Study Guide for Montaigne "On Cannibals" (1580)
1. How does Montaigne define "barbarism"?
I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. (Montaigne, "On Cannibals")

2. How would Montaigne redefine our understanding of the word "wild"?

They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order.... Our utmost endeavors cannot arrive at so much as to imitate the nest of the least of birds, its contexture, beauty, and convenience: not so much as the web of a poor spider.(Montaigne, "On Cannibals")

3. What, then, according to Montaigne, allows societies of the New World to surpass the Golden Age?

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.... for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. (Montaigne, "On Cannibals")

4. Describe some of the physical details of the natives way of life which support  Montaigne's contention?

  • They have great store of fish and flesh, that have no resemblance to those of ours: which they eat without any other cookery, than plain boiling, roasting and broiling.
  • Their buildings are very long, and of capacity to hold two or three hundred people, made of the barks of tall trees...
  • They have wood so hard, that they cut with it, and make their swords of it, and their grills of it to broil their meat.
  • Their beds are of cotton, hung swinging from the roof, like our easman's hammocks, every man his own, for the wives lie apart from their husbands.
  • They rise with the sun, and so soon as they are up, eat for all day, for they have no more meals but that...
  • Their young men go a-hunting after wild beasts with bows and arrows; one part of their women are employed in preparing their drink the while, which is their chief employment....
  • They shave all over, and much more neatly than we, without other razor than one of wood or stone.
  • They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have merited well of the gods, are lodged in that part of heaven where the sun rises, and the accursed in the west. (Montaigne, "On Cannibals")


5. Why, according to Montaigne, do these natives engage in cannibalism?

They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment... but as a representation of an extreme revenge (Montaigne, "On Cannibals")

6. Why does he consider this form of cruelty less harsh than those practiced in 'civilized' Europe?

I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not among inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under color of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead. (Montaigne, "On Cannibals")

7. What is the goal of warfare in tribal society and how does it differ from the goals of European warfare?

Their wars are throughout noble and generous, and carry as much excuse and fair pretense, as that human malady is capable of; having with them no other foundation than the sole jealousy of valor. Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labor or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders.

If their neighbors pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valor and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered, but presently return into their own country, where they have no want of anything necessary, nor of this greatest of all goods, to know happily how to enjoy their condition and to be content.(Montaigne, "On Cannibals")