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Essay on On the Cannibals by Michel de Montaigne

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In Montaigne’s essay On the Cannibals, the critical analysis of European and Brazilian societies through the scope of the “other” establishes the distinction between the two worlds. However, the definitions of “self” and “other” quickly become blurred as Montaigne connected more synonymous aspects in governance and functioning of the two groups of people. By labeling the outsiders as the “self” and accepting their formalities as the norm, he undermines the Europeans as the “other” and uses the Barbarians to examine the civilized with an untainted perspective, enabling close scrutiny and analysis of both societies. It is through this definition that Montaigne is initially able to offer criticism of the ignorance of European arrogance and assumed superiority over the Barbarians. Montaigne concludes that the civilized and uncivilized both possess aspects that deviate from the idealized state of purity of Nature. The Europeans are far more corrupted but upon further introspection, the Cannibals are evolving towards the same nature of developing a more inorganic society. Therefore, the definition of the “self” offers a more profound understanding of the Barbarians and dismisses the importance of Montaigne’s society while stating the inevitability of transitioning to a more developed culture like the Europeans by the Barbarians.
The “stranger” as defined by Montaigne’s essay is the Europeans who ignorantly consider their society to be the center and apex. To the cannibalistic natives who operate a society that is much more primitive than the Europeans and who are concerned with the mere rudimentary aspects of life, the European society is peculiar. The Europeans “consent to obey a boy” (p.240) and have extreme social injustice where “...


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...er” becomes the Barbarians. If the strangers were the Cannibals, then the status quo of the French society is preserved and the cannibalistic behaviors of the foreigners become unconventional. This is assuming the belief that the Europeans are the norm. By identifying the “self” and the “other”, he first sets the differences between the two and then blurs them to state that the universal human posses characteristics of both societies and that one is not necessarily more civilized than the other. As the essay progresses, the coming together of the Barbarian and the European suggests that the Cannibals are closer to the operations of Nature but will eventually progress toward the same society structure as the one present in Europe. He therefore addresses the universal human by examining both societies but not offering an absolute standard for which is more barbaric.



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