Supplementary Observations on the Voyage of Bougainville, or, A dialogue between A and B on the inexpediency of attaching moral ideas to certain physical actions which have nothing to do with them   


by Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)

(‘Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, ou dialogue entre A et B sur l’inconvénient d’attacher des idées morales à certaines actions physiques qui n’en comportent pas’)

Two gentlemen discuss Bougainville’s Pacific discoveries and the mutual incomprehension of Tahitian and European society, raising questions of cultural relativism and sexual morality.

The ‘physical actions’ of the subtitle are solely, and titillatingly, sexual: Tahitian polygamy and incest. While Diderot condemns marriage treating people as ‘articles of commerce’, the Tahitian system of stigmatising certain women with coloured veils reads as an equal dystopia. The ‘state of nature’ is not idyllic and the conclusion is genuinely relative: ‘be monk in France and savage in Tahiti’. Part IV transposes the Europe/Tahiti debate onto every civilised man’s inner conflict between instinct and reason.

Related recommendations: Montaigne’s ‘On the Cannibals’; Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on Inequality’ (1755); Addison’s ‘Spectator No.50 [on the visit of the Iroquois]’ (April 1711)

NB Online only in original French

Origin: France

Themes: Through Alien Eyes, How to Live

Genres: Pamphlet, Dialogue or Epistolary, Tract or Treatise

Latest News & Events