MONT 104N – Modeling the Environment
Study Questions on “On Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne
August 24, 2012
1 Where did the word “barbarian” originally come from? What does Montaigne say
about the way people tend to use the terms “barbaric” and “bar barian?” What
examples does he give to demonstrate that the sort of “kneej erk” reaction involved
in declaring something unfamiliar to be “barbaric” can be mi staken?
2 What is the purpose of the long digression in Montaigne’s e ssay dealing with stories
about the “lost continent” of Atlantis? Why does he include t hat whole discussion?
3 How does Montaigne contrast the “natural” and the “arti c ial?” Which is superior
for him, and why? Do you agree with his point of view about that ?
4 The main discussion in Montaigne’s essay concerns aspect s of the culture of a group
of natives of what is now Brazil who came into contact with Eur opeans during Mon
taigne’s lifetime How does Montaigne describe their socie ty? How does it compare
with European society at the time Montaigne was writing? Wou ld you say Montaigne
expresses undiluted sympathy for and understanding of thei r customs? If not, what
is his attitude?
5 What does Montaigne say about the ethical system of these B razilian natives? What
are the chief virtues they aim to exhibit? Why do they practic e warfare?
6 For the Europeans who came in contact with these people, th e most shocking aspect
of their society was probably their practice of cannibalism But exactly what function
does cannibalism play in their culture? Why do they do this an d how does Montaigne
compare what they did to what Europeans did to prisoners of wa r? Is the practice of
cannibalism justi able in some circumstances?
7 Toward the end of the essay, Montaigne recounts the reacti ons of several members of
this society who encounter the court of the French king Charl es IX What were there
reactions to what they saw? Would you say they were being “bar baric?”
8 What does the last sentence of the essay mean? What attitud e is Montaigne showing
9 Can we learn anything from Montaigne today? Why did we ask a ll students in the
Holy Cross class of 2016 to read about him?