The Barbaric Other

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2003

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With the "discovery" of the Americas, Montaigne's world is no longer bounded — t he map has expanded, resulting in a shift to a collective idea of us vs. Other. Our classification of that Other as barbaric, Montaigne argues, is entirely relative and dependent upon our own customs and habits.

I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine — a practice which we have not read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbors and citizens, and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion — than to roast and eat a man after he is dead.

For me, this paragraph, more than any other, exposed the arbitrariness and hypocrisy involved in, as Montaigne phrases it, "calling barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits." In graphic language, Montaigne compares the treatment of the body at the hands of Inquisitors versus the treatment of a body at the hands of cannibals. Why is this comparison so effective? What in the language of the paragraph makes it such a powerful argument?

If Inquisition practices take place in the name of God - "under the cloak of piety and religion" — what is Montaigne saying about (to use Didion's language) his culture's central narrative, the "stories we tell ourselves in order to live?"

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Last modified 14 September 2002