In “Of Cannibals,” Michelde Montaigne questions the perspective of what should be considered right orwrong in a society. These questions stem from the existence of a cannibalisticculture in the New World, shaping his ideas about his own society. He aims toget people to think like he does by taking this vastly different civilizationand using it as a mirror for what his own society thinks is right and how theybehave themselves. The knowledge of the existence of a culture so differentfrom his own society’s caused people to question the way they live their lives.Montaigne does not want people to assume the things they consider normal as thedefinitively correct way, but instead asserts the idea that different does notnecessarily equate to wrong or incorrect. Ifa group of people could develop in a way so differently from their own, thenperhaps their own customs were not the best ones out there like they werepreviously led to believe.
“Now to return to my purpose I find there is nothingin that nation that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarismwhich is not common to them” (Montaigne 370). They have only their own cultureas a basis for what is considered right or wrong. This means that without beingable to live in a cannibals shoes and actually live the life of a cannibal, onecannot possibly think of it as a normal set of traditions. To a cannibal, thisis all they know, so how could it possibly seem wrong? Because this isn’t seenor heard about in day to day life for the Europeans, it is easy for them toconsider it wrong. However, Montaigne praises the cannibals for their ability tofunction regardless of their simplicity making them so different from thecomplicity of his own culture. “They are yet in that happy estate as theydesire no more than what their natural necessities direct them: whatsoever isbeyond it, is to them superfluous” (Montaigne 373). This is another example ofMontaigne subtly pushing the idea that different does not always equal wrong. Montaignedoes not dislike his society or way of living, rather, he just wishes toinfluence people in a way that they will question what they believe to be thedefinitively right way to do things.
He uses the cannibalistic culture as a wayto do this by not thinking of cannibals as mere savages, but as a culture thatdeveloped independently that might be able to teach his own society a betterway to do things, regardless of their vast differences. Montaigne would use this specific way ofthinking when it comes to the Mayan ball game, which is a game in which theloser, usually a king or high official, would be sacrificed to the gods. Justbecause the Mayans are brought up in a culture where this type of game isconsidered normal, it does not mean that they are incorrect for doing so. “Iwould have every man write what he knows, and no more: not only in that, but inall other subjects. For one may have particular knowledge of the nature of oneriver, and experience of the quality of one fountain, that in other things knowsno more than another man” (Montaigne 370). This shows Montaigne pressing theenvelope that one should always assume that something can be learned fromanother, regardless of the many differences that may exist. There is no onesingle way to do a certain thing or live a certain way, keeping an open mindcan and will benefit cultures in ways people could have never imagined. Montaignecaused people to think in a different way than the traditional way they weretaught to.
He did this by changing people’s perspectives on the barbarism of a cannibalisticsociety. Although Montaigne may not have agreed with the idea of a man eatinganother man or the idea of sacrifice, he did agree with keeping an open mind,regardless of the obvious and numerous differences that made themselves apparent.Montaigne aims to show the readers that different does not always equate to wrong,and that keeping this mindset is key in any developing society.