October 16, 2015
October’s Quarterly discussion focused on Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” and Sir James George Frazer’s chapter on “Magic and Religion” from The Golden Bough. As always, we had great comments and curiosity from all participants. Both pieces discuss cultures and belief systems far-removed from the authors. Written in very different styles, both portray elements of primitive societies that they feel might enlighten contemporary society. Montaigne’s essay lends itself to a freer flow, nearly conversational in tone. Frazer’s, on the other hand, sounds more authoritative, as if a lecture. Montaigne’s essay format imparts skepticism which then becomes the reader’s. The groups found that, while Frazer’s arguments sound authoritative in tone, they actually often lack foundations.
Both pieces end with a clear example of this difference. First, Montaigne finishes his essay with an anecdote of primitive men visiting a large French city for the first time. After seeing the city and culture, the men have two questions: 1] why does everyone follow a childish ruler and 2] why the poor and hungry don’t destroy the city? In other words, these ‘primitive’ men question how a world that ignores poverty and obeys ignorance can be called civilized. Frazer also ends his chapter with an anecdote in which “the practical savage, with his conservative instincts, might well turn a deaf ear to the subtleties of the theoretical doubter, the philosophical radical, who presumed to hint that sunrise and spring might not, after all, be direct consequences of the punctual performance of certain daily or yearly ceremonies.” He clearly believes the modern, moral, rational man superior to one who believes in ritual and magic. Frazer’s ideal world seems to align with the ideas found in Plato’s Republic, whereas Montaigne says, “How much would he [Plato] find his imaginary Republic short of his perfection?”
Montaigne’s tongue-in-cheek style connects well with readers, who never quite know what to make of his comments. For example, he claims that all of his information comes from a second hand source, “a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore more likely to tell the truth.” Even here, he inserts a dichotomy between the simple man and the “better-bred sort of men” who are overly curious and loquacious. If only two types of men exist, then, which type is Montaigne? Is the reader to trust his account, or does he embellish? Perhaps the dichotomy of savage versus educated is part of Montaigne’s point – that the skeptical mind is often the most free. He leads the reader to see that what often appears whole is actually not the whole truth.
Frazer, on the other hand, wants the reader to believe his theory, and therefore, presents it as fact. Frazer wants to prove that the foundations of religion rest in magic. He offers examples from various cultures where magical ceremonies seemed to form into religious rites, and this simultaneous to (or as a result of) man’s intellectual growth. He claims that religion is an elevated form of spirituality, whereas magic is nearly instinctual. As one discussion participant noted, however, Frazer conveniently grounds his essay in a Westernized comprehension of spirit and faith. And, while we did not get to an answer, it brings us to the question of the point of Frazer’s essay. What was he trying to prove by asserting a link between magic and faith? Is it simply to establish a hierarchy of thought as linked to culture? This is difficult to argue and more difficult to prove.
Both Frazer’s and Montaigne’s writing styles often impress the reader. They are enjoyable reads, and it is fun to spend a bit of time among peers trying to puzzle through complex sociological issues. Again, our appreciation to all who dedicated time to read these texts and add their wonderful questions and comments to our Quarterly Discussion.
The next Quarterly Discussion will be held in January and will focus on Natural Science. For more information, please contact as****@hm*.edu.
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