had lived ten or twelve years in Brazil, whom he describes as a plain ignorant fellow, but from whom he seems never to have been weary of learning at first hand. Before Colombo's voyage the savage or "brute man" had been as little known in Europe, and was in fact as much of a myth, as the unicorn or griffin. When Montaigne wrote, he had become as well known as the Moor, the Berber, or the Guinea negro, and the spectacle of a new transatlantic continent, scarcely less extensive than the aggregate of those Old World countries of which Europe possessed any definite knowledge, and peopled by men scarcely above the state of nature, seized the French philosopher with a strange fascination. By its contrast with European life it suggested some startling reflections. What if civilisation, after all, were a morbid and unnatural growth? What if the condition of man in America were that for which the Creator designed him? What if those omnipotent powers, law and custom, as at present constituted, were impudent usurpers, destined one day to decline under the influence of right reason, and to give place, if not to the original rule of beneficent Nature, at least to something essentially very different from the systems which now passed under their names? Montaigne puts these questions very pointedly. In the Tupi-Guarani of Brazil, as described by one who had known them long and intimately, he recognised nothing of the character associated with the words "barbarous" and "savage." They were rather a people permanently enjoying the fabled Golden Age of ancient poetry; strangers to the toils, diseases, social inequalities, vices, and trickeries which chiefly made up civilised life; dwelling together in vast common houses, though the institutions of the family were strictly preserved, and enjoying with little or no labour, and no fears for the future, all the reasonable commodities and advantages of human life, while knowing nothing of its superfluities; refined in their taste for poetry, specimens of which were recited to him by his domestic informant, and which appeared to him Anacreontic in their grace and beauty: and employed chiefly in the chase, the universal pleasure of the human race, even in the highest state of refinement. This they carried, perhaps, a stage too far. They hunted their neighbouring tribesman for his flesh, and, like others among the more advanced American peoples, were cannibals—a name which Montaigne used as the title of the laudatory tractate here quoted. What of that? Civilised man, says the philosopher, who practically enforces servitude on nine-tenths of the human race, consumes the flesh and blood of his fellow-man alive. Is it not worse to eat one's fellow-man alive, than to eat him dead? These Americans torture their prisoners, it is true; worse tortures are inflicted in civilised Europe, in the sacred names of justice and religion. We Europeans regard these our fellow-men with contempt and aversion. Are we, in the sight of God, much better than they? Have we done, are we doing, by our fellow-man at home, according to the light which is, or should be, within us?
Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/95
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