Berlin, Montaigne, and Understanding other cultures

Jeffrey Fronza, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2002

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The intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin, writing shortly after WWII, asserted that

members of one culture can, by force of imaginative insight, understand the values, the ideals, the forms of life of another culture or society, even those remote in time or space. They may find these values unacceptable, but if they open their minds sufficiently they can grasp how one might be a full human being, with whom one could communicate, and at the same time live in the light of values widely different from one's own, but which nevertheless one can see to be values, ends of life, by the realisation of which men could be fulfilled" (The Crooked Timber of Humanity 10).

Montaigne seems to have anticipated this idea by several hundred years in his essay "Of Cannibals". In particular, he is simultaneously able to hold up as exemplary pagan Greek civilization, native american civilization, and implicitly a Christian notion of civilization. These civilizations have very different values, and yet they are presented in such a way that their incompatibility does not invalidate any one of these civilizations. Even the fact that the natives are attracted to European civilization and that European civilization will destroy the native civilization does not cause Montaigne to think less of these primitives. In fact, only contemporary European civilization seems to be held up for scorn.

Can we understand Montaigne's position as patronizing to the native civilization? Can we read his praise of native civilization as the inscription of The Fall, as the normalization of the completely foreign, as a reading of the primitive as merely the prehistory of European man? I personally do not think so. My reaction to Montaigne is one of deep respect. What do others think?

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Last modified 6 February 2002