Is Monaigne naive?

Jonathan Segal, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In "Of Cannibals," Michel de Montaigne praises the people found in the new world for their nobility and valour, contrasting the virtues he finds in them with the poor values he sees in Western man.

In one passage, specifically, Montaigne lays it on quite thickly:

These nations, then, seem to be very barbarous, in this sense, that they have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours, and they are in such a state of Purity that I am sometimes vexed that they were unknown earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we. ... This is a nation, I should say to Plato, in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or political authority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon -- unheard of. How far from this perfection would he find the republic that he imagined.

From the above passage, it would seem that Montaigne is seriously misinformed about the "progress" (or lack thereof) of New World civilizations. Is Montaigne serious here? If he is serious, is he being naive about the virtues he finds in New World humanity? Does this naivety undermine his argument? How is Montaigne, in his naivety, actually displaying a typically Western arrogance?

If the passage above is not to be taken seriously, than what rhetorical purpose does it serve?


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Last modified 7 February 2002