Montaigne and the Issue of a Writer's Credibility

Sarah Petrides, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2002

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A striking characteristic of Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" is his constant citation of the works of other authors to bolster his argument. The following passage is a good example:

I am not sorry that we should notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry that judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead [...]. Indeed, Chrysippus and Zeno, heads or the Stoic sect, said there was nothing wrong in using our carcasses for any purpose in case of need, and getting nourishment from them; just as our ancestors, when besieged by Caesar in the city of Alesia, resolved to relieve their famine by eating old men, women, and other people useless for fighting. The Gascons once, 'tis said, their life renewed By eating of such food. JUVENAL

We can see that Montaigne, writing at the moment of the French Renaissance, depended heavily on the classics to support what he intended to be a reasoned argument. How different his approach seems than that of Wolfe or Didion, whose work does not appeal to outside sources for believability. They, like Johnson in many of his essays, appeal to anecdotes resulting from their own observations to support their points. How effective are Montaigne's appeals to outside authority for credibility? What is gained and what is lost in this use of other works? What validates the work of sages and satirists who don't use other speakers' supporting opinions to bolster their arguments? My question is about believability — what makes us take a writer's opinion seriously, and why? Conversely, when do we become skeptical?

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Last modified 14 September 2002