Time and Distance in 'Of Cannibals'�


In the 1700s, most upperclass European males had extensive knowledge of literature and philosophy. However, as more of the world was discovered, these same citizens were at a geographic and cultural disadvantage. Illiterate men, such as sailors or indentured servants, were more likely to brave long voyages than the affluent scholar. Information about the new lands and people was highly desired, but sources were few and often inaccurate. In 'Of Cannibals', Michel de Montaigne is aware that he must rely on ancient literature and common report to compare the culture of New World cannibals with his own culture. Montaigne often references Plato, an ancient source, to defend the New World's inhabitants primitiveness.

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.

Plato, over 1600 years dead by this time, was famous for his distrust of writing to convey truth. In quoting Plato and a multitude of other ancient texts, Montaigne idealizes both a far removed past and far removed 'New World' cultures, and criticizes his own time and culture as a result.

Questions

1. In the beginning of the essay particularly, Montaigne refers to ancient texts in order to glean an understanding of geography. Does the weaving in and out of common report and ancient text strengthen Montaigne's text or warp it?

2. How does Montaigne's discussion of gradual climate changes versus sudden inundations apply to the New World and its inhabitants? Does it further mystify geography, or aid to explain it?

3. When Montaigne references Shakespeare at the end of the above passage, does he satirize Plato or his culture?

4. Montaigne writes, 'So native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into [Plato and Lycurgus'] imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork,' is he really speaking of Plato and Lycurgus?

5. The paragraph following Virgil's simple quote 'These were the manners taught first by nature' is dense yet simply written and packed with information about the New World's inhabitants. Why is this information placed so late in the essay? Does the paragraph strengthen Virgil's quote?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Michel de Montaigne

20 September 2007