Michel Montaigne’s essay, „Of Cannibals,“ examines cultural differences in different societies, and how every culture is only relevant to the specific society in which it belongs. Consequently, there is a danger of ethnocentric prejudice when one culture is judged through the lens of another. It is in this light that he notes „there is nothing barbarous and savage about a culture or nation other than ours;“ it is only that that each man, from the narrow ethnocentric perspective, „calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice…… for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in“ (Montaigne 152). Thus, people’s judgment of another culture is prone to subjectivity and bias, which, more often than not, is blind to objective reason and tends towards popular opinion.
Montaigne makes an exemplary reference to King Pyrrhus of Greece’s invasion of Italy, and how his previous views of the Romans, which were prejudiced and biased, were shattered when he came into contact with the Roman soldiers sent to meet him. The Greeks viewed other cultures as inherently barbaric, perhaps due to their early civilization. However, King Pyrrhus‘ direct experience with a people labeled as savages and backward, opened a new perspective that portrayed his enemies in a positive light. He confessed of his new experience that „I know not what kind of barbarians these may be; but the disposition of this army, that I see, has nothing of barbarism in it“ (Montaigne 249).
Therefore, what Montaigne seems to vehemently condemn is the subjective attitude of self-righteousness when judging other cultures. To further emphasize that every society’s culture is a product and response to their natural circumstances, he refers to Plato’s assertion that „All things are produced either by nature, by fortune, or by art; the greatest and most beautiful by the one or the other of the former, the least and the most imperfect by the last“ (Montaigne 89). He expounds this observation to argue that even those cultures which appear to be savage and barbaric to an outsider are only such in harmony with their natural setting. He states that „These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity……the laws of nature, however, govern them still“ (Montaigne 144).
Montaigne’s Essay gives insight into William Bradford’s Narrative Of Plymouth Plantation by highlighting the existence of differences across cultural boundaries, and how each society adapts its culture to their natural setting. Of Plymouth Plantation is an exploration narrative that traces the voyages and sojourns of the Puritans, a separatist movement that broke away from the Church of England and sought refugee in the New World. Their dissention resulted from conflicting religious dogmas, which led to their persecution and banishment. In this regard, Montaigne offers insight into the existence of differences even within homogenous societies, where one group may regard the other’s opinion as wrong.
In the wider scheme of cultural differences, it points to the possibility of perceiving the other’s ways of life as barbaric and savage, and in the case of religion as heathen. This is clearly portrayed in Bradford’s narrative, where the puritans, upon landing on the shores of Plymouth, declared themselves messengers of righteousness sent to give light in a jungle of darkness and evil. They called themselves God’s chosen: „In the name of God, we whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord“ (Bradford 132). This self-righteous attitude reflects Montaigne’s view that men are vulnerable to the whims of popular culture, which despises reason for fair judgment. Consequently, when they came to the New World, they intended for their colony to be modeled along theocratic principles, emphasizing religious morals over economic interests. So overzealous were they with their religious beliefs that they believed „God had a preordained plan for everyone, and that hard work, spiritual health, and self-discipline would lead to salvation,“ and that „their ends were good and honorable; their calling lawful, and urgent; and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding “ (Bradford 14). It is for this extremist ideology, the exaggerated zeal for religion, that dissenters like Rogers William were banished from their established colony of Massachusetts in 1635 for his advocacy for absolute legal separation between the state and the church.
In conclusion, Montaigne’s essay, Of Cannibals, portrays a similar thematic concern with those explored in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. They both explore the existence of prejudiced and biased views of religious and cultural groups, which, nonetheless, are guided by popular opinion. As Montaigne points out, each clings to their own vulgar opinions in judging others, which blinds them of their own shortcomings. In his words „These men are very savage in comparison of us; of necessity, they must either be absolutely so or else we are savages; for there is a vast difference between their manners and ours“ (Montaigne 92).
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