Friday, September 11, 2015

The Nobility of the Savage; or, the Barbarism of the Civilized.

I noticed a paradox within the writings of one Michel de Montaigne in his essay Of Cannibals.  Although this essay is lauded as an "astonishingly humane response to the peoples of the New World" by the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I nonetheless take issues with his depiction and representation of the Tupinamba natives as contrasted with the Europeans of his time.  The point that I wish to emphasize is not the rationalization of cannibalism or the cultural difference between the groups, but rather their similarities; that is, in how they wage war.  

Montaigne is quick to note that the Tupinamba prophets preach but two things: "undismayed resolution in war" and "an inviolable affection to their wives".  He then continues to explain that they fight unarmored, fearlessly, and to the death.  They will not surrender, but if prisoners are taken, after the winners have "long time used and treated their prisoners well" they will kill and eat them.  Montaigne goes on to admit that this practice is barbarous, but less so than the slow killing done in Europe.  

His argument continues, that because the natives fight for the mere "jealousy of virtue" (rivalry of valor), their wars are "noble and generous".  In contrast,  because the wars of Europe are so often based on religion and territory, they are more iniquitous and barbarous.  However, Montaigne must remember that the wars of the masses are waged on the whims of the few elite.  The majority of those who fight wars do not do so for the desire for more land or wealth; many only do so because they are compelled by circumstance.  If the natives of Brazil go to war for no reason more than to display who has more valor, is that not more childish and foolish than warring for one's political beliefs or social obligations?  At the conclusion of his essay, Montaigne reports that when faced with the inequalities of European society, one of the Tupinamba natives wonders why "they took not the others by the throat, or set fire on their houses".  

War, it is generally accepted, is not something positive, uplifting, worthwhile, or indeed noble.  War is ugly, war is stupid, and all too often war is necessary.  But the necessity of an instance does not change the reality of war.  And so, while I gladly recognize the barbarity of European warfare and strife, I cannot help but argue that a war only for the sake of war is the height of the barbaric and ignoble.  

Michel de Montaigne, "Of Cannibals", The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.  Web.  Sep. 11, 2015

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