Montaigne meanders�

Michel de Montaigne mocks French society for its barbarism in his essay on Brazilian natives, "Of Cannibals." His essay ostensibly describes the manners of the natives, who eat human captives, to show that these cannibals are less barbaric than sixteenth-century Frenchmen. But Montaigne's supposed tangents sustain his point as much, if not more, than his descriptions. Here, after describing the Brazilians' thirst for valor, Montaigne seemingly falls into a narrative from ancient Greek history:

Never could those four sister victories, the fairest the sun ever be held, of Salamis, Plataea, Mycale, and Sicily, venture to oppose all their united glories, to the single glory of the discomfiture of King Leonidas and his men, at the pass of Thermopylae. Who ever ran with a more glorious desire and greater ambition, to the winning, than Captain Iscolas to the certain loss of a battle? —[Diodorus Siculus, xv. 64.] —Who could have found out a more subtle invention to secure his safety, than he did to assure his destruction? He was set to defend a certain pass of Peloponnesus against the Arcadians, which, considering the nature of the place and the inequality of forces, finding it utterly impossible for him to do, and seeing that all who were presented to the enemy, must certainly be left upon the place; and on the other side, reputing it unworthy of his own virtue and magnanimity and of the Lacedaemonian name to fail in any part of his duty, he chose a mean betwixt these two extremes after this manner; the youngest and most active of his men, he preserved for the service and defence of their country, and sent them back; and with the rest, whose loss would be of less consideration, he resolved to make good the pass, and with the death of them, to make the enemy buy their entry as dear as possibly he could; as it fell out, for being presently environed on all sides by the Arcadians, after having made a great slaughter of the enemy, he and his were all cut in pieces. Is there any trophy dedicated to the conquerors which was not much more due to these who were overcome? The part that true conquering is to play, lies in the encounter, not in the coming off; and the honour of valour consists in fighting, not in subduing.

But to return to my story: these prisoners are so far from discovering the least weakness, for all the terrors that can be represented to them, that, on the contrary, during the two or three months they are kept, they always appear with a cheerful countenance; importune their masters to make haste to bring them to the test, defy, rail at them, and reproach them with cowardice, and the number of battles they have lost against those of their country. I have a song made by one of these prisoners, wherein he bids them "come all, and dine upon him, and welcome, for they shall withal eat their own fathers and grandfathers, whose flesh has served to feed and nourish him. These muscles," says he, "this flesh and these veins, are your own: poor silly souls as you are, you little think that the substance of your ancestors' limbs is here yet; notice what you eat, and you will find in it the taste of your own flesh:" in which song there is to be observed an invention that nothing relishes of the barbarian.

Montaigne quietly compares the feisty Brazilian captive to the 300 Spartans fighting innumerable Persians in the doomed battle of Thermopylae. He deliberately draws on the history of a time period considered the pinnacle of Western civilization by his peers, but he refers to his decision so casually that the comparison isn't immediately obvious.


1. How is placing the retelling of the battle of Thermopylae outside Montaigne's narrative more effective than a direct comparison of the Spartans and the Brazilians?

2. Montaigne uses the word "invention" twice, once when referring to King Leonidas' plans to fight the Persians and once to characterize the Brazilian captive's musical taunts. As he doesn't mimic much of his language from the first paragraph in the second, what is the effect of choosing this word to describe courage in the face of assured death?

3.How does the captive's song further Montaigne's point, especially he doesn't include direct words from King Leonidas?

4. Why is valor so important to Montaigne? Why does he think a good society is characterized by it?

5. In "A Modest Proposal," Jonathan Swift makes his argument step by logical step, until he convinces the reader that Irish children should be eaten. Is Montaigne's meandering structure as effective as Swift's in proving an outrageous point? See also an earlier break Montaigne takes in the essay, to expound on the importance of ignorance in telling truth ("That man that I had was a plain ignorant fellow.")


Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)

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20 September 2007