New World writing as a reflection on the Old World

Kevin Zimmer, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In assessing the merits of native, non-European culture, Montaigne uses Plato's vision of ideal state of man as a lens to view the native society:

"It seems to me that what we actually see in these nations surpasses not only all pictures in which poets have idealized the golden age and all their inventions in imagining a happy state of man, but also the conceptions and the vey desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could they believe that our society maintained with so little artifice and human solder. 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 for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poeverty, no contracts, no sucessions, 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; Men fresh sprung from the gods . (p. 2)

How does Montaigne's strategy of negative identification indicated by a long train of 'no...' clauses illustrate that his European point of view limits his interpretation of the New World? How does his description of this native society as a natural, pure utopia comparatively illustrate how European social constructions are corrupted and flawed? Through negative identification and continual comparisons, do we actually learn much more about Montaigne's critique of European society than we do about the native society that he purportedly describes? Does the inherent subjectivity and complete other-ness of a European writer prohibit him from adequately describing a foreign, New World culture?


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Last modified 6 February 2002