Montaigne addresses his essay to a certain ‘Madame D’Estissac, informing her that the subject he is about to undertake is both strange and new, but, he has sufficient confidence in the content, that it would pass to deliver him with honour. He goes on to praise the Madame for her perseverance in the manifestation of tender love to her children, even after she was widowed by her husband, Monsieur D’Estissac. He shows promise in her son (Monsieur D’Estissac), whom he assures will grow to be a great man exuding obedience and gratitude. Montaigne reflects that, if as a young child this young Monsieur D’Estissac is unable to understand the sacrifices that his mother has done for him because of his young age, Montaigne would give a true account of these things through his writings. Her love and her sacrifices would be forever immortalized in Montaigne’s writings.
Montaigne goes on to talk about the natural universal law that comes as an instinct to both man and beast – apart from self-care and self-preservation against danger, the love of parents to their children ranks second. Aristotelian principles stated that anyone who gives a benefit to another, shows more love than the love received. The love expressed by the one who gives will always exceed the love of the one who received. They can never be equal. The artist is more fond of his work, than (if capable of senses), it would be of him. The giver’s love is honest, stable and permanent in supplying gratification but the receiver’s love is useful – temporary, not fresh, only meeting what is required, and will pass away very soon. Therefore, we should use reason in our inclinations and imparting our love.
Montaigne tells us of his personal “disgust” for “dandling and caressing” a child that is barely born. He believes that a true affection can only spring from understanding the true nature of the child, and this can happen only when the child is fully formed and capable of telling us about themselves. Montaigne believes this to be a truly “paternal love”. However, the truth is very different. Many fathers would rather cherish the childish days of fun and games and such simplicity. However, as the child comes of age, the fathers tend to grow indifferent and apart, and Montaigne reprimands such men, saying that if they fear their children coming of age and growing independent, then they should never meddle in fatherhood at all.
Montaigne personally welcomes children to become a part of adulthood, when they come of age. He would rather prefer them as mature, intelligent adults than childish infants. Montaigne believes it to be unfair for a man to gather up his treasures and enjoy it after his retirement when he is “old…, broken and half-dead”. The same money could be used to help many youths to find direction and settle in life. Instead, the youth spends the best years of his life struggling to get through because they cannot push themselves forward without financial support. Because of this, several young men resort to petty thievery and stealing irrespective of their backgrounds. Montaigne gives examples among his own acquaintances, of young men from extremely good backgrounds, and social standings, with a disreputable addiction to stealing. Such youth become kleptomaniacs, that, even when they reach an esteemed position in life, they tend to steal just because they are habituated it.
Montaigne deals with people who give the argument that their wealth is the only means by which they can receive honour and recognition from their relations. Montaigne believes a man to be miserable if the only manner in which he can maintain his authority and his children’s affection, is through their financial dependence on him. According to Montaigne, this is not affection, but mere fatherly assistance or obligation. A father should exude a character full of virtue and wisdom so that his children look up to him in respect for his character. He should raise up his children, training them to show love with reason, not because of their dependence on him, nor by compulsion.
This leads Montaigne to take his stance on physical disciplining of children, and Montaigne’s stance is a very strong opposition of such acts. The child should act out of reason and prudence not from the fear of physical force. Montaigne himself felt “the rod” only twice, as a child and followed the same principle for his own children. From his observation, the results of whipping only make boys more cowardly and more obstinate.
The appropriate age to marry is also discussed, as it greatly affects the raising of children. Montaigne married at thirty-three, concurring with Aristotle’s opinion of thirty-five years. Plato keeps that men shouldn’t marry before the age of thirty. This gives them sufficient time to settle down and well-prepare them in caring for a child. Montaigne informs us that the ancient Gauls, keeping with their culture, strictly recommended men to maintain their virginity especially in war times because they believed that intercourse lowered one’s courage.
Montaigne expounds further on this discourse giving the example of Muley Hassam, king of Tunis, who reproached the memory of his father who married young and had thirty four children, but had a character that was of loose morals, effeminate and chasing after women. On the other hand, Greek history gives us a list of heroic athletes, like Iccus the Tarentine, Chryso, Astyllus, who stayed as far away from women as possible, in their preparations for the Olympic games.
If a father, who is young has a son still younger, the father will be unable to hand over his legacy to his younger son. However, a father, well accomplished in years and experience, can pass on the baton to his son and spend the twilight years of his life in rest and peace. A man should be sensible to know when he is too old to continue in his occupation and make the wise decision to retire from the burden that has overgrown their shoulders. Montaigne gives us the example of an old acquaintance of his who was a widower with several daughters and one son. He could not tolerate the many visitors the youth entertained, nor the great expenses his family levied. This was not because he was a miser but because of the difference in age (the generational gap). Montaigne suggested the old man to retire peacefully into an estate close by. The old man, having taken the advice lived happily with no regrets on the decision.
Personally, Montaigne informs us that he would throw open his home and goods for his children to enjoy, because it would no longer be convenient for him. He would not avoid their company, but instead enjoy in their mirth along with them. This did not mean living a life of isolation and loneliness. He would have a warm regard and friendship with their children.
Montaigne despises the tradition of forbidding children from calling their father by the name of ‘Father’, and the deprivation of familiarity with their father. Fathers think that by maintaining an austere, reverent image, they can win over the respect and obedience of their children and others. However, Montaigne disagrees saying that instead of making a name that was feared, it would be better to make a name that was beloved.
Montaigne gives an example of the late Mareschal de Montluc who lost his so before he could express the intensity of his affection for him. He died only knowing the stern face of his father. Montaigne takes a very sharp note of disdain toward women saying that they always try to usurp positions of power through cunning and insolence. Montaigne believes that this sets up a very poor example for the children, who may grow up to poor positions in life and become corrupt.
Montaigne addresses another observation that the fathers deprive their children of. During their lifetime, they refuse to share of their treasures to their children. When they die, they leave their wives the same authority, to do whatever they wish. Montaigne believes that it is sensible to leave the mother in charge till the children are old enough, in order to manage them. However, Montaigne blames the father’s upbringing if he cannot trust his estate to his children after his death.
In conclusion, Montaigne talks about the writer and children, giving the example of Epicurus. He asks if Epicurus would have been happier given the choice between his doctrine and a child who was not well conditioned. The other option he asks of Epicurus is the choice between a deformed, untoward child and his own foolish book. Montaigne strongly believes that Epicurus would strongly lean toward children, when it came to the need of consolation. Or in the case of St. Augustin, if given the choice between burying his writings that have greatly contributed to religion and burying his children, he would most definitely have chosen to bury his children. In terms of inspiration for his children, Montaigne says that he what he gives to the child, he gives “absolutely and irrevocably”. According to Aristotle, a poet is very fond of his work above all, and even such poets would be more proud in being the father of a handsome youth than to be the father of the Aenid. Montaigne goes on to speak of great examples in different fields of art where people would gladly exchange their works and victories for their children because of the precious position that children hold.