Despite being a wealthy European, a retired French magistrate, Michel De Montaigne seemingly romanticizes the Native American lifestyle in his comparison between Europeans and other people in his essay “of Cannibals.” This is most likely due to his desire to escape European society to find a better place to live in. In his previous essay, “Of the Power of the Imagination,” Michel notes the power of people’s thoughts and makes the claim that the best and most useful thoughts come from nature. He continues his point in “Of Cannibals” on page 355, “all things…are produced by nature, by fortune, or by art: the greatest and most beautiful by one or the other of the first two, the least … by the last.” Throughout his essays, Montaigne, refers back to this idea.
This idea reinforces Michel’s view of the Native American lifestyle being superior. Michel claims that the Native Americans know only two things, valor in combat and love for their wives. This is closer to the pure and original nature of living beings since they do not know the Europeans corrupted tastes. Michel then rattles of the various corruptions, lying, treachery, dissimulation (pretense), avarice, envy, belittling, and pardon (forgiveness of an offense). These corruptions are artificial creations that degrade the quality of life in Europe and that are better left unknown to other people. When three Native Americans arrive in Europe, Montaigne recounts how they disapproved of the inequality between the rich and the poor and how they didn’t understand the concept of a young, inexperienced ruler. The scene ends with the Native Americans describing their natural order where everyone followed the captain into battle, with the captain leading from the front.
Montaigne’s description for the innocence of the Native Americans continues as he describes their beliefs, simple daily life, and the foundations of their subsistence society and how they relate to various ideal societies, including references to Plato’s Ideal City. While this clearly reflects Montaigne’s favoritism, this shows the reader a huge insight and motivations of Montaigne’s behavior. While Montaigne could have been a rich magistrate in France, he instead chose to retreat from French politics. In his retreat, he constantly meditated and wrote. This shows that not only does Montaigne like Native American society, but despises his own. Montaigne’s writings ultimately provide an escape route from his current reality into a world he finds simpler, purer, and more comforting than the one he currently inhabits.
One thought on “Montaigne’s Desire to Escape European Society”
I agree with you that in “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne idealizes the way the indigenous people live. I think another purpose “Of Cannibals” served aside from providing an escape for Montaigne is to criticize his society. Although Montaigne is aware that the indigenous people are cannibals, he is also aware that his own people are so blind to their own barbarous acts. While the indigenous are barbarous, they are barbarous only to their enemies and eat them for the sake of “extreme vengeance” (358). Oppositely, in Montaigne’s society, these barbarous acts are committed towards “neighbors and fellow citizens… on the pretext of piety and religion” (358).
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