Views of the other in Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"

Katie Reynolds '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In "Of Cannibals" Michel de Montaigne comments on the natural tendency of humans to see the other as barbaric simply because it is different from what they know.

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful, and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate. And yet for all this, our taste confesses a flavour and delicacy excellent even to emulation of the best of ours, in several fruits wherein those countries abound without art of culture. Neither is it reasonable that art should gain the pre-eminence of our great and powerful mother nature. We have so surcharged her with the additional ornaments and graces we have added to the beauty and riches of her own works by our inventions, that we have almost smothered her; yet in other places, where she shines in her own purity and proper lustre, she marvellously baffles and disgraces all our vain and frivolous attempts:

'The ivy grows best spontaneously, the arbutus best in shady caves; and the wild notes of birds are sweater than art can teach.' Propertius, i. 2, 10.

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.

Questions

1. Does Montaigne think he is removed from feeling that his home is the place of perfection to which all others are compared? If so, how does this affect his creditability?

2. Is Montaigne arguing that "higher" societies are in fact the strange ones, not cannibals, because they have been unnaturally changed from the "barbaric" state they naturally began in? (Similar to the fruit Montaigne says we should call wild because humans have altered it.)

3. If the natural state of things is full of more truth and beauty, then following Montaigne's argument society ideally should revert to cannibalism. How would Montaigne justify the idera that such reversion is not a good idea and yet at the same time respect this society of cannibals he has just argued are not barbaric?


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Last modified 14 September 2002