Montaigne's Image of the State

Montaigne prefaces his main argument in "Of Cannibals" with an elegant analogy of a river as the state, displacing readers' perceptions of a civilized European government and preparing them for the claims that follow.

It should seem, that in this great body, there are two sorts of motions, the one natural and the other febrific, as there are in ours. When I consider the impression that our river of Dordogne has made in my time on the right bank of its descent, and that in twenty years it has gained so much, and undermined the foundations of so many houses, I perceive it to be an extraordinary agitation: for had it always followed this course, or were hereafter to do it, the aspect of the world would be totally changed. But rivers alter their course, sometimes beating against the one side, and sometimes the other, and some times quietly keeping the channel. I do not speak of sudden inundations, the causes of which everybody understands. In Medoc, by the seashore, the Sieur d'Arsac, my brother, sees an estate he had there, buried under the sands which the sea vomits before it: where the tops of some houses are yet to be seen, and where his rents and domains are converted into pitiful barren pasturage. The inhabitants of this place affirm, that of late years the sea had driven so vehemently upon them, that they have lost above four leagues of land. These sands are her harbingers: and we now see great heaps of moving sand, that march half a league before her, and occupy the land (paragraph 7).

The "body" that Montaigne mentions in line one obviously refers to the body politic, making it easy to gauge the attitudes asserted in the paragraph toward the swollen, erosive French government. The analogy is so complete that it even includes a clause about revolution ("sudden inundations" — sentence four), as well as a forceful statement about the future (the eminent threat of government as "harbingers" which "occupy the land" — sentence 7). The river can assume a left, right, or centrist course, just as a government can, and if its febrific motion exceeds its natural motions, the effects will inflict disaster upon everyone who lives close to it.


1. How are the simile in line one and the paragraph's main analogy parallel structures?

2. Why is the image of "houses" being buried by sand and lost such a particularly effective example?

3. How does specific language within this paragraph used to convey the narrator's attitude toward the state? How does this compare to Swift?

4. Montaigne employs testimony as a technique throughout the essay. Is the testimony given in this paragraph used for the same effect as in other paragraphs, for example, the testimony given by the "plain ignorant fellow" of paragraph 9?


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

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

24 September 2007

24 September 2007