Rhetoric of the Haves and Have-nots�

Michel de Montaigne, writing from a position of civilization insists upon rhetoric of the haves and have-nots. Modern civilizations have clothing, while barbarians have none. Montaigne attempts to prove the point that many modern men are actually morally inferior to barbarians, readers cannot be sure if Montaigne is in actuality praising barbarians, who, as he states at the end of his piece "wear no breeches," a phrase which undermines his argument.

I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

But to return to my story: these prisoners are so far from discovering the least weakness, for all the terrors that can be represented to them, that, on the contrary, during the two or three months they are kept, they always appear with a cheerful countenance; importune their masters to make haste to bring them to the test, defy, rail at them, and reproach them with cowardice, and the number of battles they have lost against those of their country. I have a song made by one of these prisoners, wherein he bids them "come all, and dine upon him, and welcome, for they shall withal eat their own fathers and grandfathers, whose flesh has served to feed and nourish him. These muscles," says he, "this flesh and these veins, are your own: poor silly souls as you are, you little think that the substance of your ancestors' limbs is here yet; notice what you eat, and you will find in it the taste of your own flesh:" in which song there is to be observed an invention that nothing relishes of the barbarian.

Montaigne re-creates this barbaric society through a catalogue of denial, listing all that this society does not have. Through a similar type of denial, Montaigne also subversively denies the famous philosophers of the knowledge of a group of people he himself is capable of seeing. In his denial of these have-nots, Montaigne is able to create his own superiority by cleverly disguising compliments within insult.


1. What is the effect of this negative cataloguing on the narrator's argument?

2. What effect does Montaigne's use of the pronoun "I" have on the argument? Does this shift in using the pronoun suggest a certain authority?

1. Does Montaigne place his own civilization on par with that of Plato's? If so, how does this inclusion affect and contrast with the barbarous society?

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

5. When Montaigne's narrator says "I am sorry" that ancient philosophers could not see the barbarity of these people, does it suggest a certain degree of intellectual superiority?


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

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20 September 2007