“One of the most moving and revealing of the chapters,” M.A. Screech called this Montaigne essay. That’s an interesting description, considering that in these pages, Montaigne rails against parents who stiff their progeny of inheritance, speaks lovingly of his departed children, but only a few words about his living daughter … and nearly nothing warm about his wife who bore them and, in the close paragraphs, seems to indicate that works of art are more important than children.
Nonetheless, there are beautiful, warm moments in this essay and if Montaigne’s affection for children might seem spare by contemporary standards, his criticism of the stern fathers of his day goes a long way towards explaining why that’s the case.
The essay starts in a curious place — with Montaigne offering praise for the maternal skills of Madame d’Estissac, to whom the chapter is dedicated. Talking about her young son, who has insufficient appreciation for the hard work and dedication of his mother, Montaigne offers some timeliness, beautiful thoughts that I hereby dedicate to my much deserving wife Jenny (who has the honor of being underappreciated by three sons:)
“But he is still a child, unable to appreciate the innumerable acts of devotion he has received from you: so I should like him, if this book should fall into his hands one day, to be able to learn something from me at a time when I shall not even have a mouth to tell it to him – something I can vouch for quite truthfully and which will be made even more vigorously evident, God willing, by the good effects he will be aware of in himself: namely, that there is no nobleman in France who owes more to his mother than he does, and that in the future he will be able to give no more certain proof of his goodness and virtue than by acknowledging your qualities.”
It’s beautiful but odd, because Montaigne offers no such praise for his own wife and child. I suppose you have to chalk it up to the customs of the day — remember, Montaigne also believed that you shouldn’t enjoy sex with your wife too much, otherwise she’ll become a woman who likes sex.
Montaigne also lacks respect for people who adore babies, but not older children:
“I am incapable of finding a place for that emotion which leads people to cuddle new-born infants while they are still without movements of soul or recognizable features of body to make themselves lovable. And I have never willingly allowed them to be nursed in my presence. A true and well-regulated affection should be born, and then increase, as children enable us to get to know them; if they show they deserve it, we should cherish them with a truly fatherly love, since our natural propensity is then progressing side by side with reason; if they turn out differently, the same applies, mutatis mutandis: we should, despite the force of Nature, always yield to reason.”
Before I had children myself, I somewhat understood what Montaigne was writing about, because I too liked older kids more than the babies. But having your own children and seeing them change in subtle ways day by day creates a different form of affection that is nothing like the joy of watching a “pet monkey,” as Montaigne describes that human instinct:
“We feel ourselves more moved by the skippings and jumpings and babyish tricks of our children than by their activities when they are fully formed, as though we had loved them not as human beings but only as playthings or as pet monkeys. Some fathers will give them plenty of toys when they are children but will resent the slightest expenditure on their needs once they have come of age.”
That point about giving toys but not expenditures on needs is important — and an all-too-human trait of many fathers. But I think Montaigne is coming at the issue from the wrong direction. It’s not that fathers lack affection for grown children, but rather that costs of tending for children rises considerably as they age and their appreciation for rewards like education, which they tend to see as more their birthright than a reward, is less immediate and obvious.
Next, Montaigne talks about discipline towards children. He’s a softie, as am I (and my son Mac is clearly onto to me, because he says “I love you daddy” so often that it’s become obvious to me that he’s knows I’m a sap and all-too-easy to manipulate:)
“I condemn all violence in the education of tender minds which are being trained for honour and freedom. In rigour and constraint there is always something servile, and I hold that you will never achieve by force what you cannot achieve by reason, intelligence and skill.”
Yes, I agree with Montaigne that violence doesn’t work … but his support of reason, intelligence and skill with young boys proves that he never had to deal with three year olds. But here’s how he thought he would deal with them:
“I would have been even more punctilious with boys, who are less born to serve and whose mode-of-being is freer: I would have loved to make their hearts overflow with openness and frankness. I have never seen caning achieve anything except making souls more cowardly or more maliciously stubborn.”
Yes, make their hearts overflow with openness and frankness. I need to stop the essay here and express a somewhat-off-point opinion: I never knew before having my own kids that “Malcolm in the Middle” is a documentary, not a sitcom. For years, I saw young boys through the prism of my own childhood (I highly idealized one at that:)
“curious young minds eager to learn about the world and to enjoy life to the fullest. And then I tried to survive leaving the Target toys section without buying anything and not suffering a twin tantrum. Believe me, there’s something to be said for incuriosity and fearful obedience.”
My son Finn has taken recently to tell both my wife and me “I don’t like you.” Montaigne has some advice for us:
“Do we want to be loved by our children? Do we want to remove any occasion for their wishing us dead? – though no occasion for so horrible a wish could ever be right or pardonable: – then let us within reason enrich their lives with whatever we have at our disposal. To achieve that we ought not to get married so young that our adult years almost become confounded with theirs.”
