Two essays that address directly the issues of barbarity of native peoples, the motivations underlying conquest and subjugation, as well as the dual impacts for both the conquered and their conquerors could not address any of these matters in a more striking different manner. While Montaigne stresses through clever writing that implies the hypocrisy of Western notions of cultural superiority, his counterpart Sepulveda utterly counters this approach with the idea that Western culture is superior and as such, it is only natural that “lesser” people be subjugated in order for their own betterment as a race.
Both essays in their discussions of reasons that support conquest and the effects such conquest have on both parties involve issues of cultural and racial determinism; Montaigne defends the notion that there is no cultural superiority and that through its greedy desire for more land Europeans are no better than those they presume to be barbaric while Sepulveda contends that Europeans are the natural conquerors of a lower people. These are both extreme views in their own right and in a comparison, off little point of balanced analysis.
One of the most immediately striking passages from “Of Cannibals” is that in which the author states, I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity; for we grasp at all, but catch nothing but wind” (Montaigne). Although he does have a tendency toward digression in his writing, this can be seen as something as thesis statement for the piece in regards to the motivations behind European expansion. In short, what he is saying through this and some later examples is that Europe expanded for reasons for expansion and greed alone without thought to the implications; blinded by zeal, greed, and an insatiable thirst for conquest for its own sake. Montaigne implicitly criticizes the motivations behind conquest in the New World by making parallels between the perceived barbarism of native peoples and the barbarism that existed in the Western World. He cleverly uses iconic Western literary and philosophical tracts to base his comparison and subtle provide a rather scathing critique of the motivations of Europe. Sepulveda also justifies the motivations behind conquest in terms of Western traditions although unlike his more liberal counterpart, he employs the bible as the deciding element of authenticity to back his claims rather than the Greek and ancient philosophical tradition.
Early in “Of Cannibals” Montaigne talks about several historical circumstances where countries went beyond their limits in their search for new lands out of greed rather than need and also implies that these efforts were always doomed to fail or had other negative associations. For instance, he talks about the efforts to colonize different regions that landed in disaster, using the example of Atlantis, among others. He also provides a stern warning by means of ideas from Aristotle who talked about how there was a prohibition from the senate for new expansion as Carthage was worried that “in process of time they [the migrants] should so multiply as to supplant themselves and ruin their state. Of the greatest importance, Montaigne then compares the “barbarians” of the New World to this (without ever making a single direct reference and instead letting his readers make their conclusions and ties) by saying that “Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labor or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders. And they are moreover, happy in this, that they only covert so much as their natural necessities require…” (Montaigne). Whereas Montaigne draws the strength of his argument from his implicit ties between the Western “high” cultural tradition using authors such as Aristotle and Plato, which are used to point out hypocrisy, Sepulveda too uses literature and philosophy from the west to verify and “legitimize” his assertions. His most effective weapon for his arguments that conquest is best are based on the Bible, which was one of the most credible sources of authority during the time for the majority of Western culture—and certainly for those in power who were funding the conquest. He states, for instance, “If after bring instructed in this way they obey our orders, they are then to be admitted into the faith. And they must be conceded the conditions of a just peace, so that, in the words of Deuteronomy (20:11) they shall be tributaries and shall serve” (Sepulveda 114).