Savages? Cannibals? Barbarians? Oh My!: Montaigne and His Ideas about Society

Savages? Cannibals? Barbarians? Oh My!: Montaigne and His Ideas about Society

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In The Complete Essays Michel de Montaigne questions societies ideas about what is right and good in society with the knowledge of the existence of a cannibalistic culture from the “New World”. This completely different civilization shapes his ideas about his own society. Montaigne wants people to take this practically alien civilization and use it as a mirror for their own ideas of what is right and how they conduct themselves.
The introduction of a culture so drastically different from what the Europeans were used to called into question the rightness of their ways. If a whole separate group of people could have developed so differently, their own customs were, perhaps, not the best as they had considered them thus far. Montaigne brings this to light when he says,

“every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything!” (231).

They have only their own culture as a basis for what is “truth or right-reason”. Without being able to see the cannibals culture from the perspective of a cannibal, they cannot think of it as normal. To Europeans, anything that is different will be the wrong because it is not theirs. Through exclusion, people are able to define what they are. By discovering this society, Europeans could claim superiority because they do not act in such “barbaric” ways and have what they would consider a better system. Montaigne commends the cannibals for their consistency in their values of “resolution in war, and affection to their wives” (214). He ...

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.... Here Montaigne is somewhat hypocritical as he is not truly an expert on the cannibals yet he has written an essay about them and his essay will in turn alter the opinions of other people. Although it seems that Montaigne is doing exactly what he thinks is wrong, he cares more about changing his readers ideas about what they accept as a favorable style of living.
Montaigne does not condemn his society. Rather, he wishes to make people question what they believe to be truth and right. He uses the cannibal society as a way to call to question his contemporaries beliefs and to say that the cannibals are not the barbarians that many say they are. Even so, his information may not have been accurate. In the end, it does not matter for it is his way of thinking about the cannibals, not as merely savages, but as a civilization that can teach something to his own society.

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