Michel de Montaigne and Cultural Curiosity

Racism was not the only possible reaction to the new worlds emerging in the sixteenth century. Decades of religious fanaticism, bringing civil anarchy and war, led both Catholics and Protestants to doubt that any one faith contained absolute truth. Added to these doubts was the discovery of peoples in the New World who had radically different ways of life. These shocks helped produce ideas of skepticism and cultural relativism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Skepticism is a school of thought founded on doubt that total certainty or definitive knowledge is ever attainable. Cultural relativism suggests that one culture is not necessarily superior to another, just different. Both notions found expression in the work of Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (MEE-shel duh mahn-TAYN; 1533–1592).

Montaigne developed a new literary genre, the essay—from the French essayer, meaning “to test or try”—to express his thoughts and ideas. Published in 1580, Montaigne’s Essays consisted of short personal reflections. Intending to be accessible to ordinary people, Montaigne wrote in French rather than in Latin and used an engaging conversational style.

Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” reveals the impact of overseas discoveries on his consciousness. In contrast to the prevailing views of the time, he rejected the notion that one culture is superior to another. Speaking of native Brazilians, he wrote:

I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation [Brazil], . . . except, that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not according to his usage; as, indeed, we have no other criterion of truth and reason, than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live.5

In his own time and throughout the seventeenth century, few would have agreed with Montaigne’s challenging of European superiority. The publication of his ideas, however, contributed to a basic shift in attitudes. Montaigne inaugurated an era of doubt. “Wonder,” he said, “is the foundation of all philosophy, research is the means of all learning, and ignorance is the end.”6