In The Complete Essays Michel de Montaigne questions societies ideas about what is right and good in society with the knowledge of the existence of a cannibalistic culture from the “New World”. This completely different civilization shapes his ideas about his own society. Montaigne wants people to take this practically alien civilization and use it as a mirror for their own ideas of what is right and how they conduct themselves.
The introduction of a culture so drastically different from what the Europeans were used to called into question the rightness of their ways. If a whole separate group of people could have developed so differently, their own customs were, perhaps, not the best as they had considered them thus far. Montaigne brings this to light when he says,
“every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything!” (231).
They have only their own culture as a basis for what is “truth or right-reason”. Without being able to see the cannibals culture from the perspective of a cannibal, they cannot think of it as normal. To Europeans, anything that is different will be the wrong because it is not theirs. Through exclusion, people are able to define what they are. By discovering this society, Europeans could claim superiority because they do not act in such “barbaric” ways and have what they would consider a better system. Montaigne commends the cannibals for their consistency in their values of “resolution in war, and affection to their wives” (214). He continues to reflect on this notion because their simplicity is so contrasting from the complicity of his own society and yet the cannibals function well enough.
Montaigne uses the cannibals’ civilization as a contrast to the French in order to criticize the French. He does so without always saying what he wants to explicitly so as not to offend people directly, but it is connoted. He says, “They are still in that blessed state of desiring nothing beyond what is ordained by their natural necessities” (236). He is arguing that the cannibals are more in touch with nature and, therefore, in a blessed state. What he leaves out is that since the French do not have a society that is structured the same way, they must be in a state that is less blessed. He does not say this directly because that would be much too blasphemous. He chooses not to offend, but rather to plant the seeds of a certain way of thinking. He does not want people to assume that the things they consider normal as the definitively correct way. Instead he is subtly inserting the idea that difference is not necessarily incorrect. Difference can teach new ways of thinking that may enlighten society.
Contrary to his contemporaries, Montaigne does not think...