A week off from Montaigne and now I’m back to him with the essay “On the Cannibals.” The cannibals to which Montaigne is referring are the native peoples living on the coast of the recently “discovered” Brazil (or what we now call Brazil). Montaigne had the opportunity to talk with individuals who had sailed to South America, read a book about the natives of that continent and the horrible treatment they receive from the Conquistadores, and even, with the help of a translator, got to talk with one of the “natives” who had gone to Europe on one of the returning ships, whether by force or not, I am not certain.
Montaigne was highly impressed by the cannibals. They were called cannibals because this particular people would keep a few prisoners from wars with their neighbors, treat them well and fatten them up for a few months and then sacrifice them and eat them. Montaigne’s conclusions were that “there was nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that 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.” An insightful and even minded opinion. But then it starts to go off course, “Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course; whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage.”
It soon becomes clear that Montaigne thinks so highly of the natives because they are primitive and therefore uncorrupted and closer to Nature. Life is so much easier and better living in a state closer to nature. This is obvious because the cannibals inhabit “a land with the most delightful countryside and a temperate climate.” They live so well that the men are not bent with age and spend the whole day dancing while the younger men “go off hunting with bow and arrow.” Meanwhile back on the homefront, while the older men are practicing their moves and the younger ones are bringing home the bacon, the women occupy themselves by warming up the men’s drink. It isn’t clear if it is coffee, cocoa or tea, but it is a warm drink the women make for the men. The men have many wives, a sign of wealth and status. And there is no poverty, no one in the village is left wanting. Montaigne makes it sound like a man’s paradise.
The editor assures the reader in the editor’s note preceding the essay that Montaigne’s thinking is part of “primitivism” and has nothing to do with the “noble savage” thinking that was so popular “centuries” later. This doesn’t really make it any better or worse, both ways of thinking romanticize the lives of people deemed less civilized and therefore closer to nature and therefore more pure. It doesn’t even stop to think that the reason there are no men bent with age is that they are probably all dead. And of course, no one asks the women how they feel about being property and doing all the work while the men yuk it up all day.
But past all the romantic notions Montaigne has a good point we could all do well to remember when confronted by a culture radically different than our own, “It does not sadden me that we should note the horrible barbarity in a practice [cannibalism] such as theirs: what does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own.” Which then begs the question, who is the savage here?
Next week’s Montaigne essay: “On Names”