Montaigne's Noble Savagery

Nina Strohminger '04, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2002

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Of the sixteenth-century South American Cannibals, Montaigne informs us that "These nations...have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness." Montaigne's writings predate Rousseau by almost two hundred years, and from Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals", we can see that the myth of the Noble Savage has been around at least from Montaigne's age, if not before. There are two creative forces at work behind the Noble Savage: the naturalistic fallacy, and racism. Let us examine these two in turn.

All of us, I think, have fallen prey to the naturalistic fallacy — the popular but logically untrue idea that "natural is good" — at some point or another, in issues both banal (such as choosing a breakfast cereal) and more philosophical ("What is human nature?"). Our mistaken associations are complicated when we try to consider what, after all, it means for something to be natural.

When considering human nature — in its "purest" form — Montaigne has clear ideas about how the Noble Savage (in this instance, the Cannibal) lives up to our primeval selves:

The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours, and they are in such a state of Purity that I am sometimes vexed that they were unknown earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we. ...This is a which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or political authority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon — unheard of.

In other words, a total lack of "civilization" is what has allowed for the apotheosis of the Cannibal. Montaigne, as well-meaning as he may have been, takes for granted the exagerrations and outright lies spread about indigenous Americans, and subjects them to a Eurocentric analysis of what a civilization is or is not. Especially interesting is his belief that lack of words for an idea precludes it existence (echoed in works such as Orwell's essay on "Newspeak" found at the end of 1984), although we know now that these peoples of course had words for all of the basic human vices, and were not limited in their application of them.


Do you think that Montaigne was forced to take a middle ground in this essay in order to reach his readers? To what degree do you think he fashioned his argument around expectations and credibility, versus his own personal prejudices?

How does this essay inform upon current debates over the existence and manifestations of human nature? To what degree does the naturalistic fallacy still disrupt comtemporary intellectual discussions of sociology and anthropology?

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Last modified 13 February 2002