Michel de Montaigne’s articles are very useful in cultural anthropology analysis because they introduce the concept of cultural relativism, present the historical insight of the Western reflection and outline its complex relationship to two fundamental ideas of Western culture: nature and reason.
The essay, “Of Custom” offers Montaigne’s insight on reason; custom and nature as perceived by the Western (Handler 12). This paper will therefore analyze how Montaigne’ essay address the Western perception of cultural relativism.
In his essay, Montaigne, argues that custom or habit can make humans adopt practices that are eventually perceived as normal. He states that, “Habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, the foothold of her authority; but…she soon uncovers to us… a tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes…” (Handler 12).
Montaigne suspends all skepticism in his catalogue of custom and partially states ‘wholly imagined’ practices beside those that are genuine. Thus, the rhetorical efficiency of his enumeration enables him to assert that customs have a strong influence on human behaviors.
Such an assertion proposes that Montaigne favors ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’ to explain human actions. Montaigne’s second argument posits that human beings define barbarism as anything that they do not practice. In his essay: ‘Of Custom’, he writes that, “habituation puts to sleep the eye of our judgment” (Handler 12).
According to him, barbarians are not much different to us than we are to them. The notion here is that each man is defined by habits or customs that control his perception of the world. In other words, the West usually misinterprets cultural diversity as barbarism (Handler 12).
However, according to Michael Bleicher’s article, “Montaigne and Relativism”, Montaigne disagrees with the Western assumptions regarding civilization and cultural development. He contrasts the terminology of barbarism frequently used to depict Native Americans with approval for the stoicism and vigor that he considers the ‘barbaric’ culture promotes.
Montaigne criticizes the Western’s appraisal of their own culture through a sarcastic comparison of purportedly humane Western culture with their supposedly barbaric counterparts. His essay proposes objectivism and cultural relativism that forms the basis for ensuing criticism on Western claims to utter cultural superiority.
The native’s ‘barbaric culture’, according to Montaigne’s observation, symbolizes a virtuous antidote to the oppressive artifice of the Western culture. He discerns the Western assumptions about the natives’ supposedly barbaric culture with admirable values such as purity and naturalness he finds in it (Bleicher 1).
According to Montaigne, the natives’ culture is devoid of barbarism as presumed by West. Human beings ascribe the concept of barbarism to anything that they do not practice in their society.
Humans have no common platform to ascertain the level of truth and reason other than the concepts, opinion and customs present in their society. As such, there is always the ideal government, perfect religion and the perfect culture. There are barbaric and savage cultures in the same breath we say fruits are wild, but which are produced by the ordinary process of nature.
On the contrary, we ought to appreciate these ‘wild fruits’ because they possess unique and attractive qualities brought about through the natural order. On the contrary, the natural virtues present in native cultures have been tagged as barbaric by the supposedly superior Western culture (Bleicher 1).
Another key aspect of Montaigne’s essay concerns the human tendencies to justify as absolute, relative ideas that are acquired through custom.
He argues, “But the principal effect of the power of custom is to seize and ensnare us in such as a way that it is hardly within our power to get ourselves back out of its grip and return into ourselves to reflect…because we drink them with our milk from birth…” (Handler 12). From this excerpt, we learn about the basic precept of contemporary cultural relativism: humans always give reasons for arbitrary cultural ideas, adopting what is virtual and culturally explicit to be absolutes of reason and nature.
Montaigne’s argument is not only based on the fact that humans are eternally prejudiced in their judgment of other cultures. He reveals that human beings are not able to make out the aspect of prejudice against other cultures without subscribing to their established customs.
By this statement, he implies that human beings habitually defend rather than condemn their traditional orientations to the world. This phenomenon stems from the elementary incompatibility that exists between the justification for numerous customary concepts and laws, and our culturally interpreted idea of rationality as a collective power (Handler 12).
As a matter of fact, Montaigne shows that the value of a culture can only be assessed within the context of the users and how members of the society identify the significance of their culture.
One of the elementary tenets of cultural relativism is that opinions devised on the basis of the experiences of each member of the society can be construed only with respect to their own cultural settings. In the same manner, a culture is most effective with respect to the goals it has set for itself (Benoist 30).
According to Montaigne, a culture is only superior to other cultures if it is true to itself and that all other cultures-including those perceived to be barbaric – are equally capable of being superior and noble. However, the absence of a model encapsulating all cultures and giving credence to utter judgment challenges the West’s belief in the statutory disparity between cultures.
It also weakens the ethnocentric credence that uncivilized cultures are in some way barbaric and that it is only proper to civilize them according to the advanced culture of the West.
The Western culture is thus recommended as an ideal model to be used to introduce modern practices among native countries perceived to be barbaric. The proposition is however a reminiscent of the typical racist strategies that view native’s social structures as mediocre (Benoist 30).
Montaigne’s viewpoint about cultural relativism is also aptly captured by the religious confrontation between Christians and Muslims as entrenched in the impressive romantic literatures, “The Song of Roland”. The hostility between Christians and Muslim in the formative years is among factors that led to the association of Muslims with anti-Christian actions.
Since the emergence of Islam, the extension of Islamic occupations and the seizure of more regions at the expense of losing the splendor of the heavenly thrones contributed to the creation of negative images of Islam as a radical and violent religion associated with darkness and one that led to the dilapidation of the Christian West, especially the occupation of Jerusalem by the Islamic Crusaders.
As a result, writers such as Ariosto and Tasso saw the need to urge Christian princes to join forces to tackle the violent nature of Islamists.
Through their literature appeal, the two writers invoked emotional feelings among the Christian Crusaders. For instance, Ariosto referred to the Muslim Crusaders as ‘pagans of ill fame’ who had occupied a ‘Holy Land’ (Bagabas 38). It is quite evident that Christians considered Islam as an inferior religion, whose members are hostile, barbaric and uncivilized.
The poem, “The Song of Roland” depicts Christians’ view of Islam as an inferior religion confined to the past glories and unable to confront the present world. Islam, as a religion is confined within the precincts of the mosque where Islamic customs are prominent (Bagabas 52).
However, Islam cannot endow one with a spirit that enables him to find a suitable role in the contemporary society. For example, some of Islamic practices such as the donning of the veil by Muslim women are perceived by Christians as primitive and out of tune with the contemporary world (Bagabas 41).
The difference between Christianity and Muslim is further aggravated by language which broadens the cultural gap between the West and Islamic world. Thus, the Christians’ failure to understand the fundamental principles of Islam may be warranted on the basis of its failure to understand basic Islam tenets given that significant concepts and words in Islam are wrongly rendered (Bagabas 52).
There is no doubt that the concept of cultural relativism is evident in the contemporary society and defines how members from diverse cultures interrelate. As aptly put by Montaigne, the relevance of custom in the society is only valid to an individual who subscribe to its tenets. Therefore, the proposition that some cultures are superior to others is not a valid statement.
Montaigne further argues that Western culture should not be perceived as superior to other cultures because, as a matter of fact, the value of a culture can only be assessed within the context of the users and how members of the society identify its significance.
Bagabas, Omar. “The Representation of Islam in E.M. Foster’s a Passage to India.” Arts and Humanities 9 (1996): 37-65
Benoist, Alain. What is Racism? N.d. Web. 30 April, 2011. N.d.
Bleicher, Michael. “Sages and Satirist.” Montaigne and Cultural Relativism. Brown University. N.d. Web. 30 April, 2011. 8 February, 2011.
Handler, Richard. Of Cannibals and Custom: Cultural Relativism. 2.5. (1986): 12-14.