Journal of Early Modern Studies

Volume 10, Issue 2, Fall 2021

Kyle S. Hodge
Pages 9-33

The Conservatism of the Counterreformation in Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

Montaigne’s “Apology” is a lengthy work the overarching theme of which is the relationship between epistemology, virtue, and vice. It is a commentary on the thesis that science or knowledge “is the mother of all virtue and that all vice is produced by ignorance.” Montaigne’s response is radical and unequivocal: there is no idea more harmful; its consequences are no less than the destruction of inward contentment and the undermining of societal peace and stability. Indeed, Montaigne sees the Protestant Reformation as the instantiation of this terrible thesis, with all of the attendant trouble it had and continued to cause in France. So Montaigne inverts the thesis: ignorance begets virtue and (presumption of ) knowledge vice. Out of this inversion he draws many conservative social and political consequences, and this is one of the most interesting and yet underexplored aspects of the text. Montaigne exhibits the conservatism of the Counterreformation in the “Apology,” and I intend to draw more attention to this theme. I show that Montaigne’s main target in the “Apology” was not dogmatism as such, but Protestantism as a species of dogmatism. I then show that, by using a few elementary epistemic concepts, Montaigne launches a withering skeptical attack on the Reformation. Out of this criticism I draw some important conservative themes that have significant implications for our understanding of Montaigne’s social and political thought, as well as for conservative political theory and its intellectual history.