Montaigne’s observation of the native inhabitants of the New World is far from the notions of innate heathen savagery that were present upon its discovery and one cannot help but find his views striking liberal in their recognition of cross-cultural issues regarding perception. He states, “I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country” (Montaigne) and discusses how each country has its own ethnocentrism and considers its own laws, governments, religions and societies to be superior to others. Although he notes that the culture of the New World progresses without what he terms art and culture (in itself a case of ethnocentrism as he may only be defining “art” and “culture” according to Western notions) he sees the new peoples encountered as perfect elements of nature, akin to rare, undisturbed fruits to be admired for their sheer, simple perfection in form and wishes that Western Europeans might have been able to encounter them a different time, presumably under conditions that might have allowed a more subjective understanding their culture.
This culturally accepting view that people are not barbaric outside of such limited perceptions is set in striking contrast to the opinions expressed by Sepulveda in his idea that native cultures are naturally inferior. Just as Montaigne opens his essay with a clear expression of cross-cultural views, so too does Sepulveda—albeit in the opposite extreme. His opening lines in “Just War Against the Barbarians” (ca. 1544) are, “In warfare, it is proper that hostilities first be declared, so that barbarians may be admonished to accept the great benefits provided by the victor, his best laws and customs, to familiarize themselves with the true religion…” (112). There could not be a more direct opposite between these two justifications for or against “civilization” of “barbarian” peoples—both even address the issue of perceived cultural superiority in exactly the same set of circumstances within their essays.
Sepulveda states, “It is established then, in accordance with the authority of the most eminent thinkers, that the dominion of prudent, good, and humane men over those of contrary disposition is just and natural” (115). In other words, this conquest is not only a natural progression, but will benefit both the European and native cultures. Montaigne, however, sees no benefit for native people as he does not see them as dumb and one-dimensional. He paints a complex portrait of the inhabitants of the New World by both idealizing them as he describes their daily lives and how their “days are spent in dancing” and by demonizing them in a sense by describing how they cannibalize their enemies. He softens what might have been a hint of “barbarism” by stating, however, that, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own” (Montaigne). He even puts such cannibalistic actions in the context of ancient Western culture by describing Chrysippus and Zeno as doing much the same thing as they were “making us of [our] dead carcasses” (Montaigne) as well as by applying the same sense to his contemporary physicians who use dead carcasses for their own purposes as well. He states that “We may call these people barbarous in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them” (Montaigne). This occurs again in his discussion of the marriages of natives; at first he does not offer commentary and just describes their cultural practices by stating they are polygamists. To his readers of the time, this might be shocking and he addresses that it likely is to them, but encourages them to take pause and consider how the same thing has happened with royalty in Europe. In short, he takes the bite out of any criticism of the natives by first allowing that moment of “shock” for his readers and then, just when he has them thinking, “what barbarians! How needy of assistance they are!” he gives great pause and points out the hypocrisy upon which so many ideas of European cultural superiority are.
Both writers felt that the motivations behind conquest were strong; Montaigne saw blind greed and conquest for its own sake devoid of a true motivating factor that was higher in nature whereas Sepulveda saw this as both a righteous act to introduce people who were unintelligent heathen savages to a better way. Both saw there were riches to be gained and while Montaigne saw this is as the primary motivating factor, Sepulveda seemed to view this as a “bonus” to beneficial and righteous subjugation according to natural law. Montaigne saw the coming destruction of a naturally perfect culture while his counterpart saw the potential for “saving “ and both understood very well that the Western world would never be the same following the introduction of a new people onto the world’s stage—and all they had to offer, both materially and otherwise.