On Which Cannibal? The Clever Rhetoric of Montaigne’s “On the Cannibals”

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

“What does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own” (235).

Montaigne’s essay “On the Cannibals” is a criticism on how the ‘civilized’ man passes judgment too harshly upon others while disregarding their own actions. This is especially apparent, as he has read the accounts by the conquests in the New World. He expresses this idea through his presentation and use of evidence, rhetoric, and thoughtful structure of his essay. Known for his idiosyncratic examples and anecdotes, Montaigne also proves to be an adept rhetorician; in particular, he evinces an ability to anticipate his reader’s points of preconception or resistance, and to maneuver around these impediments to persuasion.

Montaigne always seems to place the correct evidence with the idea at hand in order to craft the reader’s mind toward his main idea. His brother lives on the coast and is facing a retreating coastline; this fact is crafted to fit Montaigne’s idea of changing boundaries affect how people interact and view each other, but how valid is the example? “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.” This is not a concrete piece of evidence, but Montaigne recognizes when to use more subjective evidence to explain a topic and when to give factual information like the battle of the Spartans or the many wives of Jacob in the Bible. What this does though, is create a sense of security with the facts and information given by Montaigne so all examples that are given are held to the standard of its most supported example given. This evidence being an example from the Bible, the rest of the evidence is held to the same esteem. Not to say that is a bad thing. For his idea to come across as clear as he intended, you must “go along for the ride.” This ride being a sarcastic, skeptical, and cynical one through the human condition.

The tone of one’s work sets the mood for how well received it is by the reader. “I fear that our eyes are bigger than our bellies, our curiosity more than we can stomach. We grasp at everything but clasp nothing but wind” (229). Montaigne self-identifies with the group he is criticizing in an effort to bring the reader into the argument, assuming the people reading his work fit the bill of western European culture. A break in the text allows for a moment of reflection and impact that the reader will remember. Montaigne adds these to separate his main ideas and to add a little flair, be it publisher’s choice or not, the breaks are written in the original language in which they were intended. As noted by this publication with a [B], many of these quotes were written before his death in a revision of his essays. With the interruptions and frankness behind his work, a bit of comic relief helps keep the reader engaged. Montaigne’s casual nature can also be detrimental to his main idea. The predominant idea is that the western culture is too judgmental on new and different cultures that they cannot see the problems within their own society. He employs quotes from two natives brought back to Europe that he had spoken to, but prefaces the information with an apology for not remembering all three points the natives spoke about. This discredits Montaigne slightly as an accurate teller of information.

While Montaigne’s lack of solidarity in his interview with the natives is concerning, the way he approached it was quite unique. More often then not, writers would rather have a third idea splashed within the paper to satisfy rhetoric and their main thesis. This is not the case for Montaigne, and while it may slightly discredit the information he has given thus far, I think it helps “pack a punch” with the evidence he does bring forward. The frankness he holds is impressive and quite risky. Having brought up the fact that he should satisfy rhetoric in the rule of three and that the natives did, in fact, share more than memory serves draws the reader’s attention to the information that follows. Montaigne stopped the flow of his argument to point out he has forgotten a point to sort of ground the reader and draw his attention to the new topics he brings up. This is a powerful tool that Montaigne uses in his favor toward the end of his essay. Another rhetorical device he uses is the over-arching metaphor of the criticism on cannibalism being the same mindset western Europeans approach new societies in general. Taking a very grotesque and foreign example to headline his essay draws the reader in, continually keeping the example on their mind. Montaigne uses this as the basis for the rest of his argument against societal judgments. Marriage, battle, honor, daily life, and dress are all topics with the same division as cannibalism, both being present yet different in each society. Montaigne is a thoughtful writer, as he does not explain the cannibalism argument right away. There is a thoughtful structure behind his support.

At first, the reader is slightly confused as Montaigne talks about boundaries occurring between people, natural or artificial, and the validity of the accounts he has read about. The flow of consciousness is effortless though as Montaigne is a great writer when it comes to cognitive ideas leading to a well-developed thought. He keeps this line of thought fairly unbiased as we have identified his main idea, being that people judge others for things they themselves do and cannot see. His bias does take over slightly, but to his benefit. “Not at all bad, that. – Ah! But they wear no breeches . . .”(241). This is the quote that ends the essay. Up to that point, the majority of points Montaigne made could have supported either side toward being the “cannibal.” The balance within the essay is very well maintained, as Montaigne criticizes both sides to the same extent. Maybe not the same voice throughout, but most definitely in content. For example, the cannibalism, where the reaction from the European conquistadors who see the natives killing their own and roasting them like a pig for food, or similarly after a battle to signify the ultimate victory. The same practice is seen in the European camps to prisoners being burned alive and tortured. Also, it is seen again in the medical field where the dead are used to cure the living.

The balance of ideas whether it be in quantity or breadth, Montaigne maintains very well. What makes his idea so strong though is the subtlety behind his stance. After long flowing paragraphs, wordy explanations, and seemingly irrelevant tangents, he states his idea with a sassy one-liner to cap off the essay. That is powerful. Indeed, Montaigne’s unusual delivery craftily expresses his criticism of Western European judgments being worse than those that, as he expresses, naturally follow divisions of people, whether naturally or artificially occurring.

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