring instead that Montaigne was too much the skeptic to be a sincere Christian.
I agree with Montaigne that the New Testament is beyond my power to be able to master, that it is beyond my right to be able to doubt, that it is only for me to search and to question, not to proclaim and to answer. And yet like Montaigne I feel in me a call to explore myself in light of the Son of Man. Montaigne’s Essays was, I believe, his response to the Son of Man. My response is imperfect according to the blessedness of the subject. Yet if there is a contribution here it is that of a scholar willing to sacrifice his natural arrogance and vanity to try deeply and humbly (I pray) to see how the Son of Man has been manifested throughout time.
Montaigne’s philosophy of human experience is the guide to a religious experience for all humans, coming to know the Son of Man.
(Translations from Donald Frame, Stanford University Press, 1958)