In his essay "Of Cannibals", Michel de Montaigne juxtaposes the behavior and traditions of society in his native France and the supposedly barbaric habits and rituals practiced by a people native to a land newly discovered by Europeans. Montaigne presents the two cultures in a satirical manner in order to contend that the natives of the New World are no more barbaric than so-called civilized Europeans:
Our utmost endeavours cannot arrive at so much as to imitate the nest of the least of birds, its contexture, beauty, and convenience: not so much as the web of a poor spider.
All things, says Plato,--[Laws, 10.]--are produced either by nature, by fortune, or by art; the greatest and most beautiful by the one or the other of the former, the least and the most imperfect by the last.
These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but 'tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. 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 into 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.
How much would he find his imaginary Republic short of his perfection?
1. Montaigne's rambling prose imitates thought process more closely than does a paragraph of concise statements. Is the reader to assume that he is being more honest or more sincere because of his use of this style?
2. According to the Plato's assertion about the production of all things, says Montaigne, the barbaric people of the New World are "the greatest and most beautiful" because they live so close to nature. What is Montaigne saying by quoting Plato and then in the same paragraph making a statement about the inferiority of Plato's Republic to the cannibalistic society of the New World? Doesn't that discredit his citation of Plato?
3. Montaigne lists many modernities lacking in the cannibals' nation before asking, "How much would [Plato] find his imaginary Republic short of his perfection?". What is Montaigne's tone here? Is he contradicting himself by saying that since things produced by nature, according to Plato, are the greatest, so are the cannibals great and beautiful, and then, after essentially cataloguing the aspects of Western life, inquiring as to whether Plato would prefer the cannibals' society to his Republic?
Last modified 24 September 2007