Excerpts from "Of Cannibals" (1580)
Reprinted in Michel de Montaigne: Selected Essays
Translated by Donald M. Frame
Published in 1943
Today the essay is a familiar literary genre (form), which appears in books, magazines, and newspapers. It is now considered an ideal mode of self-expression that enables the writer to communicate his or her inner thoughts and feelings. Yet the essay was unknown until the late Renaissance period, when it was introduced by the French author Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). The term essay was first used by Montaigne for short prose discussions. It comes from the French word essai, meaning "trial," "an attempt," or "testing." The informal essay as Montaigne understood and developed it is the method a writer uses to test his or her own views on life and the self.
"What do I know?"
In 1580 Montaigne published Essais (Essays), a collection of his essays, in which he used self-portrayal as a method for reaching conclusions about human experience in general. He was not a systematic thinker, however, and he did not maintain a single point of view. Instead, he preferred to show the randomness of his own thought as representative of theself-contradiction to which all people are prone. Montaigne's characteristic motto was "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?") Although he was skeptical about the power of human reason, he argued that each person should have self-knowledge in order to live happily.
Since Montaigne believed that "each man bears the complete stamp of the human condition," his essays can also be seen as portraits of humankind in all its diversity. He constantly attacked the presumption, arrogance, and pride of ordinary people, yet he held the highest view of human dignity. As a skeptic (one who maintains an attitude of doubt), Montaigne opposed intolerance and fanaticism, saying that truth is never one-sided. He championed individual freedom but held that even repressive laws should be obeyed. He feared violence and anarchy (lawlessness or political disorder) and was suspicious of any radical proposals that might jeopardize the existing order. Acceptance and detachment were for him the keys to happiness.
Montaigne wrote on a wide range of subjects, including idleness, the education of children, friendship, solitude, the inconsistency of human actions, and vanity. Excerpts from one of his best-known essays, "Of Cannibals," are reprinted below.
Things to Remember While Reading Excerpts from "Of Cannibals":
- In "Of Cannibals" Montaigne contemplated a society of cannibals (people who eat other humans) that had been recently discovered in Antarctic France (Brazil). His purpose was to draw comparisons between supposedly "civilized" French society and "barbarians" (those who have no culture or religion).
- "Of Cannibals" is a lengthy essay, in which Montaigne gave a detailed account of the cannibals' society. He described their houses, daily life, religious customs, relations between men and women, child-rearing practices, music, food, and other aspects of the culture. He relied on evidence provided by a man he mentions in the opening excerpt, who had lived among the cannibals for ten or twelve years. Montaigne had personally tasted a drink that was popular among the cannibals, and he had heard a song and some poetry. He also interviewed a native of the society who visited France.
- On the basis of his own observations, Montaigne concluded that "civilized" people may be no better or worse than "savages." In fact, he argued, civilization had smothered the natural instincts of human beings.
Excerpts from "Of Cannibals"
I had with me for a long time a man who had lived for ten or twelve years in that other world which was discovered in our century, in the place where Villegaignon landed, and which he called Antarctic France. This discovery of a boundless country seems worthy of consideration…
We need a man either very honest, or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory. Such was my man; and besides this, he has at various times brought sailors and merchants, whom he had known on that trip, to see me. So I content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say about it.
Now, to return to my subject, I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished usage in all things. Those people are wild, just as we call wild fruits that Nature has produced by herself and in her normal course; whereas really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild. In the former the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are alive and vigorous, which we have debased in the latter, and have only adapted to the pleasure of our corrupted taste. And yet for all that, the savor and delicacy of some uncultivated fruits of those countries is quite as excellent, even to our taste, as that of our own. It is not reasonable that art should win the place of honor over our great and powerful mother Nature. We have so overloaded the beauty and richness of her works by our inventions that we have quite smothered her…
These nations, then, seem to me barbarous in this sense, that they have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours; but they are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes vexed that knowledge of them did not come earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we… This is a nation … in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, nor care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or corn. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon, unheard of…
They have their wars with the nations beyond the mountains, further inland, to which they go quite naked, with no other arms than bows or wooden swords pointed at one end, in the manner of the tongues of our boar spears. It is marvelous what firmness they show in their combats, which never end but in slaughter and bloodshed; for as for routs and terror, they do not know what that means.
