Comparisons to Europe in "Of Cannibals"

Carolyn Ang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In his essay "Of Cannibals," Michel de Montaigne relies heavily on the technique of comparing and contrasting Western society with a band of natives that practice cannibalism. He criticizes what he sees as social flaws -- "treachery, disloyalty, tyranny and cruelty"-- and expresses outrage at society's acceptance of these "ordinary vices." (5)

His arguments are logical and eloquent. At times he is brutally direct in his social critique. His initial comments seem more metaphorical and not so pointed. When Montaigne says, "really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order that we should rather call wild," he is referring to what he thinks of as the Western world's adultrated values. (2) He then goes on to contrast his society with native life. He lists the vices of his people that are absent in the natives' culture: "there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kin, no clothes, no agriculture, no mental, no use of wine or wheat." (3) In their culture, "the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon - unheard of." (3) Rather, they are a culture that values "valor against the enemy and love for their wives"- in other words, honor and familial devotion.

As the essay continues, Montaigne's words grow overtly harsher and his argument more complex. He debunks the former assumption that natives are completely innocent and pure, when he reveals the reason for their cannibalism: "This is not, as many people think, for nourishment... it is to betoken an extreme revenge." (4) He uses this appalling knowledge to illustrate how much worse his own culture is, by describing the torture Westerners inflict on their own enemies, adopting the natives' view that Westerners are "much greater masters than themselves in every sort of wickedness" (4). He lambasts his people, saying, "So we may well call these people barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity." (5)

Reading Questions

  1. What function do the Atlantis and Aristotle examples serve to further Montaigne's argument against Western notions of barbarism? Why does he include them so early in the piece, before he touches on his main points?
  2. What are Montaigne's motives for his explanation of "clever people" and their tendency to alter facts to better support their arguments? (2) Does this revelation/admission help or hinder his credibility as a wisdom speaker?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

Last modified 4 February 2002