Romanticizing the New World

James Ollen-Smith, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2002

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In this passage, Montaigne describes the New World in extremely glowing, almost comical terms, depicting it as the ideal society of which poets and philosophers have long dreamed.

These nations, then, seem to me barbarous in this sense, that they have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. 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. I am sorry that Lycuraus and Plato did not know of them; for it seems to me that what we actually see in these nations surpasses not only all the pictures in which poets have idealized the golden age and all their inventions in imagining a happy state of man, but also the conceptions and the very desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could they believe that our society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder. This is a nation, I should say to Plato, in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, 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. How far from this perfection would he find the republic that he imagined; Men fresh sprung from the gods [Seneca].

Does the extent to which Montaigne idealizes and romanticizes 16th-century American indigenous cultures undercut his attempt at internal criticism (towards Europe) by a comparison between the two cultures? Is he, in painting a fairly unbelievable portrait of American societies as perfectly good and pure, just as misguided and incredible as those who insisted on the inherent inferiority of American culture to that of Europe?

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Last modified 11 February 2002