Montaigne’s Essay & The Trouble With Wilderness Homework Assignment: Come to class having composed a short free write (about 200-300 words) concerning an i

Montaigne’s Essay & The Trouble With Wilderness Homework Assignment: Come to class having composed a short free write (about 200-300 words) concerning an interesting similarity between Montaigne’s essay and William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Also, paraphrase what you believe to be the complaint and pitch of Montaigne’s essay. 1:31 . On the Cannibals
31. On the Cannibals
[The cannibals mentioned in this chapter lived on the coasts of Braz il. Montaigne had read
many accounts of the conqiust of the New World, including Girolamo Benzoni’s Historia
de! mondo novo (Venice, 1565) in the French translation by Urbain Chauveton, the
very title of which emphasizes the dreadful treatment of the natives by the Conquistadores:
A New History of the New World containing all that Spaniards have done up to
the present in the West Indies, and the harsh treatment which they have meted out
to those peoples yonder .. . Together with a short History of a Massacre committed
by the Spaniards on some Frenchmen in Florida (two editions in 1579).
Montaigne’s ‘primitivism’ (his respect for barbarous peoples and his admiration for much
of their conduct, once their motives are understood) has little in common with the ‘noble
savages’ of later centuries. These peoples are indeed cruel: but so are we . Their simple
ways have much to teach us: they can ser~e as a standard by which we can judge Plato’s
Republic, the myth of the Golden Age, the cruelty, the corruption and the culture of
Europe, and show up that European insularity which condemns peoples as barbarous
merely because their manners and their dress are different. J
[A] When King Pyrrhus crossed into Italy, after noting the excellent
formation of the army which the Romans had sent ahead towards him he
said, ‘I do not know what kind of Barbarians these are’ (for the Greeks
called all foreigners Barbarians) ‘but there is nothing barbarous about the
ordering of the army which I can see!’ The Greeks said the same about the
army which Flaminius brought over to their country, [C] as did Philip
when he saw from a hill-top in his kingdom the order and plan of the
Roman encampment under Publius Sulpicius Galba.1 [A] We should
be similarly wary of accepting common opinions; we should judge them
by the ways of reason not by popular vote.
I have long had a man with me who stayed some ten or twelve years in
that other world which was discovered in our century when Villegaignon
made his landfall and named it La France Antartique. 2 This discovery of a
1. Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus and Life of Flaminius.
2. Durand de Villegagnon struck land, in Brazil, in 1557. Cf. Lettres sur la
navigation du chevalier de Villegaignon es terres de l’Amerique, Paris, 1557, by an
author who calls himself simply N .B.
boundless territory seems to me worthy of reflection. I am by no means
sure that some other land may not be discovered in the future, since
so many persons, [CJ greater than we are, [A] were wrong about
this one! I fear that our eyes are bigger than our bellies, our curiosity
more 3 than we can stomach. We grasp at everything but clasp nothing but
Plato brings in Solon to relate that he had learned from the priests of the
town of Sai’s in Egypt how, long ago before the Flood, there was a vast
island called Atlantis right at the mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar,
occupying an area greater than Asia an~ Africa combined; the kings of that
country, who not only possessed that island but had spread on to the
mainland across the bre;idth of Africa as far as Egypt and the length of
Europe as far as Tuscany, planned to stride over into Asia and subdue all
the peoples bordering on the Mediterranean as far as the Black Sea. To this
end they had traversed Spain, Gaul and Italy and had reached as far as
Greece when the Athenians withstood them; but soon afterwards those
Athenians, as well as the people of Atlantis and their island, were engulfed
in that Flood.•
It is most likely that that vast inundation should have produced strange
changes to the inhabitable areas of the world; it is maintained that it was
then that the sea cut off Sicily from Italy [BJ
Hax loca, vi quondam et vasta convulsa ruina,
Dissiluisse ferunt, cum protinus utraque tellus
[Those places, they say, were once wrenched apart by a violent convulsion,
whereas they had formerly been one single land.)’
