In “Of Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne proclaims that what people consider to be barbaric is in fact only that which is unknown to them. Not only does he defend the non-europeans of the “New World”, he goes as far as to say that it is actually his own society who is corrupt and barbaric in its values. Montaigne places the conventional definitions of civilization and barbarity in opposition to each other, justifying, at times even glorifying, the cannibal, all seemingly with the greater purpose of critiquing his own culture.

They have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, and without other arms than their bows and wooden swords, fashioned at one end like the head of our javelins. The obstinacy of their battles is wonderful, and they never end without great effusion of blood: for as to running away, they know not what it is. Every one for a trophy brings home the head of an enemy he has killed, which he fixes over the door of his house. After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs, invites a great assembly of his friends. They being come, he ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner, of which, at a distance, out of his reach, he holds the one end himself, and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold after the same manner; which being. done, they two, in the presence of all the assembly, despatch him with their swords. After that, they roast him, eat him amongst them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices amongst their neighbours, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead....We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.

In this passage Montaigne gives reason and logic to the cannibalism and attempts to use it as a tool to reveal faults in his own people.

Questions

1. What is the effect upon the reader of describing the scene of cannibalism? In what way does it aid or detract from proving Montaigne’s point about the barbarity of his own society?

2. Montaigne concludes the passage by writing of the figurative cannibalism of his culture in contrast to the physical, literal cannibalism of the “savage” society (EX: “in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments” vs. “roast and eat him after he is dead”). What is Montaigne suggesting about his own culture’s way of life in making these comparisons?

3. “We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason.” Why does Montaigne believe that society he has been defending throughout his essay may be seen as barbarous in light of the “the rules of reason”?

4. “Of Cannibalism” at once criticizes the narrow lens of European thought and defends the “New World” and its customs. Is it more one than the other, why or why not?

Does Montaigne ever seem to suggest that these societies can learn from one another?


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Last modified ddate 7 February 2011