Each man brings back as his trophy the head of the enemy he has killed, and sets it up at the entrance to his dwelling. After treating their prisoners well for a long time with all the hospitality they can think of, the captor of each one calls a great assembly of his acquaintances. He ties a rope to one of the prisoner's arms, by the end of which he holds him, a few steps away, for fear of being hurt, and gives his dearest friend the other arm to hold in the same way; and these two, in the presence of the whole assembly, dispatch him with their swords. This done, they roast him and eat him in common and send some pieces to their absent friends. This is not, as people think, for nourishment, as of old the Scythians used to do; it is be-token an extreme revenge…
I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead, in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting him bit by bit, having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion) than in roasting and eating him after he is dead…
Then we may well call these people barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity.
Their warfare is wholly noble and generous, and as excusable and beautiful as this human disease can be; its only basis among them is the jealousy of valor. They are not fighting for the conquest of new lands, for they still enjoy that natural abundance that provides them without toil and trouble with all necessary things in such profusion that they have no wish to enlarge their boundaries. They are still in that happy state of desiring only as much as their natural needs demand; anything beyond that is superfluous to them…
Three of these men, not knowing how much their repose and happiness will pay some day for the knowledge of the corruptions of this side of the ocean, and that of this intercourse will come their ruin, which I suppose is already well advanced—poor wretches, to have let themselves be tricked by the desire for new things, and to have left the serenity of their own sky to come and see ours—were at Rouen , at the time when the late King Charles the Ninth was there. The King talked to them for a long time; they were shown our ways, our pomp, the form of the fine city. After that someone asked their opinion, and wanted to know what they had found most amazing. They replied that there were three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and I am very sorry for it; but I still remember two of them. They said that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many grown men, bearded, strong, and armed, who were around the King (it is likely that they were talking about the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that one of them was not chosen to command instead; secondly (they have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another), that they had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could suffer such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.
I had a long talk with one of them; but I had an interpreter who followed my meaning so badly, and who was so hindered by his stupidity in taking my ideas, that I could get hardly any satisfaction from the man. When I asked him what profit he gained from his superior position among his people (for he was captain, and our sailors called him king), he told me that it was to march foremost in war. How many men followed him? He pointed to a piece of ground, to signify as many as such a space could hold; it might have been four or five thousand men. Did all this authority expire with the war? He said that this much remained, that when he visited the villages dependent on him, they made paths for him through the underbrush by which he might pass quite comfortably.
All this is not too bad. But wait! They don't wear trousers.
What happened next…
In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Essays was regarded simply as a collection of wise sayings. Few people appreciated the fact that Montaigne had expressed his own thoughts and feelings, and many found his intimate, personal approach to be irrelevant, even shocking. Religious writers such as Francis of Sales (1567–1622) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) criticized his skepticism as being anti-Christian and his emphasis on self as being immoral. Those who did admire his writings considered him the model of the well-educated nobleman who viewed the world with amused detachment from the privacy of his study. Attitudes toward Essays began to change in the eighteenth century, however. For instance, the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) recognized Montaigne's contribution to the search for individual human identity through the free exploration of his own inner thoughts. By the twentieth century Montaigne's essays were being read by people throughout the world. He had a strong influence on modern writers, who valued his views on sorting out the contradictory experiences of being human in a complex age.
Did you know…
- In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of a co-councilor in the Bordeaux Parlement. They had six daughters, of whom only one survived to adulthood. Montaigne and his wife were apparently compatible, but the marriage was sometimes cool—he believed that marriage ranked somewhat lower than friendship. In "Of Friendship" as quoted in Selected Essays translated by Donald M. Frame, Montaigne wrote:
As for marriage, besides its being a bargain to which only the entrance is free, its continuance being constrained and forced, depending otherwise than on our will, and a bargain ordinarily made for other ends, there supervene [interfere] a thousand foreign tangles to unravel, enough to break the thread and trouble the course of a lively affection; whereas in friendship there are no dealings or business except itself.
- The English-language edition of Essays by John Florio was a source for William Shakespeare's play The Tempest as well as the works of other playwrights.
For More Information
Montaigne, Michel de. Selected Essays. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York: Van Nostrand, 1941.
Brians, Paul. Montaigne, Michel de, 'On Cannibals.' [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.
"Gournay, Marie de." Early Modern French Women Writers. [Online] Available http://erc.lib.umn.edu/dynaweb/french/@Generic__CollectionV... , April 10, 2002.
"Marie de Gournay, (1565–1645)." Sunshine for Women. [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.
"Montaigne, Michel de." Encyclopedia.com. [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.
"Montaigne, Michel de." Essays. Translated by Charles Cotton. [Online] Available http://www.orst.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/montaigne/m-essay... , April 10, 2002.