Of Cannibals: Looking In The Mirror

1285 words - 6 pages


During the mid 1500's, French nobleman Michel de Montaigne1
travelled from Europe to the
newly 'found' American territories. There he was met with the newly colonized peoples of the
Americas, also known as the Brazilian "barbarians", a term coined by the Europeans2
whom had
traveled there. Montaigne quickly shaped his own view of this group of peoples, and almost as
quickly put his opinion in front of many noble Europeans in the form of an essay known as "Of
Cannibals"3
. His essay challenged the haughty denigration of the Brazilian cannibals that had
grown to be so common among Montaigne's contemporaries, but not by arguing that cannibalism
was a morally acceptable practice. Rather, Montaigne made the more provocative claim that, as
barbaric as the Brazilian cannibals may have been, they were not nearly as barbaric as the
sixteenth century Europeans themselves.

"I find that there is nothing barbarous or savage in this nation according to what I have been told,
except that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not according to his
usage..."4
Europeans, upon finding the Brazilian natives, assumed that because of the nature in
which they lived5
, that they were in fact wild like animals and needed to be taught how to live properly. The word barbarian became almost synonymous with the Brazilian peoples and
Montaigne had an issue with this. He saw that the Brazilian peoples were far less barbaric than
what the Europeans thought they were, and clearly refutes this in the document.6


"They are savages in the same way that we say fruits are wild, in which nature produces of
herself and by her ordinary course."7
Montaigne had the proper idea in viewing the Brazilians, he
knew that they were living the best way that they could - they had adapted to the wilderness and
to Mother Nature, whereas the modern Europeans had become far more unnatural and barbaric
over the course of time, adjusting the world to revolve around civilization rather than abiding by
nature's accord.

Montaigne uses the modern European's own lifestyle as an example to show just how alike both
the Europeans and natives are to one another. Montaigne writes, "I am not sorry that we should
take notice of the barbarous horror of such acts [cannibalism], but I am sorry that, seeing so
clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own."8
By this he means that whilst he
understands that man can only judge what they believe is right or wrong based on their own
lifestyle, Europeans lead far from innocent and tame lives. Montaigne refers to the cruel acts of
torture that occur in Europe9
, and relates them to the act of killing, then cooking and eating an
enemy that occurs within the Brazilian tribes.

Even in the modern twenty first century, many are still intrigued by what Montaigne had to say
on the barbaric acts of the Europeans. One author writes, "No writer was more strongly moved to
view his own society from a new...

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