Essays Montaigne

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During a French expedition to South America in 1557, the explorer Villegaignon encountered a tribe of cannibals in what was then called “Antarctic France” but what is now called Brazil. Montaigne not only met one of these cannibals at Rouen in 1562 but also employed a servant who had spent a dozen years living among them in their native land.

From this firsthand knowledge, Montaigne in “Of Cannibals” reverses the egocentric European belief in the superiority of Western culture.

Not simple, ignorant, and barbarous as some would insist, cannibals live in harmony with nature, employ useful and virtuous skills, and enjoy a perfect religious life and governmental system.

Instead, it is the European who has bastardized nature and her works, while the so-called savage lives in a state of purity.

He argues in favor of cultural relativism: I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.

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While Montaigne does not condone their ritual of eating the dead bodies of their enemies, he is very aware of the many forms of horrendous torture commonly practiced on living people in 1500s Europe.

The cannibals have, he says, no words for lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, and other vices.

They have no slaves, no distinctions between rich and poor, and no mania...

On habit: and on never easily changing a traditional law24.

That it is madness to judge the true and the false from our own capacities28. Nine and twenty sonnets of Estienne de La Boëtie30. On fleeing from pleasures at the cost of one’s life34.

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