The Credibility of Montaigne's Support for Unadorned Nature

Jessica Grose '04, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2003

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In his defense of cannibalism and the natives who practice it, Michel de Montaigne discusses the virtue of unadorned nature, unsullied by over-education, artistry or European comforts:

Neither is it reasonable that art should gain the pre-eminence of our great and powerful mother nature. We have so surcharged her with the additional ornaments and graces we have added to the beauty and riches of her own works by our inventions, that we have almost smothered her; yet in other places, where she shines in her own purity and proper lustre, she marvellously baffles and disgraces all our vain and frivolous attempts:

"Et veniunt hederae sponte sua melius; Surgit et in solis formosior arbutus antris; Et volucres nulls dulcius arte canunt."

["The ivy grows best spontaneously, the arbutus best in shady caves; and the wild notes of birds are sweeter than art can teach. — "Propertius, i. 2, 10.]"


1. In this defense of the simplicity of nature, Montaigne uses quotes from a poem by Propertius. Is using heralded art to illustrate the lowliness of art in the face of nature a contradiction?

2. Montaigne quotes not only Propertius, but also the Aeneid, Plato, and a myriad other classical philosophers and writers. At the same time, he reviles over-educated men and the erudite filters through which they tell stories. Does this destroy his credibility, considering that he is flaunting his very Western education?

3. The language in this passage is more flowery than the language in most of the rest of the essay. Does this help or hurt Montaigne's defense of mother nature?

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Last modified 14 February 2002