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In "Of Cannibals," Michel de Montaigne takes a ideological step hundreds of years through human thought to proclaim that indigenous peoples that Europeans come across in their travels and conquests are no more "barbaric" than Europeans themselves. In an often painfully direct mannner, Montaigne catalouges the reasons why European society lacks the honesty, morality, and noble nature that even a canibalistic society can attain:

And the physicians make no bones of employing it to all sorts of use, either to apply it outwardly; or to give it inwardly for the health of the patient. But there never was any opinion so irregular, as to excuse treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, and cruelty, which are our familiar vices. We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them. Their wars are throughout noble and generous, and carry as much excuse and fair pretence, as that human malady is capable of; having with them no other foundation than the sole jealousy of valour. Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labour or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders. And they are, moreover, happy in this, that they only covet so much as their natural necessities require: all beyond that is superfluous to them: men of the same age call one another generally brothers, those who are younger, children; and the old men are fathers to all. These leave to their heirs in common the full possession of goods, without any manner of division, or other title than what nature bestows upon her creatures, in bringing them into the world. If their neighbours pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valour and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered, but presently return into their own country, where they have no want of anything necessary, nor of this greatest of all goods, to know happily how to enjoy their condition and to be content. And those in turn do the same; they demand of their prisoners no other ransom, than acknowledgment that they are overcome: but there is not one found in an age, who will not rather choose to die than make such a confession, or either by word or look recede from the entire grandeur of an invincible courage. There is not a man amongst them who had not rather be killed and eaten, than so much as to open his mouth to entreat he may not. They use them with all liberality and freedom, to the end their lives may be so much the dearer to them; but frequently entertain them with menaces of their approaching death, of the torments they are to suffer, of the preparations making in order to it, of the mangling their limbs, and of the feast that is to be made, where their carcass is to be the only dish.

Canibalism is besides the point, argues Montaigne, if a people can represent themselves with dignity, express brotherhood, and fight not for land, but for valor. The "familiar vices" of Europe are, in Montaigne's view, the greatest assault upon humanity. Without valor, the trait he most admires in the societies he studies, Europe is an inferior society convinced of their own superiority.

Questions

1. Would the European viewer be alienated by his drastic criticism? So much so that his message would be overlooked in favor of criticizing his method?

2. Are there parallels between Montaigne's argument and arguments put forth by the American left throughout the twentieth century? In terms of romanticizing other cultures?

3. If Montaigne is so critical of European society, why does he draw so heavily upon Western literary traditions to bolster his argument? Does this discredit it?

4. Why is valor so important to Montaigne? Why does he think a good society is characterized by it?

5. Are Montaigne's observations and reflections weakened by not having specific solutions?

References

Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

20 September 2007