In this essay Montaigne points out the absurdity of things we do that we consider absolutely normal.
A story to illustrate the power of custom: a country-woman grew used to playing with and carrying a young calf in her arms, and continued to do so daily so that, even when it was grown to be a big ox, she found she could still lift it.
Custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress who, little by little, slyly and unperceived, imposes her authority. She begins gently and humbly and, with the benefit of time, fixes and establishes herself. Then she unmasks a furious and tyrannical face, against which we no longer have the courage or the power to even lift up our eyes. We see her, at every turn, forcing and violating the rules of nature.
Think of how much custom stupefies our senses. My perfumed doublet gratifies my own senses at first, but after I have worn it for three days running, it is only pleasing to bystanders. The ability of custom to effect our impressions is also evident in those who live near steeples and noisy bells. I myself live in a tower where a great bell rings every morning and evening; the noise shakes my very tower, and was at first unbearable to me. Now, I am so used to it, that I hear it with indifference, and often don’t awaken at it.
When Plato reprehended a man for playing dice, he said, "you chide me for a very little thing." "Custom," replied Plato, "is no little thing."
I find that our greatest vices develop in infancy, and the people who nurse us at this time play a crucial role. Mothers are often amused when their children are cruel to animals, and fathers are pleased when they hear their son being rude or domineering to a poor peasant, seeing this as a sign of strength, and when they see him cheat his playfellows by treachery or deceit, they think this witty. Yet these are the roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason, that afterwards grow to prodigious bulk, cultivated by custom. It is a very dangerous mistake to ignore these vile inclinations due to the the tenderness of their age, and the triviality of the subject. In fact, nature speaks more sincerely at this age, as inward thoughts are more undisguised. Also, the ugliness of deception does not consist nor depend upon the difference between pounds and pennies. If they only play with marbles, would they not do the same with money? Children should carefully be instructed to abhor vices for the natural deformity of the vice itself. ,This way, they may not only avoid them in their actions, but abominate them in their hearts.
I was brought up to deal with everything in a plain and straightforward way of dealing, and have always had an aversion to all trickery and foul play, even in childish sports and recreations (and, indeed, it is to be noted, that the plays of children are not performed in play, but are taken very seriously by them).
The other day, I saw someone, born without arms, who has taught his feet to perform the services his hands should have done him so well that it seemed his feet had forgotten their natural role. Indeed, the fellow calls them his hands; with them he cuts anything, charges and discharges a pistol, threads a needle, sews, writes, takes off his hat, combs his hair, plays cards and dice, and all this with as much dexterity as any other could do with his hands. The money I gave him—for he gains his living by showing these feats—he took in his foot, as we do in our hand. I have also seen a little boy flourish a two-handed sword, handle a spear with great skill, and crack a whip as well as any coachman in France.
Even more amazing is the effect that custom has on our mind, for she has the power to establish our judgments and beliefs. She can plant any opinion, no matter how crazy, to any part of the world she wants, and it becomes established as law. That’s why Cicero said that it is a shame for the philosopher to seek testimony of the truth from minds prepossessed by custom.
All kinds of absurd and ridiculous fancies can enter into human imagination, and become public practice. There are people, amongst whom it is the fashion to turn their backs upon him they salute, and never look upon the man they intend to honour. There is a place, where, whenever the king spits, the greatest ladies of his court put out their hands to receive it; and another nation, where the most respectable people stoop about the king and take up his excrement in a linen cloth. Let us here steal room to insert a story.
A French gentleman I knew always blew his nose with his fingers (a thing very much against our fashion), and he justified himself for so doing by asking me what privilege this filthy excrement had, that we must carry about us a fine handkerchief to receive it, and, what was more, afterwards wrap it up carefully, and carry it all day in our pockets, which, he said, could not be much more nauseous and offensive, than to see it thrown away, as we did all other evacuations. I found that what he said was not altogether without reason, and by being frequently in his company, that slovenly action which we make a face at, when we hear it reported of another country of his grew familiar to me.
Things appear to us to be miracles because of our ignorance of nature. When we become accustomed to something, no matter what it is, our judgment of it is blinded. Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them; nor with any more reason.
We pretend that our consciences come from nature, but in fact they come from custom. Everyone has more respect for those opinions and behaviours that come from his own people, and can only depart from them with great reluctance. Long ago, the people of Crete, if they wanted to curse someone, prayed that they become involved in bad customs. Custom seizes and traps us in such a way that we can’t even think objectively about what it asks of us. We suck it in with our milk, it seems. We were born conditioned to follow it. The thoughts and ideas that we find everywhere around us appear to us to be universal and genuine, and therefore based on reason. God knows how unreasonable it actually is.
When we hear a good sentence, we should immediately consider how it touches our own concerns. If we did this, we would find that it was not so much a good saying, but in fact a severe lash to the ordinary stupidity of our own judgment. But men never question what they are told, and only do what they are directed to do. Instead of applying these sentences to their own lives, they very ignorantly and unprofitably commit them to memory.
There are peoples, where, his wife and children excepted, no one speaks to the king but through a tube. There are places where brothels of young men are kept for the pleasure of women; where the wives go to war as well as the husbands, and not only share in the dangers of battle, but, moreover, in the honours of command. Others, where they wear rings not only through their noses, lips, cheeks, and on their toes, but also through their paps and buttocks; where, in eating, they wipe their fingers upon their thighs, genitories, and the soles of their feet: where children are excluded, and brothers and nephews only inherit.
