Based on your readings of Cortés and de Montaigne, which distinctions among peoples seemed most important for Europeans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
It is clear that de Montaigne and Cortes perceived non-Western nations as primitive barbarians closer to a pure state of nature compared to Europeans. De Montaigne seemingly praises them for their simplicity and contentment. He portrays them as illiterate, incapable of art or scientific invention, with no form of political or social organization because they have no need for further expansion. According to him, they spend the whole day dancing, sometimes engaging in irrational bouts of violence that conclude in cannibalism (de Montaigne, 1902). For the author, consuming a dead body is more humane than the European tradition of torturing it while it is alive (de Montaigne, 1902). De Montaigne romanticizes the simplicity of the natives and their connection with nature.
Cortes’ portrayal of the Aztecs seems vastly different at first glance. He admires the architectural design and organization of Tenochtitlan, thereby contesting de Montaigne’s view that non-Westerners are incapable of art or social organization (Cortes, 1908). Despite this praise, Cortes believes that their cannibalism is proof that they have been deceived by the devil (Cortes, 1908). He believes his mission is to teach them submission to God and, consequently, imperialism. Although his perception is more negative than De Montaigne’s, they both condescendingly view the natives as underdeveloped, uncivilized primitives that are in an earlier phase of human development.
How, if at all, do these distinctions persist in Western culture today?
The attitude displayed by de Montaigne and Cortes still persists in Western culture, although now it is applied by Canadians and Americans in addition to Europeans. Some manifestations are closer to de Montaigne’s longing for a simpler, more natural state of being. Many Westerners perceive their post-industrialist societies as a source of ennui and spiritual fatigue. They travel to poorer regions in Asia, Africa, and South America to overcome consumerism and gain enlightenment. Simultaneously, similarly to Cortes, many of them believe it is the duty of the West to “civilize” and bring democracy to what they perceive to be primitive, irrational “Third World” countries. The perception of non-Westerners as primitives closer to the natural condition of humankind is still prevalent today.
Cortes, H. (1908). Letters of Cortes (F. A. MacNutt, Trans.). G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
De Montaigne, M. (1902). (C. Cotton, Trans.). In W. C. Hazlitt (Ed.), Essays of Montaigne, Vol. 1, pp. 237-252. Reeves and Turner.