Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” is a both a quasi-anthropological study of a non-European group of people and their particular customs, and a critical commentary on the nature of civilization and its presuppositions about itself. For several commentators on the essay, it is a classic work of “exoticism” and a piece in which foreign groups and practices are actively “othered” and an opposite of western values and civilization (Celestin, 1990).
Despite this most obvious reading, however the essay can also be seen to critically reflect on the relationship between conceptions of barbarism and conceptions of civilization. From this perspective, the key purpose of the essay is not simply to provide an ethnographic description or to provide historical details regarding particular customs, but to mobilize these details to convince European individuals to reflect on the particular assumptions about the nature of civilization It should be argued therefore that the subject of “Of Cannibals” is not only the cannibals who are described, but, rather, that it is those who observe them and think themselves superior. It is possible to explicate this by paying attention to key moments within the essay.
Montaigne’s essay tells contains a series of anthropological observations concerning a a tribe of indigenous peoples whom he spends some time observing. As such, it would appear as is these peoples should be assumed to be the primary concern of the essay’s rhetoric. According to Steven Rendall, it is simply a clear and obvious mistake to understand Montaigne’s essay as actually being about the “cannibals” whom he describes within it. Rather, Rendall argues that the essay should be seen as providing a commentary on the manner in which individuals use examples of foreign and supposedly barbaric practices in order to form “hasty judgments based more on ignorance and prejudice than on experience and careful examination” based one’s own understanding of the manner of the actual nature of one’s own society. (Rendall, 1977, 56). Redall argues that Montagine engages in a strategy of “dialectical reversal” and that this enables to effectively transfer the actual subject off the essay from the cannibals to their observers. Any understanding of the essay that does not take this rhetorical purpose into account have failed to understand it and has, in fact, revealed themselves to the exactly the kind of individual whom Montaigne wishes to criticize within his writing. This extent of this criticism is made clear in key passages in the essay itself when Montaigne effectively juxtaposes the practices of the cannibals that he is talking with the torture methods that were common in the Europe of his day.
Montaigne begins the primary rhetorical section of the essay by actually describing the manner in which an individual person is killed. He then goes on to describe the manner in which the cannibals in question “roast him, eat him amongst them, and send some chops to their absent friends” (Montaigne, 1993, 74). Following this, however, he insists that the morality of the story that he means to tell does not lie simply in recognizing the apparent baseness of the actions that he describes, but also in the fact that such are often used in order to generate a sense of superiority within those who behold them and consider themselves to be superior as a result. He writes “I am not sorry” about describing such practices, but that what truly upsets him about their presentation is that they could potentially leave the reader blind to their own faults (Montaigne, 1993, 74). Following this, he goes on to directly juxtapose the manner in which the cannibals treat their own prisoners with contemporary European methods on interrogation and torture.
He writes that such a comparison does not allow one to simply affirm European culture and that he can “conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead” (Montagine, 1993, 74). While this idea of “eating alive” does not reference actual practices by Europeans, it is used as a metaphor for the processes or torture, up and to and including being fed to dogs and wild animals, which continued to proliferate during Montaigne’s era. Alongside this, Montaigne notes equally well that, not only do European nations carry out actions of equal barbarity as non-European cultures, but that it is equally the case that the latter do so not merely against “enemies” but against their own citizens and their neighbours. Given the centrality that Montaigne locates with regard to barbarism and European civilization, it can be argued he actually presents such a culture as containing a direct core of barbaric violence; and one which cannot be eradicated via reference to more publicly violent practises.
In conclusion, therefore, Montaigne’s essay as a whole can be taken to invert a conventional process whereby a racially othered group is used in order reaffirm the values of those who observe them. Rather than indulging in such a process, Montaigne in fact shows the manner in which equally barbaric practices have embedded themselves within European civilization to the extent that they may even be taken to form a precondition for this society. As such, through a process of dialectical reversal, Montaigne reveals that both his rhetorical target and his anthropological subject within the essay is not, in fact, the cannibals that he describes, but as the European civilization that would condemn them with a sense of blind and manifestly false moral superiority.
- Celestin, Roger. “Montaigne and the Cannibals: Toward a Redefinition of Exoticism”. Cultural Anthropology 5.3 (1990): 292–313.
- Montaigne, Michel De. The Complete Essay. Translated by M.A. Screech. London: Penguin,
- Rendall, Steven. “Dialectical Structure and Tactics in Montaigne’s “of Cannibals””. Pacific
Coast Philology 12 (1977): 56–63.