Anthropological analysis of Montaigne Essay

In his essay “Of Cannibals”, Michel Montaigne compares the culture he has been brought up in to that of the native North Americans.  He also looks at how the Greeks view non-Greeks and criticizes it very much.  He starts off by noting how different people in history have always assumed that their culture is the best and all the rest are inferior. He notes the astonishment that King Pyrrhus had when he arrived in Italy to conquer it and found that they were actually civilized.

  The Greeks always assumed that all non-Greeks were barbarians.  The king was therefore very surprised to find that the Italians had a well-organized army (http:

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The Greeks regarded what Flamnius introduced to them as barbaric before understanding it.  Philip thought that the Romans were primitive and other people saw the Greeks as being primitive.  By elaborating this point, he shows that people are usually wrong when it comes to comparing other people’s cultures because each thinks theirs is the best.

  In his research on the North America Natives, he notes that they capture their prisoners and after keeping them for some time they kill, roast and then go ahead to enjoy the roasted human flesh.  They do not eat the prisoners for the sake of nourishment but because it is necessary to teach others a lesson and also to strengthen the ties of the people who partake in it as they even preserve some for the absent friends.

He further notes that they have many wives and the more wives one has the greater honor and respect one is accorded.  He then compares this to what happens in his culture where women are jealous and do not allow their husbands to have other wives.  He then reminds the reader that although they claim to be Christians, they ignore the fact that even in the Bible there are many instances of marriage of two wives like Jacob who married both Leah and Rachael.  In Greek history there are also many instances of men having more than one wife.  He then exhorts the natives as being true to their nature.

He then compares what is termed as virtuous in his culture and what it means to the culture of the native Northern Americans and sees a vast difference.  Even though they are cannibals, they only kill and eat prisoners of war. Though the so-called “civilized cultures” do not condone the consumption of human flesh, they practice worse tortures for their prisoners.  They torture them mentally and physically.  In the long run, both prisoners will die but the one in the native North American land will die a less painful death as they are roasted after death.  In the civilized world, they are tortured while still alive through burning bits of their flesh and cutting them up.  Montaigne finds this to be more barbaric than the practice of the Americans.

He admires the culture of these natives since it is more in tune with nature than his own culture.  He sees the development of his culture as an adaptation to any evil greater than its own.  Through interacting with many cultures, there is exposure to different practices and according to Montaigne his culture preferred to adopt the worst aspects of all the cultures that they came across.  He also admires that the Americans only performed such barbaric acts on their enemies and never on their friends.  In his culture all the terrible acts that are witnessed are performed on friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.

Although these people are called savages, they practice the purest of virtues.  Using the cultural anthropology perspective, one finds that Montaigne has really tried to avoid being ethnocentric.  Since ethnocentrism is the perception that ones culture is the best and the most superior to all others he seems to have done an admirable job of it.  He has actually exhorted another culture that is deemed inferior by other cultures.  He expresses a lot of admiration for them, which in itself is not common.  Ethnography is a method in cultural anthropology that intends to get answers to questions about people’s way of life.  It also examines how culture has changed over time and the factors that have led to different changes experienced in the culture.

To effectively conduct ethnography, one has to have lived with the people in question so that they can give the true picture required.  To do this one uses the participant observation method and gets the views of the people directly (  By being among them one is able to directly understand their feelings and actually be able to express it on their behalf.  Montaigne seems to have done this although it seems he had to use an interpreter to be able to understand them due to language barrier.  Participant method of observation is very captivating as one seems to be assimilated by the culture that is being studied and if not careful one can be affected by the views and tend to be subjective instead of objective.

Montaigne was among the initiators of the use of the cultural relativism.  It means looking at human beings beliefs, practices and behavior as being shaped by their own distinct culture. The culture itself is shaped by the experience encountered by that society and also the cultures that the society had had contact with over time.  Cultures are continuously changing and one finds that people who see something as acceptable presently either did not do so previously or will change their view in future.  It then means that the people brought up in different cultures will always have different opinions on the same thing or have a small similarity but not in all things or even entirely.

Montaigne sees the different cultures touched on by this article as being different not because one is inferior to the other or because one is more advanced than the other but because they have had different experiences over time. The different environments that the people are in makes the lifestyles of the different cultures have different values and believe.  The Native Americans are seen to be very violent and use crude weapons because that is all that is needed in their setting. They encounter wild animals and other groups who threaten their safety. They do not live in cities but live in the wild and so their environment requires that they behave the way they do so as to ensure their survival.  The Greeks had many enemies and needed to defend themselves from invasion and thus the need to use such terrible methods of torture to scare away their enemies through show. They also had the need to gather as many weapons that are necessary to make them the strongest army in the world and scare away their enemies. The environment therefore shapes each culture.


Theoretical Orientations retrieved on 8th September 2007 from

Of Cannibals Michel de Montaigne retrieved on 18th September from


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