There are places where they lament the death of children, and feast at the decease of old men: where they lie ten or twelve in a bed, where women, whose husbands come to violent ends, may marry again, and others not: where the condition of women is looked upon with such contempt, that they kill all the native females, and buy wives of their neighbours to supply their use; where husbands may repudiate their wives, without showing any cause, but wives cannot part from their husbands, for what cause soever; where husbands may sell their wives in case of sterility; where they boil the bodies of their dead, and afterward pound them to a pulp, which they mix with their wine, and drink it; where they believe the souls of the blessed live in all manner of liberty, in delightful fields, furnished with all sorts of delicacies, and that it is these souls, repeating the words we utter, which we call Echo; where they fight in the water, and shoot their arrows with the most mortal aim, swimming; where, for a sign of subjection, they lift up their shoulders, and hang down their heads; where they put off their shoes when they enter the king's palace; where the eunuchs, who take charge of the sacred women, have, moreover, their lips and noses cut off, that they may not be loved; where the priests put out their own eyes, to be better acquainted with their demons, and the better to receive their oracles; where every one makes to himself a deity of what he likes best; the hunter of a lion or a fox, the fisher of some fish; idols of every human action or passion; in which place, the sun, the moon, and the earth are the 'principal deities, and the form of taking an oath is, to touch the earth, looking up to heaven; where both flesh and fish is eaten raw; where the greatest oath they take is, to swear by the name of some dead person of reputation, laying their hand upon his tomb; For we know entire nations, where death was not only despised, but entertained with the greatest triumph …
(This list of strange customs goes on for pages and pages)
The word “essay,” a familiar literary term today, was coined by Montaigne, but the word had a meaning that is different from its modern meaning. Essay derives from the Latin word exagium, a weighing, and from the French word essai, a trial or test. Montaigne’s writings were weighings of himself and his beliefs, in the same way that one would weigh, or “assay,” precious ore to determine its worth. They are equally a test of his judgments, a testing of ideas and random thoughts, and an attempt to assess himself and his experiences at various points of his life. The subject of his essays, as he says in many places, is always himself, and his task as an author is to see himself as accurately as he can and to be truthful about what he believes.
Montaigne, however, never thought that his own life and thoughts would hold fascination for centuries of readers. What, then, has attracted readers to Montaigne over the centuries? First, there is his common sense and universality. He is attractive to readers precisely because he is so much like them that his thoughts often seem commonplace. Second, preceding Sigmund Freud, Montaigne had a strong sense of the divisions within the human psyche, the conflict of humanity against itself, and the inability of human reason to solve all of humankind’s problems. What Montaigne seeks is what one would today call “the integrated personality,” a unified sense of being and an orderly view of life. Finally, readers appreciate Montaigne’s clarity of thought and expression, his confessional style, and his mordant wit—all qualities found in the best contemporary essayists such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
Exactly how to categorize Montaigne’s thought, however, is not an easy task. He has been called a hedonist, a skeptic, a stoic, and even an existentialist, but none of these seems fully adequate. He is a hedonist in his love of life and enjoyment of sensual pleasures, but in essays such as “De la moderation” (“Of Moderation”), he warns that a person can become a slave to his or her senses. His essays on idleness, lying, cruelty, cowardice, vanity, and drunkenness testify to his skeptical view of humankind’s innate goodness, but these are equally balanced by essays on constancy, friendship, virtue, repentance, and moderation. Montaigne’s stoicism is clear in his thoughts on death, and he titles one of his essays “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (“To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die”), but he also emphasizes the enjoyment of this life. Finally, like the existentialists of the twentieth century, Montaigne sees life in a continual flux, making the attainment of absolute truth impossible. Yet if the absurdity of the human condition prevents people from having true knowledge, they can at least know themselves in their perpetually changing condition.
Perhaps the best term for Montaigne is one suggested by Donald Frame, professor emeritus of French at Columbia University. Montaigne is an “apprehensive humanist,” a lover of reason and books, and a student of human custom and behavior, who is uneasy about the human condition. While the mass of humans may be ignorant, stupid, lazy, and lustful, they can still accomplish occasional great things. Life is paradox and contradiction—composed, Montaigne says, of contrary things—and one must learn to accept human contrariness.
Finally, Montaigne’s use of paradox and irony, of balanced phrase and metaphor, are masterful, and perhaps no one has written in the French language with greater elegance and grace. The Essays are stylishly written reflections upon the oppositions of humanity and God, good and evil, action and inaction, faith and reason. If Montaigne reaches no conclusions, his journey consists of fascinating intellectual twists and turns; and if he continually asks, “What do I know?” he always does so with wit, modesty, and candor.
First published: “Des cannibales,” 1580 (collected in Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957
Type of work: Essay
What people call barbarism is merely vanity and ignorance on their part, for the behavior of “civilized” people surpasses the barbarism of supposedly “uncivilized” people in every way.
Montaigne’s age was one of adventure and exploration, and many travelers returned to Europe with tales of strange and fascinating people elsewhere. During a French expedition to South America in 1557, the explorer Villegaignon encountered a tribe of cannibals in what was then called “Antarctic France” but what is now called Brazil. Some of them returned with the crew. Montaigne not only met one of these cannibals at Rouen in 1562 but also employed a servant who had spent a dozen years...
(The entire section is 1975 words.)