Retrospect
Journal.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

An Analysis of Michel de Montaigne’s ‘On the Cannibals’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a significant philosopher of the French Renaissance whose stated goal was to describe humans with utter frankness, yet during his lifetime he was admired more as a statesman than as an author. Born into a wealthy Roman Catholic family, Montaigne’s education was rigorous and took place under the direction of notable figures such as George Buchanan. On completion of a law degree, he joined the local legal system, after which he was appointed a counsellor at the parliament in Bordeaux. While serving in Parliament, he befriended the humanist poet Étienne de La Boétie, whose death in 1563 deeply affected him and supposedly drove him to begin the Essais, a collection of short subjective essays on various topics inspired by his studies in the Classics. The work covered in this piece will be On the Cannibals, which Montaigne completed in 1580, in which he criticises the ‘common opinion’ of Western and Central Europeans concerning ‘barbarians’1.  

At the time, there was much fascination about the barbarians of the ‘New World’ throughout Europe – specifically those ‘discovered’ in the regions of present-day Brazil where Villegaignon had landed in 1557 – which Montaigne felt it necessary to discuss, as the topic was of growing significance and he had become increasingly frustrated with people who would dismiss the importance of reason when observing, accounting, and consuming information. Thus, in On the Cannibals, Montaigne challenges the epistemology of the average sixteenth-century European by implicitly posing the question: why does one think those who are not European are instead barbarian or savage? By asking this, he draws attention to the European tendency to use Europe as a model society and, in doing so, creating dualities, stating that, ‘There is no lie to say that these men are indeed savages – by our standards; for either they must be or we must be: there is an amazing gulf between their souls and ours.’2  

One of Montaigne’s foremost messages in On the Cannibals is to be wary of the New World accounts of ‘better-bred sort of men’, as 

‘they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgement, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention.’ 

Here, he stresses man’s ability to manipulate for self-gain and warns audiences to be aware and critical of what information is relayed. Instead, Montaigne favours the accounts of those ‘plain ignorant fellow(s)’ – in his own case, he hosted a man who supposedly fit the description and had spent ten to twelve years in Brazil. From what was told, Montaigne deduced that,  

‘There is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to.’  

This conclusion, which Montaigne arrived at quite early on in his essay, sets the stage for his following criticisms, particularly that of challenging the extent of applicability of Plato’s Republic, as his famous line states: ‘How much would he find his imaginary Republic short of perfection?’ A bold statement during a time where Platonian and Aristotelian epistemologies were issued in abundance to explain the ‘unexplainable’, the ‘other’. Montaigne suggests that those inhabiting the New World are only barbarous in the sense that they remain close to their original state of nature, that they are governed by the laws of Nature, and so are pure, the corruptions and temptations of the ‘civilised’ world absent. He believes that there is something to learn from the lifestyles of these so-called ‘savages’, and he goes on to describe their livelihoods from what has been recounted to him, praises their valour, and is envious of the polygamous relationships which they practice. Nonetheless, Montaigne does not dismiss the barbarity and cruelty of some actions but asks his readers to acknowledge their own societies’ cruelties and to not fall prey to double standards. In contrast to the ‘noble savage’ invented in later centuries, Montaigne’s essay exhibits an admiration for much of the conduct of the inhabitants of the New World and a respect for those who are deemed barbarous. He holds Europe accountable for condemning those who are different and underlines the blatant prejudice of ‘common opinion’.  

In William O’Reilly’s Conceptualising America in Early Modern Central Europe, the ‘Europisation of Europe’, or the image of a set of societies seen to share cultural and social constructs, is highlighted, and through this view the representation and invention of the Americas pre- and post-1700 is consequentially deemed ‘a state of mind for central Europe’. O’Reilly supplements Montaigne’s point of dualism by stating that, ‘the need to have an enemy, an opposition, was absolute and real,’ as the perseverance of a European identity required a common item which was found in the ‘other’, namely the heathen, the nomad. David Abulafia explains how fifteenth and sixteenth-century thought rendered ‘rootlessness’ as a lack of civilised ways, a notion that Montaigne tries to dispel in his essay by explaining how the societies that the people of Brazil have established – albeit different from that of Europe – are nonetheless a form of civilisation. The ideas displayed by Montaigne concerning expedition accounts and common opinion of the sixteenth century barbarian often seem uniform or in tandem with political endeavours that are elaborated in both the work of O’Reilly and Abulafia. The invention of the savage was facilitated by the manipulation of information that created stereotypes which prompted reactions of hostility and superiority. An example would be the rising antagonisms between central Europeans and the Turks, who were a greater threat to central Europe due to their proximity, whilst the native American threat was more imaginary than real, thus creating an image of a people who were in limbo between the savage and the civilised: the noble savage. 

Written by Megan Sickmueller 

Bibliography 

Abulafia, David. “Chapter 2: Wild Men and Wanderers” in The Discovery of Mankind, London: Yale University Press, 2009. 10-23 

Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London: Penguin Books, 1993), book I.31. 

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Montaigne, Complete, trans. Charles Cotton (ebook: Gutenberg Version, 2006), Chapter XXX 

O’Reilly, William. “Conceptualising America in Early Modern Central Europe” in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 1998, Vol. 65, 101-121 

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