Michel de Montaigne,
, number 30: “Of Cannibals” (1577)
Montaigne was born into an aristocratic family in the Dordogne, in southwestern France
in 1533. According to tradition, his marriage was unhappy and he withdrew to a tower
on his chateau to read and meditate, and began writing essays as a way to keep track of
what he read. The first volumes were published in 1580 and made Montaigne became a
public figure. He was appointed mayor of Bordeaux, but retired back to his chateau to
escape from vicious Protestant-Catholic wars. The essay “Of Cannibals” describes
Montaigne’s reflections on his meeting in 1562 with a Native American who had been
brought to France.
When King Pyrrhus invaded Italy,
he viewed and considered the order of the army the
Romans sent out to meet him. "I know not," said he, "what kind of barbarians" (for so the
Greeks called all other nations) "these may be; but the disposition of this army that I see
has nothing of barbarism in it."
As much said the Greeks of that which Flaminius
brought into their country; and Philip,
beholding from an eminence the order and
distribution of the Roman camp formed in his kingdom by Publius Sulpicius Galba,
spoke to the same effect.
By which it appears how cautious men ought to be of taking
things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and that we are to judge by the eye of reason, and
not from common report.
I long had a man in my house that lived ten or twelve years in the New World,
discovered in these latter days, and in that part of it where Villegaignon landed,
called Antarctic France.
This discovery of so vast a country seems to be of very great
I cannot be sure, that hereafter there may not be another, so many wiser
men than we having been deceived in this.
I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our
bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity; for we grasp at all, but catch
nothing but wind.
Plato brings in Solon, telling a story that he had heard from the priests of Sais in
Egypt, that of old, and before the Deluge, there was a great island called Atlantis, situate
directly at the mouth of the straits of Gibraltar, which contained more countries than both
Africa and Asia put together; and that the kings of that country, who not only possessed
that Isle, but extended their dominion so far into the continent that they had a country of
Africa as far as Egypt, and extending in Europe to Tuscany, attempted to encroach even
upon Asia, and to subjugate all the nations that border upon the Mediterranean Sea, as far
as the Black Sea; and to that effect overran all Spain, the Gauls, and Italy, so far as to
penetrate into Greece, where the Athenians stopped them: but that some time after, both
the Athenians, and they and their island, were swallowed by the Flood.
It is very likely that this extreme irruption and inundation of water made