31. The Cannibals (and The Coaches)

When I was in France in February, I went to several bookstores looking for a complete volume of Montaigne’s essays, and it was surprisingly difficult to find. What I discovered in every Parisian book shop, however, was the Etonnants Classiques edition of “Des cannibales suivi de Des coches.” I had never thought about the ways these two essays interrelate. The text on the back cover (translated into English) was interesting:

The “discovery” of the new World in 1492 caused an upheaval of an unprecedented magnitude, which fascinated the humanist thinkers of the Renaissance. Driven by his insatiable curiosity, Montaigne devotes part of his Essays to the meeting between Europeans and indigenous people of the Americas.

Inspired by the stories of travelers, the chapters “Des cannibales” and “Des coches” offer an ethnological portrait of the “savages.”

With the concern to find prejudices, Montaigne deconstructs the accusations of barbarism against them. “Everyone calls barbarism what is not in his customs,” he notes. Retracing the customs of indigenous people, he praises their wisdom, their culture and the naturalness of their customs. In doing so, he hands Europeans a mirror that reflects the real savagery: that of colonization.

The Cannibals is the more famous of the two, but I find the latter essay, The Coaches, to be the best example of Montaigne’s humanity — and his surprisingly modern perspective on colonization. His righteous anger at the Spanish conquistadors cannot be faked:

If their intention had simply been to spread our faith, they would have thought upon the fact that it grows not by taking possession of lands but of men, and that they would have had killings enough through the necessities of war without introducing indiscriminate slaughter, as total as their swords and pyres could make it, as though they were butchering wild animals, merely preserving the lives of as many as they intended to make pitiful slaves to work and service their mines: so that several of the leaders of the Conquistadores were punished by death in the very lands they had conquered by order of the Kings of Castile, justly indignant at their dreadful conduct, while virtually all the others were loathed and hated. To punish them God allowed that their vast plunder should be either engulfed by the sea as they were shipping it or else in that internecine strife in which they all devoured each other, most being buried on the scene, in no wise profiting from their conquest.

Montaigne has deep reverence for the indigenous populations of the pre-Columbian continents, and he delivers his strongest praise for the type of work he knows well — public construction projects. Montaigne goes into great detail to point out the beauty, workmanship and engineering magnificence of construction in Peru and Mexico.

He should know, because Montaigne was a provincial governor for two terms in Bordeaux and a member of parliament for considerably longer. He knew precisely what went into building and maintaining public investments. In fact, earlier in the essay, he lays into the Romans (who he usually praises lavishly) for spending money on public festivals (including sports festivals — interesting to view in context of the upcoming Paris Olympics) instead of lasting public works:

Such funds would seem to me to be more regal, useful, sensible and durable if spent on ports, harbours, fortifications and walls, on splendid buildings, on churches, hospitals and colleges, and on repairing roads and highways.

If there’s one thing that Montaigne loves more than public works, it’s civic virtue, and he feels an even greater sense of loss over the colonizers failure to export the best of their civilization to indigenous cultures:

What a renewal that would have been, what a restoration of the fabric of this world, if the first examples of our behaviour which were set before that new world had summoned those peoples to be amazed by our virtue and to imitate it, and had created between them and us a brotherly fellowship and understanding. How easy it would have been to have worked profitably with folk whose souls were so unspoiled and so hungry to learn, having for the most part been given such a beautiful start by Nature. We, on the contrary, took advantage of their ignorance and lack of experience to pervert them more easily towards treachery, debauchery and cupidity, toward every kind of cruelty and inhumanity, by the example and model of our own manners. Whoever else has ever rated trade and commerce at such a price? So many cities razed to the ground, so many nations wiped out, so many millions of individuals put to the sword, and the most beautiful and the richest part of the world shattered, on behalf of the pearls-and-pepper business! Tradesmen’s victories! At least ambition and political strife never led men against men to such acts of horrifying enmity and to such pitiable disasters.