[A] as well as Cyprus from Syria, and the island of Negropontus
from the Boeotian mainland, while elsewhere lands once separated were
j oined together by filling in the trenches between them with mud and
sterilisque diu palus aptaque remis
Vicinas urbes alit, et grave sentit aratrum .
3. ’80: our bellies, as they say, applying it to those whose appetite and hunger make
them desire more meat than they can manage: I fear that we too have curiosity far
more …
4. Plato, Timaeus, 24E etc., and Girolamo Benzoni, Historia del mondo novo, Venice
1565. Cf. also Plato, Critias, 113 A ff.
5. Virgil, Aeneid, lll, 414-17.
1:31. On the Cannibals
1:31. On the Cannibals
(Barren swamps which you could row a boat through now feed neighbouring
cities and bear the heavy plough. )6
emigrated with their wives and children and started living there. The
Carthaginian lords, seeing that their country was being gradually
depopulated, expressly forbade any more to go there on pain of death and
drove out those new settlers, fearing it is said that they would in time
increase so greatly that they would supplant them and bring down their
But that account in Aristotle cannot apply to these new lands either.
That man of mine was a simple, rough fellow – qualities which make for
a good witness: those clever chaps notice more things more carefully but
are always adding glosses; they cannot help changing their story a little in
order to make their views triumph and be more persuasive; they never
show you anything purely as it is: they bend it and disguise it to fit in with
their own views. To make their judgement more credible and to win you
over they emphasize their own side, amplify it and extend it. So you need
either a very trustworthy man or else a man so simple that he has nothing
in him on which to build such false discoveries or make them plausible;
and he must be wedded to no cause. Such was my man; moreover on
various occasions he showed me several seamen and merchants whom he
knew on that voyage. So I am content with what he told me, without
inquiring what the cosmographers have to say about it.
What we need is topographers who would make detailed accounts of the
places which they had actually been to. But because they have the advantage
of visiting Palestine, they want to enjoy the right of telling us tales about
all the rest of the world! I wish everyone would write only about what he
knows – not in this matter only but in all others. A man may well have
detailed knowledge or experience· of the nature of one particular river
or stream, yet about all the others he knows only what everyone else
does; but in order to trot out his little scrap of knowledge he will write
a book on the whole of physics! From this vice many great inconveniences
Now to get back to the subject, I find (from what has been told me) that
there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that 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! Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense
that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary
course: whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled
from the common order which we ought to call savage. It is in the first
Yet there is little likelihood of that island’s being the New World which
we have recently discovered, for it was virtually touching Spain; it would
be unbelievable for a flood to force it back more than twelve hundred
leagues to where it is now; besides our modern seamen have already all but
discovered that it is not an island at all but a mainland, contiguous on one
side with the East Indies and on others with lands lying beneath both the
Poles – or that if it is separated from them, it is by straits so narrow that it
does not deserve the name of’island’ on that account.
[B] It seems that large bodies such as these are subject, as are our own,
to changes, [C] some natural, some [B] feverish.’ When I consider
how my local river the Dordogne has, during my own lifetime, been
encroaching on the right-hand bank going downstream and has taken over
so much land that it has robbed many buildings of their foundation, I
realize that it has been suffering from some unusual upset: for if it had always
gone on like this or were to do so in the future, the whole face of the
world would be distorted. But their moods change: sometimes they incline
one way, then another: and sometimes they restrain themselves. I am not
discussing those sudden floodings whose causes we know. By the coast-line
in Medoc, my brother the Sieur d’ Arsac can see lands of his lying buried
under sand spewed up by the sea: the tops of some of the buildings are still
visible: his rents and arable fields have been changed into very sparse
grazing. The locals say that the sea has been thrusting so hard against them
for some time now that they have lost four leagues of land. These sands are
the sea’s pioneer-corps: [C] and we can see those huge shifting sanddunes marching a half-league ahead in the vanguard, capturing territory.
