Classical Valor and Modern Barbarity

Maggie Barron, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In Montaigne's "Of Cannibals," the narrator explores the implications of the word "barbarian" and what it means to different cultures. He observes that "everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country," and attempts to disprove that the cannibalistic practices of people in the New World are barbaric at all. By using anecdotes from classical battles and philosophers, the narrator argues that the "savages" possess more honor and virtue than modern societies do. "We may then call these people barbarous," he says, "in respect to rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them."

In fact, to the narrator, the actual act of cannibalism is of little importance. What matters, he says, is the warriors' courageous eagerness to meet their gruesome deaths, and their refusal to admit defeat. Honor does not depend on victory (or on avoiding being eaten), because "valour is stability, not of legs and arms, but of the courage and the soul."

1. The narrator begins the essay with a quote from King Pyrrhus to demonstrate the inconsistency of the word "barbarian." What then, does he think "barbarism" truly means?

2. Before the natives of the New World are even introduced, the narrator tells us that his source of information was

a plain and ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell the truth: for your better-bred sort of men are much more curious in their observation, 'tis true, and discover a great deal more; but then they gloss upon it, and to give the greater weight to what they deliver, and allure your belief, they cannot forbear a little to alter the story; they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgement, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention.

What does this passage imply about our own narrator and his credibility? Does that change how one should read the rest of the essay?

3. Why does the narrator alternate between observations of cannibals and classical references? Would Lycurgus and Plato really think that the native tribes "surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age," as the narrator claims?
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Last modified 14 September 2002