Montaigne’s age was one of adventure and exploration, and many travelers returned to Europe with tales of strange and fascinating people elsewhere. 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. Some of them returned with the crew. 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. Much like American author Herman Melville, who later chronicled his life among the cannibals in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Montaigne sees more barbarous behavior among his immediate neighbors.

As evidence, Montaigne cites everything from language usage to architecture. 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...

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