Of Barbarism and Civilization

December 4, 2015

Thanks to James Keller, HMU Graduate Student, for today's blog post.

Life in this world provides one with many opportunities for pleasure if one will seek them out. One such pleasure is interpretive discussion over a meaningful work of literature. Four times a year, Harrison Middleton University hosts such a discussion, and I have found them to be quite pleasurable. Last October, I participated in a discussion of Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” which was both stimulating and enriching, providing the mind with material for contemplation long after the reading and discussion had both been concluded. In the essay, Montaigne criticizes civilized man for too readily judging others to be barbarians while ignoring their own barbarous actions or at least the barbarity of their own societies. This criticism is worthy of consideration and hopefully provokes one to self-reflection. However, in his defense of so-called barbarous peoples, he goes too far, defending even reprehensible acts of murder.

Barbarism is for Montaigne a troubling term. Specifically considering a Brazilian tribe of cannibals, he writes: “...I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice” (144). When men employ the term “barbarism” they really mean that the customs of another people are foreign, that they are not like us. He finds this use of the term quite distasteful. Yet he does write that undeveloped peoples can be considered barbarous in that they have little artifice: “The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours....” (145). He turns the term “barbarian” into a badge of honor. It is the civilized man who is corrupt and whose life would be praised by Lycurgus and Plato (145).

It is too easy for civilized man to condemn the customs of barbarians, who live lives more natural, and therefore more beautiful, than civilized man. After all, they dine on human flesh. Montaigne will not allow civilized man to hypocritically assess the failings of other people, however. He admits that the acts of these Brazilian cannibals contain “barbarous horror” but is “heartily sorry that judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own” (147). To what faults is civilized man blind? Civilized man puts his religious enemies to the rack, tortures his enemies in fire, or allows him to be torn apart by dogs and pigs. The barbarian is decent enough to eat the flesh of his enemies only once they are dead. Civilized man eats his enemies while they yet live. Who, then, is the barbarian?

This call to societal introspection is admirable. No society is likely to improve itself by declaring other societies inadequate, particularly if the standard of judgment is dissimilarity of custom rather than reason. If one uses his own society as the standard of good, then he will find no reason to criticize it. He implicitly assumes its perfection. The only way to betterment is to consider the failings of one’s own self and society and effect a change.

Yet, Montaigne excuses the needless fighting of the cannibals, a step too far. He writes: “Their warfare is wholly noble and generous, and as excusable and beautiful as this human disease can be; its only basis among them is their rivalry in valor” (147). This is an exceedingly troubling statement. While it is true that he is not advocating war, calling it a disease, he expresses such admiration for needless violence when these ‘barbarians’ practice it. Yet, of all peoples in the world, they have less need of violence than almost any other. The way their world is understood by him, it is as close to a paradise as any place in the world can be. They do not fight for territory or food; they live in a land of plenty. They fight only to prove themselves to be men of courage.

It alludes this reader what is so noble about making war for the sake of ego gratification. Should the warrior be willing to risk his life and take another only to prove his courage? Because these so-called barbarians, living in a near-paradise, have little opportunity to practice virtue and avoid vice, they must seek for opportunities it seems. And they believe they have found the way, by making war on their neighbors, by proving that they are willing to risk their lives in war. But they have failed the true test of courage. The truly courageous warrior will be the one who puts down the weapon though he knows that his compatriots will call him coward, who will accept ignominy and worse to avoid needlessly wasting the life of himself or others.

Any virtue is diminished when displayed through a prism of vice. A man who steals and gives his ill-gotten gains to charity is not noble. He does not exhibit generosity, for the goods he gives away are not his to give. Similarly, the courage of a man who makes war, not out of necessity, but to prove his nobility is ignoble. He practices his virtue out of season, turning it to vice.

Also, in an attempt to make the ‘barbarian’ appear nobler, Montaigne embellishes the reason for the war. This is not war devoid of hatred, a mere exercise of martial virtue. The Brazilians eat one another by way of revenge, and when the Portuguese introduce to them a more vicious form of revenge, they seize upon it, burying their enemies up to the waist, riddling them with arrows, and hanging their corpses (146). This is not a dispassionate exercise to prove valor but a longstanding feud.

It is remarkable that he should praise their valor so thoroughly, especially as he compares them favorably to ‘civilized’ man. He writes that the Brazilians who are captured in war and awaiting their dinner date are defiant until the bitter end. They taunt their captors with the idea that the flesh their captors will soon feast upon is made up of the victors’ own ancestors, upon whom their captors once dined after a previous war (148). And they are not stripped of their courage even on the day of their deaths, hurling insults to the last breaths. “Truly here are real savages by our standard; for either they must be thoroughly so, or we must be; there is an amazing distance between their character and ours” (148).

The comparison is unfair. According to his own admission, these ‘barbarians’ are treated well and afforded the greatest hospitality (146). It is the captor who shows the real valor through his restraint during all this taunting. But comparing Brazilian captives to European captives, with the intention of proving the superiority of Brazilian courage, is gratuitous. According to Montaigne, the European is much more barbaric, eating his enemies alive, so to speak. The courage exhibited by those subjected to the torments of the inquisition must therefore be the greater. Certainly the courage of many failed, but being subjected to such great horrors, this is hardly neither surprising nor blameworthy. And for those few whose courage never failed them, even while experiencing such torment, surely their courage can be admired as much as—if not more than—those who stoically endured the hospitality of their captors.

I can understand the urge to defend ‘barbarians’ from the smug hypocrisy of the ‘civilized’. And it is surely correct to make greater note of one’s own flaws than the flaws of others. However, in his defense of the Brazilian cannibal, Montaigne goes beyond what is just. He expresses admiration for needless violence, whitewashing an animosity existing between different tribes to emphasize the nobility of their courage. Moreover, while arguing for the great valor of the Brazilian, he needlessly diminishes the valor of his own people. Montaigne is caught up in the zeal of his cause and ends up exaggerating his arguments.

Sources Cited:

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Cannibals”. Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Vol. 23. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990. 143-149.


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