Credibility in Montaigne

Xiaojue Hu, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

More sage than satirist, Montaigne attempts to play with sixteenth-century European readers' assumptions about the "barbaric," "savage," and "conquered" in an essay bolstered by references to accepted authorities of antiquity, dubious authorial credibility, and much logical exposition. While Swift, via the voice of an invented narrator, satirically implies that eating babies offers more clemency to the general populace than allowing them to live and die, Montaigne relies upon outside accounts of the New World to assert that foreign habits of eating dead people are less barbaric than European methods of metaphorically consuming them alive. Montaigne is so convinced, in fact, of Noble Savage superiority that he may have outdone himself in conveying such messages in a credible and effective way:

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 valor. 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 labor 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.

1. About the philosophical implications of Montaigne's points: is he asserting that fighting purely for the jealousy of valour is morally preferable to fighting for territory, or religion, or political issues? Were we to look at this point from its literary implications: would readers be convinced of the savages' superior motives for war through Montaigne's comparison between valor and more "ignoble" causes, such as those by others not in possession of lands "fruitful by nature?" Although Montaigne later expounds upon the virtues of spiritual conquests over the physical in his Leonidas recount, how is that relevant or persuasive for Montaigne's case? 2. Although the minds of the sixteenth-century European educated may be sufficiently swayed by Montaigne's familiar deferrals to ancient sages, are Western ancient agreement to the author's philosophical statements convincing in the context of discussing New World practices? What is the function of the first few paragraphs on ancient geographical conceptions of the New World? 3. In the last section, Montaigne attempts to clinch his authority by doffing all allusions to ambiguous sources and offering his very own first-hand account of New World culture: "I talked to one of them a great while together, but I had so ill an interpreter, and one who was so perplexed by his own ignorance to apprehend my meaning, that I could get nothing out of him of any moment." Why would Montaigne preface his last paragraph, and what we can only assume to be one of his more convincing points, with a sentence that would seemingly undermine everything else which follows?


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Last modified 14 September 2002