Barbaric Wars of Jealousy

Katharine Gorman '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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Michel de Montaigne, in "Of Cannibals," describes the ways in which the "barbarous other" is undeserving of the Euro-centric label. It seems to Montaigne that his European society is just as barbarous, if not more so than the "exotic" culture on which he reports. Montaigne explains that war occurs in the "other's" society, but that it is in many ways more civil than the wars his society knows. War is not about possessions- the people do not desire anything, they have all they need in their simple and pure life- it is about concepts and titles. That is, it is about proving themselves to be more courageous and virtuous than the opposition.

We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them. Their wars are throughout noble and generous, and carry as much excuse and fair pretence, as that human malady is capable of; having with them no other foundation than the sole jealousy of valour. Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labour or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders. And they are, moreover, happy in this, that they only covet so much as their natural necessities require: all beyond that is superfluous to them: men of the same age call one another generally brothers, those who are younger, children; and the old men are fathers to all. These leave to their heirs in common the full possession of goods, without any manner of division, or other title than what nature bestows upon her creatures, in bringing them into the world. If their neighbours pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valour and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered, but presently return into their own country, where they have no want of anything necessary, nor of this greatest of all goods, to know happily how to enjoy their condition and to be content. And those in turn do the same; they demand of their prisoners no other ransom, than acknowledgment that they are overcome: but there is not one found in an age, who will not rather choose to die than make such a confession, or either by word or look recede from the entire grandeur of an invincible courage. [p. 6]

Montaigne seems to imply that there is much to be taken and learned from his observations of this other culture. The people know how to live contently with themselves, in a community.


1. Montaigne says, "We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves." In what ways does he see this other culture as being barbarous in respect to the rules of reason?

2. The wars these people wage are not about possessions, it seems they are initially about jealousy, and proving one sides' moral superiority. How can Montaigne consider this to be just and not barbarous-if they are in essence fighting and killing, not over a conflict, but over covert ideals?

3. Montaigne seems to paint a picture of war here that is not very severe. It is about glory rather than goods, the people are already at peace with themselves and their environment. How does this passage fit in to Montaigne's further discussions of war and conquering-especially where he cites the occurance of death, and cannibalism, in this other culture? How does he use the idea of cultural relativism to compare this culture to his own European society?

4. What does Montaigne suggest his European society might learn from these so-called barbarians?


Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)

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