Um … sorry Montaigne … but my wife and I did not marry young and didn’t have children right away either. I’m 45 years old. So that theory goes out the window. But Montaigne has some more advice for someone in my demographic:
“A father who is brought low by age and illness, whose weakness and ill-health deprive him of ordinary human fellowship, does wrong to himself and to his family if he broods over a great pile of riches. If he is wise, he has reached the period when he really ought to want to get stripped and lie down – not stripped to his shirt but down to a nice warm dressing-gown.”
Oh, that’s really a low blow … especially considering that I took a sick day from work today and I’m wearing the 21st century equivalent of a dressing-gown, a tee-shirt and sweat pants. Oh, and what was that about a great pile of riches? Well, he explains that:
“I have seen in my lifetime and intimately known great men in authority who had clearly declined amazingly from their former capacities, which I knew of from the reputation they had acquired in their better years. For their honour’s sake I would deeply have wished that they had withdrawn to their estates, dropping the load of public or military affairs which were no longer meant for their shoulders.”
So at my age I should be withdrawing from life and passing on my work to my children, aged three, three and one. Thanks Montaigne:
“I have always thought that it must be a great happiness for an old father to train his own children in the management of his affairs; he could then, during his lifetime, observe how they do it, offering advice and instruction based on his own experience in such things, and personally arranging for the ancient honour and order of his house to come into the hands of his successors, confirming in this way the hopes he could place in their future management of them.”
Clearly there’s a class distinction between Montaigne and me that cannot be bridged … unless by “order of the house” Montaigne means my laundry, work which I’m more than happy to pass on to my children today.
At this point, Montaigne offers a warm sentiment of wanting to have his children close by as they age, which sounds to me somewhat like the Ewings on Southfork:
“I would like to be near so as to watch them and to enjoy their fun and festivities as much as my age permitted. Even if I did not live among them (as I could not do without embarrassing the company by the gloominess of my age and by my being subject to illnesses – and also without being forced to restrict my own rules and habits), I would at least like to live near them in some corner of my house – not the fanciest but the most comfortable.”
Finally I come to a point in which Montaigne and I completely agree — a father needs to have an easy, friendly relationship with his grown children:
“It is also unjust, and mad, to deprive our grown-up children of easy relations with their fathers by striving to maintain an austere and contemptuous frown, hoping by that to keep them in fear and obedience. That is a quite useless farce which makes fathers loathsome to children and, what is worse, makes them ridiculous.”
I had the opposite experience with my own father — he was always warm and available, but I desired a little more paternal wisdom from him that he wasn’t really capable of providing. I’ve grown to believe that this was my error and not his — sons always seem to have unrealistic expectations of their fathers and I’m probably setting up my own mistakes without even knowing about it.
Towards the end of the essay, Montaigne diverges away from a discussion of children towards the artist’s relationship with his creations. First, he says that in our art, we’re actually capable of creating works that bear a much stronger resemblance to ourselves than children are:
“We can see that we also produce something else from ourselves, no less worthy of commendation: for the things we engender in our soul, the offspring of our mind, of our wisdom and talents, are the products of a part more noble than the body and are more purely our own. In this act of generation we are both mother and father; these ‘children’ cost us dearer and, if they are any good, bring us more honour. In the case of our other children their good qualities belong much more to them than to us: we have only a very slight share in them; but in the case of these, all their grace, worth and beauty belong to us. For this reason they have a more lively resemblance and correspondence to us.”
From this point, he makes the honest and brave statement that, for many people, art is more worthwhile than parenthood:
“When Epicurus lay dying, tormented they say by the most extreme colic paroxysms, he found consolation only in the beauty of the philosophy he had taught to the world; are we to believe that he would have found happiness in any number of well-born, well-educated children (if he had had any) to equal what he found in the abundant writing which he had brought forth? And if he had had the choice of leaving either an ill-conceived and deformed child behind him or a stupid and inept book, would – not he alone but any man of similar ability – have preferred to incur the first tragedy rather than the other? It would probably have been impious of Saint Augustine (for example) if someone had obliged him to destroy either his children (supposing he had had any) or else his writings (from which our religion receives such abundant profit) and he had not preferred to destroy his children.”
That’s a stunning statement, but I think he gets Saint Augustine right — he would have preferred that his writings live and many of the moralists through history would make a similar call. Rather than condemn Montaigne for this thought, I think it’s more valuable to let the thought linger. He closes by comparing the value of a birth child with the essays he is writing:
“I am not at all sure whether I would not much rather have given birth to one perfectly formed son by commerce with the Muses than by commerce with my wife. As for this present child of my brain, what I give it I give unconditionally and irrevocably, just as one does to the children of one’s body; such little good as I have already done it is no longer mine to dispose of; it may know plenty of things which I know no longer, and remember things about me that I have forgotten; if the need arose to turn to it for help, it would be like borrowing from a stranger. It is richer than I am, yet I am wiser than it.”
So, returning to Screech’s view, I don’t find this essay to be particularly moving. It is revealing, without a doubt. Revealing that Montaigne’s view of children is somewhat naive and his appreciation of his own wife is minimal at best. Most revealing of all is Montaigne’s view of art. There’s nothing moving about his conclusion, but I appreciate his honesty.