Cannibals have been around for many centuries stretching across the globe and different varieties through different cultures. The stigma surrounding cannibals is dark and many cultures use it as a way to scare others or use them as a cautionary tale in today’s society. In Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals, Montaigne is describing the cannibals that live off the coast of Brazil in the 16th century. Having never seen these natives in person, only reading about numerous accounts of the New World, he describes how the natives were viewed by his fellow Europeans. Though his essay was originally meant for his peers in the late sixteenth century, it has reached a wider audience, including twenty-first-century college students.
Montaigne’s primary audience is towards the people of the sixteenth century in Europe. He wants his audience to understand that these cannibals are not evil people, they just live a different version of life that he is used to. He wants to express to his audience that the culture of these natives is nothing to be afraid of, and he tries to help the Europeans realize that they ‘condemn people as barbarous merely because of their manners and because they dress different’ (Montaigne 228). He is trying to express to his fellow Frenchmen how to be more understanding of different cultures and how these ‘barbaric’ natives are no different or more savage than they are.
Montaigne continues to compare and contrast the lives of the ‘cannibals’ or natives of Brazil and the European society, and in doing so, allowing the secondary audience of this essay to compare their society to the cannibals, and the Europeans of that time period. Montaigne wants his audience to see that we are no better than barbarians, ‘These people are indeed cruel: but so are we’ (Montaigne 228). The European society, according to Montaigne’s realization, is much more barbaric than the society of the cannibals. He believes that the only reason that his peers believe the cannibals to be heinous creatures, is because their way of life is so vastly different from that of the Europeans. He says, ‘there is nothing savage or barbarous about those people, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to’ (Montaigne 231).
The natives were living their lives in a natural way, living with the land and being one with the world, whereas the Europeans society was much more corrupt. Europe was under the control of many monarchs, and politics did not have the people’s best interest. Montaigne admired the cannibals, he saw the natives as different but not in a bad way, more like inspiring. ‘his respect for barbarous people and his admiration for much of their conduct, once their motives were understood’ (Montaigne 228). Although their culture and society were not what he was accustomed to, he was interested in the dynamics of the cannibalistic culture and didn’t see why the natives of Brazil should be treated differently than himself or his fellow people.
Montaigne felt the need to tell others that just because people live their life differently does not mean that they are barbaric; if anything, the Europeans were more uncivilized than that of the cannibals. ‘Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by nature in her ordinary course’ (Montaigne 231). It is interesting to read that Montagne had this understanding, viewpoint, and had more of an open mind than the many of the other readings about the discoveries of the new world. ‘Their simple ways have much to teach us’ (Montaigne 228).
Montaigne’s secondary audience is today’s society, the twenty-first century. It is important to have his essay read in today’s world, for it helps to show that prejudice of the unknown has always been around, all over the world. People tend to judge and ridicule what they do not understand, and this is something that still goes on today. Take for example the politics of our current society. Both sides choose to be close minded and believe that their way of life is the better option. Montaigne was trying to show his peers to learn from another culture and to broaden their minds. ‘We should judge them by the ways of reason not by popular vote’ (Montaigne 228). This essay allows us to have a better understanding of the way that different cultures were viewed, but it also tries to broaden the minds of its audience, showing that it is okay to be different and live different lifestyles from each other. After all, we are all humans, we are all of the same race.
Montaigne never witnessed these cannibals for himself yet, he still had compassion and understanding of the different ways people lived. Montaigne did not go out, trying to change and ‘civilize’ a culture that he was not a part of; instead, he wanted people to understand his views and accept different cultures. ‘They could not even imagine a state of nature so simple and so pure as the one we have learned about from experience; they could not even believe that societies of men could be maintained with so little artifice’ (Montaigne 232). Even though our society has come a long way from rejecting and criticizing what we do not understand, we still face prejudice. A particular culture that has fallen victim to prejudice in our society today, is that of the Muslim community. Though our society does not call them barbaric, we hear other terms being thrown around. They are people, just like we are, and yet in our society, they are treated as less, just like the cannibals of Brazil were thought of as lesser humans.
Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals’ sets a good example for the people of the twenty-first century of how we need to view other cultures and be more accepting and learn from what they have to give. It is because of writings like this, that we can have more knowledge and understanding, as well as different viewpoints on how other cultures live and operate. Both his primary and secondary audience is important because the same message is that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that has been proven in more ways than one over several centuries. Today we are aware of the differences between cultures around the world and how different cultures use to live many centuries ago. It is because of writings like this that we can have more knowledge and understanding, as well as different viewpoints. Both his primary and secondary audience is important because the same message is that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that is shown to both
- Montaigne, Michel. ‘On the Cannibals.’ The Essays: A Selection, edited by M. A. Screech, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 228-241.