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Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity -

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The fact that, despite all this, 16th-century Western Europeans remained so deeply convinced of their own moral and intellectual superiority was, to Montaigne, evidence of a more general phenomenon. He writes:

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.

Montaigne most certainly wasn’t the first to make note of our tendency to automatically assume the superiority of local beliefs and practices; Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., made very similar observations in his Histories, noting how all peoples are “accustomed to regard their own customs as by far the best.” And in his famous Letter 93, which presents an early argument against religious toleration, the medieval Catholic theologian Saint Augustine laments the way in which old customs produce a closed-minded resistance to alternative beliefs and practices that, he argues, is best broken by the threat of punishment. When the 19th-century sociologist William Graham Sumner later named this tendency “ethnocentrism,” the term, and the allegation, became a mantra of 20th-century cultural anthropology.

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