In "Of Cannibals," how does Montaigne try to make sense of or understand cannibalism?

Montaigne compares the customs of the Tupinamba, a Brazilian tribe that practices cannibalism, with European customs.

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In “Of Cannibals ,” Montaigne posits a radical dichotomy between Europeans and Native Americans. He does so by highlighting the cannibalistic practices of one group, the Tupinamba of Brazil. Delving into their customs in detail, Montaigne raises the reader’s sense of horror and disgust. To counter this revulsion, Montaigne...

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In “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne posits a radical dichotomy between Europeans and Native Americans. He does so by highlighting the cannibalistic practices of one group, the Tupinamba of Brazil. Delving into their customs in detail, Montaigne raises the reader’s sense of horror and disgust. To counter this revulsion, Montaigne introduces some negative features of European society and asks the reader some rhetorical questions intended to make them think critically of their own customs.

Claiming to base the information he presents on information from a gentleman who had lived among them for ten or twelve years, Montaigne attempts to contextualize the “barbaric” customs within other aspects of Tupinamba society. His approach has been acknowledged as a predecessor of what twentieth-century anthropologists began to call “cultural relativism.” While he does not state what his source was and probably drew on multiple accounts, one influential French account of the time was Jean de Lery’s 1581 Story of a Voyage to Brazil.

Montaigne encourages the reader to see the Native Americans as “natural” within their environment, like “wild fruit.” In this respect, they are depicted as more instinctual than Europeans and less responsible for their actions. He associates non-European peoples with pre- or non-civilized states—a position later further developed by Henri Rousseau as the “noble savage.” Although the people seem to inhabit a pristine, Edenic utopia, they nonetheless have numerous enemies and armed conflicts, and through these hostilities they take captives. It is the captives who are consumed in the cannibalistic practices.

Each man brings back the head of the enemy he has slain and sets it as a trophy over the door of the dwelling.

After the captors confine them in their camp, they create a public spectacle, hacking the victim apart in the public area. Next, “they roast him and make a common meal of him.”

To the cannibals, their practices fulfill a sort of combined ecological function and philosophical appreciation of honor:

The useful was the natural, and only those actions were thought useful that preserved life or preserved honor.

In contrast, modern Europeans wage wars of expansion against distant strangers and show hypocrisy in killing in the name of religion.

I am grieved that, prying so narrowly into their [the Tupinamba's] faults, we are so blinded in ours. I think there is more barbarism in eating men alive than to feed upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures and torments a body full of lively sense.

The author even maintains that he has witnessed—apparently in France, rather than some far-off land—dogs and pigs gnawing at living people. By not providing supporting detail, he makes this statement seem hyperbole rather than fact and diminishes his credibility. In addition, animals eating humans is not the same as humans eating other humans. In this passage he criticizes the “pretense of piety and religion,” revealing that much of his intent is to critique French religious practice.

Montaigne is known philosophically as a skeptic who questioned both Protestantism and Catholicism and aimed to mediate between what he saw as the excesses of both, even serving the French king Henry in this cause. In this essay he uses an apparently unrelated culture with highly distinct customs to draw attention to such excesses.

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