Montaigne Response Essay
It is no secret Europeans have conquered not only new lands, but their neighbors on the Continent too, by lying and deceit since the days of Ancient Rome. Montaigne remarked on how “better bred sort of men”, i.e. the Europeans, are more curious and discover more than their uncivilized counterparts in the New World. Because of their “superior” breeding, this essentially allowed them to lie and explain things in order to positively affect them. Montaigne remarked on how when meeting a “plain ignorant fellow” of the New World, he appeared more likely to tell the truth, solely because he was uncivilized in the eyes of the Europeans. As he puts it, the Europeans cannot help but alter the story, never representing things how they are, but how they appeared to them.
To contrast this, the Cannibal is just a simple, ignorant fellow, who tells things exactly as they are without distorting any facts or evidence. He is not capable of changing the story to suit his needs. That concept particularly stood out to me because it made me realize that the smarter, more educated, and arguably more civilized someone is, the better they are with words and the more likely they are to alter a story for personal gain. The primitive peoples of the New World were not capable of the high level deception and treachery the Europeans were. That is not to say that they were not capable of being just as cruel to their fellow man as the Europeans were, but as Montaigne puts it, lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon; they were unfamiliar concepts to the Cannibals.
One question that transcends time is why some nations or peoples were able to conquer and subject others. There are many theories and arguments to answer this but I am going to make the case that it is because some can deceive and others cannot. For example, white fur traders in the early 1800s were able to get Native Americans addicted to whiskey, often diluted, and “flavored” with tobacco juice. Still, it had its desired effect and it left many tribes clamoring for more. Once the Native Americans inherent weakness for whiskey was known, fur traders and land speculators used the firewater to obtain Indian lands and furs. What is the theme of this glimpse from the past?
The same words Michel de Montaigne used to describe what his Europeans colleagues were capable of; lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction and pardon. It seems to be a common theme when one people are taking over another. The concept of European superiority in the 16th century was no doubt reinforced by the magnificent art and culture that was blossoming during the Renaissance. Besides the Orient, the world was unknown, undiscovered and above all, not Christian.
The Popes of the time were all too happy to commission expeditions to baptize the New World. The themes of avarice, treachery and cruelty are not exclusive to Europe, however the Europeans were able to export it on a global scale. These themes exist all over the world in every country, they are human traits, but it was the Europeans who left the Continent to conquer and kill, for God, Gold, and Glory. Cunning though they may have been, Montaigne hit the nail on the head when he remarked on European’s ability to distort the facts and to deceive the “lesser” peoples of the New World.