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Natural Law and Order: Comparing Montaigne and Sepulveda's Beliefs About the New World

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Natural Law and Order

I am but a common European. I have heard tales of this magical new world filled with new animals, plants, and the strangest of peoples with the strangest of customs. I have heard they are incredibly advanced. Their calendar is incredibly precise and their agricultural techniques are amazing. But I have also heard horrific tales of cannibalism and savagery. What am I to make of all these conflicting tales? Oh, I am but a common, confused European. Europeans could not represent the New World in a clear, distinct way because of differing ideologies represented by Montaigne and Sepulveda's arguments. These two critiques differ in their targeted audience, their view point, and what they hoped to accomplish in their writings.

To understand fully what these two authors were trying to accomplish, there must be a focus on who they were hoping to reach. Montaigne, an intellectual, wrote to other intellectuals, while Sepulveda attempted to capture the attentions of princes, kings, and other men of power within the Spanish hierarchy. Montaigne's plea for peace is a call to the global village for global change, a chorus sung by a "plain, simple fellow" to an audience of not-so-simple fellows (108). This helps to explain why Montaigne's language is complex and his metaphors, deep. Sepulveda, however, uses simple, concise arguments to appeal to the royalty that has the ability to make the decisions he wants to see made: "I speak only of our princes and those who by their energy and industriousness have shown that they are worthy of administering the commonwealth (48)." These "worthy princes" are target's to Sepulveda's reasoning that these natives must be enslaved, while Montaigne's hopes his global audience will respond to his call for an empathetic understanding of these natives.

While both cite facts and experiences in their arguments, Montaigne's belief in the beauty of the natural is in stark contrast to Sepulveda's adherence to the Natural (capital N). This argument of the natural law versus Natural Law is truly affected by what defines a people as barbarians. Sepulveda graffitis the tag "barbarous" throughout his essay, condemning the natives as savages and focusing on their cannibalism and paganism as reasons for their enslavement. Montaigne's open-mindedness counters with a simple phrase: "We call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits (108)." Montaigne's glorifies these people because their ability to live in nature. In his mind, this is a much more pure existence than that of the Europeans at this time:

These people are wild in the same way that fruits are wild, when nature has produced them by herself and in her ordinary way; whereas, in fact, it is those that we have artificially modified and removed from the common order, that we ought to call wild. In the former, the true, most useful and natural virtues and properties are alive and vigorous; in the latter we have bastardized them and adapted them only to the gratification of our corrupt taste (109).

In addition to this poignant metaphor, Montaigne throws out the big gunsÐ'...citing a Greek philosopher. That's right, he drops Plato's name. Montaigne emphasizes the fact that though we may not understand them fully, these natives must be good because they are so at-one with nature. He quotes, "All things, said Plato, are produced by nature, or by chance, or by art; the greatest and most beautiful by one or other of the first two, the least and most imperfect by the last (109)." However, as we all know, when there is one Greek philosopher, there's always another one following around the corner. Sepulveda uses the well-respected Aristotle's argument of Natural Law to enforce his argument. Sepulveda, betwixt his Spanish patriotism, cites Aristotle by saying, "Perfect directs and dominates, and the less perfect obeys its command. This principle is even clearer and more obvious among animals, where the mind rules like a mistress and the body submits like a servant. In the same way the rational part of the soul rules and directs the irrational part, which submits and obeys (47)." If that wasn't enough, Sepulveda

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