[A] The other testimony from Antiquity which some would make
relevant to this discovery is in Aristotle – if that little book about unheard
wonders is really his. 8 He tells how some Carthaginians struck out across
the Atlantic beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, sailed for a long time and
finally discovered a large fertile island entirely clothed in woodlands and
watered by great deep rivers but very far from any mainland; they and
others after them, attracted by the richness and fertility of the soil,
6. Horace, Ars poetica, 65-6.
7. ’88: changes sickly and feverish. When …
8. The Secreta secretorum is supposititious. Montaigne is following Girolamo
1:31. On the Cannibals
1:31. On the Cannibals
kind that we find their true, vigorous, living, most natural and most useful
properties and virtues, which we have bastardized in the other kind by
merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes. [C] Moreover, there is a
delicious savour which even our taste finds excellent in a variety of fruits
produced in those countries without cultivation: they rival our
own. [A] It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than
Nature, our great and powerful Mother. We have so overloaded the
richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have
smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she
wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises:
solder. I would tell Plato that those people have no trade of any kind, no
acquaintance with writing, no knowledge of numbers, no terms for
governor or political superior, no practice of subordination or of riches or
poverty, no contracts, no inheritances, no divided estates, no occupation
but leisure, no concern for kinship – except such as is common to them all
– no clothing, no agriculture, no metals, no use of wine or corn. Among
them you hear no words for treachery, lying, cheating, avarice, envy,
backbiting or forgiveness. How remote from such perfection would Plato
find that Republic which he thought up – [C] ‘viri a diis recentes’ (men
fresh from the gods]. 12
[BJ Et veniunt ederc~ sponte sua melius,
Surgit et in so/is formosior arbutus antris,
Et volucres nulla dulcius arte canunt.
[Ivy grows best when left untended; the strawberry tree flourishes more beautifully
in lonely grottoes, and birds sing the sweeter for their artlessness. ]9
[A] All our strivings cannot even manage to reproduce the nest of the
smallest little bird, with its beauty and appropriateness to its purpose; we
cannot even reproduce the web of the wretched spider. [C] Plato says
that all things are produced by nature, fortune or art, the greatest and
fairest by the first two, the lesser and least perfect by the last. 10
[A] Those peoples, then, seem to me to be barbarous only in that they
have been hardly fashioned by the mind of man, still remaining close
neighbours to their original state of nature. They are still governed by the
laws of Nature and are only very slightly bastardized by ours; but theirpurity is such that I am sometimes seized with irritation at their not having
been discovered earlier, in times when there were men who could have
appreciated them better than we do. It irritates me that neither Lycurgus
nor Plato had any knowledge of them, for it seems to me that what
experience has taught us about those peoples surpasses not only all the
descriptions with which poetry has beautifully painted the Age of Gold”
and all its ingenious fictions about Man’s blessed early state, but also the
very conceptions and yearnings of philosophy. 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, so little in the way of human
9. Propertius, I, ii, 10-12.
10. Plato, Laws, X, 888A-B.
11. Cf. Elizabeth Armstrong, Ronsard and the Age of Gold, Cambridge, 1968.
Hos natura modos primum dedit.
[These are the ways which Nature first ordained.]”
(A] In addition they inhabit a land with a most delightful countryside
and a temperate climate, so that, from what I have been told by my
sources, it is rare to find anyone ill there;” I have been assured that they
never saw a single man bent with age, toothless, blear-eyed or tottering.
They dwell along the sea-shore, shut in to landwards by great lofty
mountains, on a stretch of land some hundred leagues in width. They have
fish and flesh in abundance which bear no resemblance to ours; these they
eat simply cooked. They were so horror-struck by the first man who
brought a horse there and rode it that they killed him with their arrows
before they could recognize him, even though he had had dealings with
them on several previous voyages. Their dwellings are immensely long, big
enough to hold two or three hundred souls; they are covered with the bark
of tall trees which are fixed into the earth, leaning against each other in
support at the top, like some of our barns where the cladding reaches down
to the ground and acts as a side. They have a kind of wood so hard that
they use it to cut with, making their swords from it as well as grills to cook
their meat. Their beds are woven from cotton and slung from the roof like
hammocks on our ships; each has his own, since wives sleep apart from
their husbands. They get up at sunrise and have their meal for the day as
soon as they do so; they have no other meal but that one. They drink
12. Seneca, Epist. moral., XC, 44. (This epistle is a major defence of the innocence
of natural man before he was corrupted by philosophy and progress.)
