The problem of indirectness in Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"

In order to question the putative superiority of European civilization over the indigenous populations of the recently discovered New World, Michel de Montaigne in his essay "Of Cannibals" draws a detailed picture of the savages' customs and habits. Despite the essay opens with a reference on the importance of direct observation in making our own judgments (having "viewed and considered," Pyrrhus states that"the disposition of this army that I see has nothing of barbarism in it" [my italics]), the sources of the author's written representation are rarely direct ones. Throuhgout the essay Montaigne calls on specific intermediate figures (a man he personally knows, an interpreter or even cultural artifacts such as songs) to illustrate the peculiar features of Europe's wild 'barbaric' counterpart. The following passage accounts for a legitimate use of second-hand information in the case of a particular man who might serve the author's purpose:

Now in this case, we should either have a man of irreproachable veracity, or so simple that he has not wherewital to contrive, and to give a colour of truth to false relations, and who can have no ends in forging an untruth. Such a one was mine; and besides, he has at divers times brought to me several seamen and merchants who at the same time went the same voyage. I shall therefore content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say to the business. We should have topographers to trace out to us the particular places where they have been; but for having had this advantage over us, to have seen the Holy Land, they would have the privilege, forsooth, to tell us stories of all the other parts of the world beside. I would have every one write what he knows, and as much as he knows, but no more; and that not in this only but in all other subjects; for such a person may have some particular knowledge and experience of the nature of such a river, or such a fountain, who, as to other things, knows no more than what everybody does, and yet to give a currency to his little pittance of learning, will undertake to write the whole body of physics: a vice from which great inconveniences derive their original. [pp. 2-3]

By connecting reliability to unsophisticated report and simplicity, Montaigne makes implicitly ambiguous his own status as a polemicist. His widespread use of classic quotations and his continual digressions ('Now, to return to my subject' (p.3), 'But to return to my story' (p.7) seem to work against his claims to stick to focused knowledge and experience.


1. What are the effects of the technique of anchoring the author's argument to a trustful intermediate source?

2. What is the writer's own personal limited field of knowledge in the essay?

3. Are indirect sources used to argue how 'we are to juddge by the eye of reason' [my italics]?


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

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20 September 2007