The Irony Behind Disapproval of Traditions in Montaigne's of Cannibals

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Michel De Montaigne’s book The Essays: A Selection is captivating and bold, especially considering the time that is was written in when hardly anyone would write about oneself due to sounding conceived with oneself, boring, biased, or uneducated. However, Montaigne’s book is neither of those while it highlights very intriguing and controversial aspects of human beings such as death, life, fear, happiness, philosophy, education, barbarity, God’s ordinances, philosophy, and prayer. That’s a lot of topics to cover but what makes it easier for his readers to grasp all of this is his writing technique. His intimate remarks allows the readers to relate to him as a human since, “many grades of human soul which still remain human souls. Some are greater or higher than others; some are baser and lower. All remain human…Each can understand the other” (xiv). This quote supports the theme of the book because Montaigne writing style is simplistic and genuine as he compares and contrasts himself with the world around him to better understand his own life, other people, his surroundings, and the meaning to it all.

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Montaigne writes a lot of intelligent and accurate points about human life. One of my favorite chapters is “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”, where Montaigne focuses his assessments on morality and the necessity of accepting death without fear while letting death go in order to be able to live. It is noteworthy and unique that he makes death a focal point because like he explained in his book, not many people want or like to talk about death; as for most people, death is their greatest fear. He describes life as finite, where death is our ultimate objective in life, “But, as for death itself, that is inevitable” (Montaigne 19). Death is natural, uncontrollable, and is the last breath of life. Yet, Montaigne tells his readers that humans should not feel anguish, melancholy, or be scared of death because without death, then one could not experience life. In contrast to Montaigne’s opinions, Plato and Socrates believed that a philosopher is consumed by their search for true ultimate knowledge, consistency, uniformity, and eternality of being while our lives’ are distracted by secularity and instability of the earthly world. On the other hand, Montaigne says that humans should be adaptable to the inconsistency of their lives and practice philosophy. Philosophy allows the soul to separate itself from the body resembling the act of dying in order to be prepared for death; philosophy helps take away the fear of death while allowing us to better understand it along with accept it. He states, “Believe that each day is the last to shine on you…We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave” (Montaigne 24). Once an individual has been accustomed to death through philosophy, they can face it head on without being crippled or held down by the idea of death. Rather a person can “learn to stand firm and to fight it” and make use of the time life provides oneself. I think his key message about death is revealed in this well-known quote, “Live each day as though it’s your last…because one day you’ll be right” (Ray Charles). Don’t spend all your time worrying, stressing, and being sad because that’s a waist of time but instead learn and experience life the most you possibly can because the special gift of life is only granted once.

Lastly, another favorite chapter of mine is “On the Cannibals”. Of course when I think about cannibals I think about malicious people eating other innocent people, which probably most other readers thought the same before reading this chapter. My own prejudice opinion proves Montaigne’s case that everyone already has personal preconceived notions based on their upbringing and lifestyle, forming stereotypes, biased statements, and discrimination along with racism. However, he states in his book that peoples’ minds should be open and not static because the world is ever changing. The description he provides of the cannibals stunned me because, “These peoples are indeed cruel: but so are we” (Montaigne 79). The “cannibals” are in some sense morally better people than we are today because they have, “no words for treachery, lying, cheating, avarice, envy, backbiting or forgiveness”. These people live according to nature and to their customs, traditions, and culture while they aren’t consumed by corruption, power, greed, and money that consume a lot of us presently. Also he argues:

“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…than in roasting him and eating him after his death” (Montaigne 86-87).

I partially agree with his statement because people sometimes only see what they want to see and from only their perspective instead of looking at the whole picture. Americans view cannibals as barbarians because they eat people, since they are not accustomed to it. However, the United States is accustomed to torture and killing others. Torture is very barbaric but we don’t see it as that because we are use to it and justify it for national security, while the cannibals don’t see their customs as barbaric either because that’s their way of life to survive. Overall, I believe one of Montaigne’s themes of his book is don’t hold yourself down with the stress, fear, idea of death, or a static mind but live life freely by learning as much as possible, and have “pleasure [be] our target” (Montaigne 16).   

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