31 Conservatives: On Cannibals

Montaigne’s Cannibals essay has been so widely read and discussed throughout history that I’m tempted to skip it out of spite. This is the Montaigne essay for the anthology collections, the one where he makes a sly case for respecting other cultures by pointing out that cannibals:

Have no words for treachery, lying, cheating, avarice, envy, backbiting or forgiveness ….

This is one of Montaigne’s best argued essays, but that’s another problem that I have with it. Montaigne employs, while arguing for the uncivilized and less rational, his most civilized and rational prose. No wonder English teachers love this essay – it’s so unlike Montaigne, lacking in contradiction and diversion, seemingly mapped out in advance.

The (unnamed out of kindness) eighth grade English teacher who told me that I wasn’t a good writer because I didn’t outline my essay in advance, I’m sure she loves this piece. I wouldn’t be surprised if New York Times op-ed editors had to recite it from memory during their job interviews. I’ve tried to avoid personal rants during this project, but to me, the unidirectional, logical opinion piece is a moribund husk of prose that has been stinking up newspapers and magazines for so long that only other such opinion writers are still aware that these columns exist.

Somewhere between the telegraphed three-punch combination op-ed and the sucker-punch blog posting, there is a style that hits you in surprisingly effective ways. This style of opinion provides a glimpse into a thought process, one where you can’t see the destination from the first sentence and where an idea can sometimes loop back onto itself and the paragraphs begin to argue with one another. That’s the genuine Montaigne, the one who points us in a direction that could make opinion writing interesting again and, in my most utopian moments, makes me think there could be a way out of our insane right/left dichotomy.

But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, I write My Montaigne Project with the subjects I have, so forward ho onto the cannibals.

As I said, this might be Montaigne’s most influential essay. There are lines in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that were nearly plagiarized from this piece and you could make the case that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the noble savage comes directly from Montaigne. Or could you?

This is a thorny issue in Montaigne scholarship and I don’t want to delve into it too deeply – dissertations have been written on the subject. M.A. Screech, who translated and edited the Penguin Edition of the Montaigne essays that serve as the basis of this project, believes that Montaigne’s primitivism “has little in common with the ‘noble savages’ of later centuries.

Perhaps that’s true, but Montaigne and Rousseau share some similar ideas. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man. . . .

Along those same lines, Montaigne wrote:

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.

Neither Rousseau nor Montaigne had any direct knowledge of native people in the Americas, and there’s a great deal of truth-shading on both accounts. Perhaps there were some American natives who lacked writing and political forms, but this clearly was not true of the largest nations like the Aztecs, Incas, Cherokees and Navajo, whose language was so complex that it served as the basis of the U.S. secret codes during World War II.

So, yes, you can use these small civilizations as a contrast with European civilization, but once you bring in the larger Native American civilizations, the lines of demarcation start to fade. For example, Montaigne writes:

Those peoples, then, seem to me to be barbarous only in that they have been hardly fashioned by the mind of man, still remaining close neighbours to their original state of nature. They are still governed by the laws of Nature and are only very slightly bastardized by ours; but their purity is such that I am sometimes seized with irritation at their not having been discovered earlier, in times when there were men who could have appreciated them better than we do.

That’s not the case with the Incas, who had a sophisticated economy and a tax system based on the ownership of luxury items and on performed labor. There were cannibals among the Aztec empire, but that doesn’t even begin to explain their level of violence, capped off by mass human sacrifice. One does not have to be inculcated with European values to call these rituals barbaric.

By the way, there’s also some proto-hippie imagery in the essay that comes close to painting Montaigne as a close-to-nature extremist:

In addition they inhabit a land with a most delightful countryside and a temperate climate, so that, from what I have been told by my sources, it is rare to find anyone ill there; I have been assured that they never saw a single man bent with age, toothless, blear-eyed or tottering…. They spend the whole day dancing; the younger men go off hunting with bow and arrow….

You can almost see the germ of the natural-is-best movement start to sprout in this essay, but fortunately, Montaigne is sensible enough to tread lightly on this idea. The core of what Montaigne is saying in this essay is this: we all agree that cannibals have reprehensible qualities, but western civilization got some important things wrong as well and we need to have some humility when comparing our way of life to theirs.

That’s perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, by the time we get to Rousseau, the humility is replaced with awe. The “natural state” becomes the idealized human existence … and I boil down what Rousseau makes of this “insight” to this:

Follow in everything the general will … which isn’t exactly the democratic will

You have to be able to know this will, only the most sublime virtue can illuminate it

To do this, your mind has to be free; you’ll reach this freedom by questioning motives

The only legitimate motive is assuring property, life and liberty

Therefore, those who hold contrary opinions cannot define the general will because they are either part of an elite trying to take away your freedom or they are under the sway of sophistry

And that, in a nutshell, is the ethos of Glenn Beck. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher described this new form of conservatism – which he dubbed Rousseau conservatism – this way:

It’s the idea that man is born innocent, but corrupted by society, or government. Remove the chains of government, and man will return to his natural, good state, which is one of limitless possibility. This denies two bedrock truths of philosophical conservatism, which are that 1) human nature is fallen, and 2) man must learn to live within limits. A conservatism that is not founded on a conscious recognition of those two truths is a false conservatism, and has a shaky foundation from which to criticize liberal utopianism.

And that’s where we are, on a shaky foundation. It’s not Montaigne’s fault. But it might be the fault of those who, for centuries, have taken this particular essay out of context. It must be read within the full Montaigne corpus to avoid overextending his ideas.

George W. Bush during a 2000 Republican primary debate famously answered that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Recently during a tour to promote his memoirs, Bush said that for a split-second, he considered answering Jean-Jacques Rousseau instead. I’m not surprised.

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