In 1563, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne was invited to the King of France’s court to meet three Brazilian cannibals who were brought to France. After having been interrogated for hours by the 13 year old king, Montaigne sought to ask a few questions. And their answers were incredibly revelatory:
First, the Brazilians expressed surprise that “so many tall, bearded men, all strong and well armed” (i.e., the king’s guard) were willing to take orders from a small child: something that would have been unthinkable in their own society. And second, the Brazilians were shocked by the severe inequality of French citizens, commenting on how some men “were gorged to the full with things of every sort” while others “were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.” Since the Brazilians saw all human beings “as halves of one another… they found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”
Montaigne records these observations in an essay entitled, “Des Cannibales.” Well ahead of its time, the essay challenges the haughty denigration of cannibals that was so common among Montaigne’s contemporaries, but not by arguing that cannibalism itself is a morally acceptable practice. Instead, Montaigne makes the more provocative claim that, as barbaric as these Brazilian cannibals may be, they are not nearly as barbaric as 16th-century Europeans themselves. To make his case, Montaigne cites various evidence: the wholesome simplicity and basic nobility of native Brazilian life; the fact that some European forms of punishment — which involved feeding people to dogs and pigs while they were still alive — were decidedly more horrendous than the native Brazilian practice of eating one’s enemies after they are dead; and the humane, egalitarian character of the Brazilians’ moral sensibility, which was on display in their recorded observations.