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Montaigne, Father of the Essay

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The Renaissance - three centuries of reawakening, from around 1300 to 1600 - is commonly acknowledged as the European epoch when the oppressive Age of Faith began losing ground to humanism and the desire to improve people's earthly lives. Yet religious torture and killing continued amid the bloom of the Renaissance.

The Holy Inquisition burned thousands of nonconforming "heretics" and more thousands of suspected witches. The Reformation sent Protestant and Catholic armies into gory wars that laid nations waste. Christians killed Jews in numerous pogroms. Doubters could be jailed or executed for "blasphemy".

Under such conditions, it would seem advisable for skeptics to stay quiet. Yet some brave rebels voiced unorthodox thoughts.

Michel de Montaigne's mother came from a Spanish-Jewish family that had been forcibly converted to Catholicism, and had fled to France to escape the Spanish Inquisition. His father was a wealthy merchant whose family had bought the feudal territory of Montaigne, with its noble title.

Although the son came of age in an era when the Inquisition had been torturing and burning doubters for three centuries, and it was not a propitious time to voice any religious thought that might lead to the rack, nonetheless the brilliant Montaigne took the risk of writing candidly about religion and morals, not always conforming to official dogma. He created the literary form of the essay: a personal commentary that he said was "concerned with my own self, an integral part of my life". Some of Montaigne's essays included witty jabs at religion. University of Washington scholar Abraham Keller has said the essays "show so much skepticism that some critics have questioned whether he was really a Christian".

Montaigne's first publication was a translation of a thousand-page book by Spanish theologian Raimond Sebond, who contended that Christian doctrines could be proved by scientific logic. Later, when Montaigne published his book of essays, the longest was a skeptical Apology for Raimond Sebond, which argued that human logic is too swayed by cultural and psychological factors to be reliable. Acceptance of religion must be by faith alone, he said.

His family was officially Catholic, although a brother and sister became Protestants. Montaigne served in the Parliament of Bordeaux for thirteen years, and was mayor of Bordeaux for four years. In the hideous wars between French Catholics and Protestant Huguenots, he attempted to be a peacemaker. At one point he was jailed briefly by Protestants, at another by Catholics. Montaigne urged King Henry IV to issue the Edict of Nantes, which gave each sect the right to worship.

Debate still occurs over whether Montaigne was a believer or a secret atheist. If the latter, he was wise to keep it secret.

Montaigne's comments on religion:

"Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen." - Essays, 1580

"Men of simple understanding, little inquisitive and little instructed, make good Christians." - ibid

"How many things that were articles of faith yesterday are fables today?" - ibid

"Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know." - ibid

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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