Last Updated November 3, 2023.
“Of Cannibals” is an essay by French humanist writer Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). It was published in 1580 in the first volume of Montaigne’s Essays, a collection of short, subjective essays exploring a variety of topics centered around human nature. “Of Cannibals,” alongside the rest of Montaigne’s essays, was originally composed in Middle French before being translated into English by John Florio in 1603, at which point it achieved wider recognition and acclaim in scholarly circles. Montaigne is often credited with the popularization of the essay style, though many of his contemporaries found his writing self-indulgent and informal due to its subjectivity and frequent digressions. “Of Cannibals” is considered one of the earliest works to explore the concept now known as cultural relativism, or the idea that human beliefs and behaviors are dictated by culture and therefore cannot be legitimately judged without the proper cultural context.
“Of Cannibals” opens with an anecdote about the importance of forming conclusions based on evidence rather than “common report.” Montaigne then introduces the subject of his essay: the discovery of the “New World” and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, as told to him by a “plain ignorant fellow” who once worked for him. Rather than discounting the information based on its source, Montaigne posits that “simple” men are more likely to report the truth, whereas intellectuals often embellish their stories. He condemns this practice as the origin of “great inconveniences” and upholds the importance of objective reporting.
After defending the reliability of his source, Montaigne introduces the thesis of his essay: people are apt to judge unfamiliar practices negatively while failing to notice the flaws in their own accepted modes of behavior. Furthermore, he maintains that nothing man-made can live up to the beauty and perfection of things created by “nature.” Thus, the supposedly “barbarous” inhabitants of the New World, whom he deems closer to nature, are superior to Europeans, who have “smothered” nature and “corrupted” themselves.
In illustrating his point, Montaigne details the culture of the indigenous Brazilians, often identified as the Tupinambá. They have no words to describe the concepts of lying, treachery, envy, or greed, and they do not steal resources from other tribes. They live communally in large wooden buildings and spend their days dancing, hunting, and drinking. Their primary values consist of “valour towards their enemies and love towards their wives.” Their religion upholds the immortality of the soul and they have prophets who, if proven incorrect in their prophecies, are executed. Montaigne praises this practice, since divination is a “gift of God” and ought not be abused.
The essay then shifts into a description of the Tupinambá’s cannibalistic practices. After the Tupinambá defeat their enemies in battle, they take them prisoner and, after a few months, kill them and eat them as a form of symbolic revenge. Rather than describing these practices with disgust, Montaigne instead upholds the naturalistic virtues of the Tupinambá in comparison to European armies. Whereas Europeans often torture their enemies into what Montaigne views as a state of cowardly submission, the Tupinambá treat their prisoners well, and their captives face death with bravery and defiance.
Montaigne ends the essay by recounting an occasion upon which he was able to speak to a group of visiting Tupinambá at Rouen. He remarks that the Tupinambá were surprised and appalled by the “inequality and injustice” of French society, wherein the King and nobility lived in wealth and luxury while others starved. Montaigne further laments that such visits are likely to cost the Tupinambá “their happiness and repose,” as they will eventually be corrupted by the greed and “artifice” that plagues European society.