13. Virgil, Georgics, II, 208.
14. One of Montaigne’s sources was Simon Goulart’s Histoire du Portugal, Paris,
1587, based on a work by Bishop Jeronimo Osorio (da Fonseca) and others.
1:31. On the Cannibals
nothing with it, [B) like those Eastern peoples who, according to
Suidas, 15 only drink apart from meals. [A] They drink together several
times a day, and plenty of it. This drink is made from a certain root and
has the colour of our claret. They always drink it lukewarm; it only keeps
for two or three days; it tastes a bit sharp, is in no ways heady and is good
for the stomach; for those who are not used to it it is laxative but for those
who are, it is a very pleasant drink. Instead of bread they use a certain
white product resembling coriander-cakes. I have tried some: it tastes sweet
and somewhat insipid.
They spend the whole day dancing; the younger men go off hunting
with bow and arrow. Meanwhile some of the women-folk are occupied in
warming up their drink: that is their main task. In the morning, before
their meal, one of their elders walks from one end of the building to the
other, addressing the whole barnful of them by repeating one single phrase
over and over again until he has made the rounds, their building being a
good hundred yards long. He preaches two things only: bravery before
their enemies and love for their wives. They never fail to stress this second
duty, repeating that it is their wives who season their drink and keep it
warm. In my own house, as in many other places, you can see the style of
their beds and rope-work as well as their wooden swords and the wooden
bracelets with which they arm their wrists in battle, and the big openended canes to the sound of which they maintain the rhythm of their
dances. They shave off all their hair, cutting it more cleanly than we do,
yet with razors made of only wood or stone. They believe in the immortality of the soul: souls which deserve well of the gods dwell in the sky where
the sun rises; souls which are accursed dwell where it sets. They have some
priests and prophets or other, but they rarely appear among the people
since they live in the mountains. When they do appear they hold a great
festival and a solemn meeting of several villages – each of the barns which I
have described constituting a village situated about one French league
distant from the next. The prophet then addresses them in public, exhorting
them to be virtuous and dutiful, but their entire system of ethics contains only
the same two articles: resoluteness in battle and love for their wives. He fo retells what is to happen and the results they must expect from what they undertake; he either incites them to war or deflects them from it, but only on
condition that ifhe fails to divine correctly and if things turn out other than he
foretold, then – if they can catch him – he is condemned as a false prophet and
hacked to pieces. So the prophet who gets it wrong once is seen no more.
15. Suidas, Historica, caeteraque omnia quae ad cognitionem rerum spectant, Basie, 1564.
1:31. On the Cannibals
Prophecy is a gift of God. 16 That is why abusing it should be
treated as a punishable deceit. Among the Scythians, whenever their
soothsayers got it wrong they were shackled hand and foot and laid in
ox-carts full of bracken where they were burned. 17 :rhose who treat
subjects under the guidance of human limitations can be excused if they
have done their best; but those who come and cheat us with assurances
of powers beyond the natural order and then fail to do what they promise,
should they not be punished for it and for the foolhardiness of their
[A] These peoples have their wars against others further inland beyond
their mountains; they go forth naked, with no other arms but their bows
and their wooden swords sharpened to a point like the blades of our pigstickers. Their steadfastness in battle is astonishing and always ends in
killing and bloodshed: they do not even know the meaning of fear or
flight. Each man brings back the head of the enemy he has slain and sets it
as a trophy over the door of his dwelling. For a long period they treat
captives well and provide them with all the comforts which they can
devise; afterwards the master of each captive summons a great assembly
of his acquaintances; he ties a rope to one of the arms of his
prisoner [C] and holds him by it, standing a few feet away for fear of
being caught in the blows, [A] and allows his dearest friend to hold the
prisoner the same way by the other arm: then, before the whole assembly,
they both hack at him with their swords and kill him. This done, they
roast him and make a common meal of him, sending chunks of his flesh to
absent friends. This is not as some think done for food – as the Scythians
used to do in antiquity – but to symbolize ultimate revenge. As a proof of
this, when they noted that the Portuguese who were allied to their …
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