The Rhythm of Montaigne: Perfecting Essay Writing to a Science

Brian Baskin, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Michel de Montaigne with sermon-like intensity delivers the central idea of his essay:

The whole day is spent in dancing. The younger men go to hunt animals with bows. Some of the women busy themselves meanwhile with warming their drink, which is their chief duty. Some one of the old men, in the morning before they begin to eat, preaches to the whole barnful in common, walking from one end to the other, and repeating one single sentence several times until he has completed the circuit (for the buildings are fully a hundred paces long). He recommends to them only two things: valor against the enemy and love for their wives. And they never fail to point out this obligation, as their refrain, that it is their wives who keep their drink warm and seasoned.

The rhythm of Of Cannibals is remarkable. Though on the surface the piece favorably compares a newly discovered people to European cultures, his real message is that valor and love are the two qualities of humanity that must be valued above all others in order to create a more successful society. The first three sentences are short, choppy, and have little connection to one another. The next, however, flows through numerous clauses, and into the next sentence, where a colon abruptly grabs the reader’s attention. Here Montaigne chooses to lay down his vision of an ideal society. Once the reader has taken in the phrase "valor against the enemy and love for their wives,"Montaigne returns to his pseudo-scholarly analysis of the newly discovered people.

The above passage can be seen as a microcosm for the entire essay. It comes almost exactly at the center, preceded by historical analysis that at its heart cautions the reader to be open minded, and is followed by further exploration of Montaigne’s hopes for humanity.

Questions: This sort of rhythmic writing is nice, but is there a downside? Is this satire? He’s fairly up front about his opinion, even arguing his case without the need for a device at times, but in the passage above and elsewhere, he thinly veils his argument in his description of foreign customs. The first sentence, "the whole day is spent dancing,"is a bit of a non sequitur. Does it mean anything other than its face value?
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Last modified 6 February 2002