Michel De Montaigne Of Cannibals Summary

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Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”: Questioning European Superiority Through the Idealization of Native Americans In his essay “Of Cannibals”, Michel de Montaigne presents Native Americans as a mirror image of European racial and cultural superiority, placing their barbarous cannibalism in context in order to critique the widely-held belief of their inferiority. Montaigne’s comment on the European perception of Native Americans as uncivilized is ultimately undermined by the extreme nature of the arguments used in his critique. Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Cannibals” having never been to the New World, and at a time when Native Americans were almost universally considered to have a backwards, lesser society compared to those of Europe. As a member of the French elite, his perspective is unique because he takes a stance that is incongruous with general European sentiment. Additionally, Montaigne is upfront about the fact that he is not an expert on Native Americans, admittedly never having been to the New World, gaining much of his knowledge of Native Americans from a man who “had lived ten or twelve years in the new world.” (1) He refutes any assumptions that the man might have lied to him, saying he “…was a plain and ignorant fellow, and therefore more likely to tell the truth,” (3) but nevertheless, his writings must be read with this possibility in mind. Montaigne’s argument is centered around the European perception of Native Americans as barbarous people, which he refutes by listing the virtues of the native people, presenting them as the ideal ‘natural man’. When he says, “I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity,” (1) he cautions Europeans in their tendency to minimize the value of the people they encounter and try to colonize. He states about the New World: “I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything I can gather,” (3) and goes on to comment on their impressive health, writing: “as my witness informs me, ‘tis rare to hear of a sick person, and… they never saw any of the natives, either paralytic, blear-eyed, toothless or crooked with age.” (5) Montaigne explores the fact that Native Americans are happy despite

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