In Montaigne’s day, the typical counterpoint to this argument was that the “indians” were just godless savages, barbarians. In fact, they argued, many of them were cannibals.

Montaigne took apart the “godless” part piece by piece in his Coaches essay, noting that the indigenous people had a very well developed religions and the leaders were very interested in hearing about the belief systems of the Europeans, who were so eager to share. In fact, they seemed far more open minded to the monotheism being introduced to them than the Europeans were to the reality that they had transitioned from pagan and polytheistic cultures on their own relatively-recent timetable (at least compared to the Hebrews) — and certainly not overnight.

As for the claim of cannibalism, Montaigne offered one of the most famous shrugs in literary history towards that slander.

Instead of trying to deny that certain peoples on the coast of Brazil practiced forms of cannibalism, Montaigne accepts the assertion — then goes on to demonstrate that, even if true, their barbarism pales in comparison to that propagated by western history. It’s a brilliant essay on its own, but an absolute tour de force when taken in context of Montaigne’s deep erudition about history and philosophy that he displays throughout the essays.

These are Montaigne’s topic sentences … and considering the context, perhaps the first essay topic sentences ever constructed:

I find (from what has been told me) that there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything!

In taking on western civilization and its moral superiority, Montaigne goes directly to the source and points a finger at all the philosophers — especially Plato — who claimed to understand how cultures evolved and which forms of government were therefore best:

They could not even imagine a state of nature so simple and so pure as the one we have learned about from experience; they could not even believe that societies of men could be maintained with so little artifice, so little in the way of human solder. I would tell Plato that those people have no trade of any kind, no acquaintance with writing, no knowledge of numbers, no terms for governor or political superior, no practice of subordination or of riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritances, no divided estates, no occupation but leisure, no concern for kinship – except such as is common to them all – no clothing, no agriculture, no metals, no use of wine or corn. Among them you hear no words for treachery, lying, cheating, avarice, envy, backbiting or forgiveness. How remote from such perfection would Plato find that Republic which he thought up.

As someone who despises Plato’s political philosophy, I adore Montaigne’s takedown.

He goes on to offer a highly idealized view — based on the first hand storytelling of a worker who lived at his estate — of how the native people lived in harmony with nature. Montaigne notes that the clerics would dwell in the mountains and only appear to remind men to love their wives and be fierce in battle. They would periodically call on the men to wage war against an enemy and promise victory — and if they proved to be wrong in that assessment, it was common practice to kill the cleric, who after all had just been exposed as a false prophet. Montaigne was especially approving of that fact.

As for the cannibalism, Montaigne detailed what that meant, which he saw more as an ethic of carrying out every act of war to its savage end rather than some inhumane custom. Still, he doesn’t back away from the term cannibal — he just uses it as a way of attacking western barbarism:

It does not sadden me that we should note the horrible barbarity in a practice such as theirs: what does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; more barbarity in lacerating by rack and torture a body still fully able to feel things, in roasting him little by little and having him bruised and bitten by pigs and dogs (as we have not only read about but seen in recent memory, not among enemies in antiquity but among our fellow-citizens and neighbours – and, what is worse, in the name of duty and religion) than in roasting him and eating him after his death.

Some of the practices Montaigne was calling out were well known to French citizens of that age — they were endemic to the religious wars that befell the nation through much of Montaigne’s life.

He also makes some not entirely convincing arguments that Europeans do things with bodies that are just as bad as cannibalism (including some medical practices with cadavers.) But then he closes his essay finding more reasons to praise the indigenous people, including polygamy (Montaigne is all-in on different forms of polyamorous love throughout his essays) and their ability to rally courage in times of battle.

He closes by writing, sarcastically, “Ah! But they wear no breeches…”

This is Montaigne’s most famous essay for good reason. But it only attains its full power by having a broader understanding of the other 106 essays that surround it.

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