Moral Barbarism in Montaigne's "Of Cannibals"

Jane Porter '06, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2003

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In "Of Cannibals," Montaigne approaches his subject matter with a frankness and attention to detail that pulls the reader into his argument. However, he is not writing with the purpose of persuading the European reader into adapting such cannibalistic practices as described, but is rather using the stark contrast between these two cultures as a way to enhance the flaws of his own society. Montaigne makes this point quite clear when stating:

I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.

In this passage, Montaigne compares cannibalism, the "barbarous horror" of roasting and eating a dead man, to the European torture of "tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments." By creating such an comparison, Montaigne makes it clear to his reader that it is morally more barbaric to eat a man alive than when he is dead.

The purpose, therefore, of this work is not to decry any specific cannibalistic or Western practices, but rather to convey the universal need for valour, which Montaigne describes as, "stability, not of legs and arms, but of the courage and the soul." By using such language, he is able to bring the reader to a level higher than the simple physicality of these civilizations and their practices, and convey his central message that: "the estimate and value of a man consists in the heart and in the will: there his true honor lies."


Montaigne layers this work with detailed descriptions, such as his meticulous explanation of the food consumed by the cannibals:

Their drink is made of a certain root, and is of the colour of our claret, and they never drink it but lukewarm. It will not keep above two or three days; it has a somewhat sharp, brisk taste, is nothing heady, but very comfortable to the stomach; laxative to strangers, but a very pleasant beverage to such as are accustomed to it. They make use, instead of bread, of a certain white compound, like coriander seeds; I have tasted of it; the taste is sweet and a little flat.

What role do such extensive descriptions play in this work? Are they superfluous or does this attention to detail have a greater purpose than simply providing the reader with vivid images? Also, why is this important to the piece overall?

What effect does Montaigne's use of first person have on the reader? What are some of the advantages in including himself in his narrative and what role does he play in doing so?

Does Montaigne propose any real solutions in "Of Cannibals," or is he merely being observational and reflective?

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Last modified 14 September 2002