Monday, April 11, 2005

How to Be a Good Dad

I'm a little tardy with Montaigne. I missed the weekend, the weather was too nice and there was too much to do, so today is Montaigne Monday. The more I read Montaigne, the more I like him. Yes, his ideas about women are patriarchal crap, but he was a man of his times and as much as I'd like him to be above it all, he wasn't. But I'm finding it easier to forgive him. Some feminists might want to toss him out as just another dead white man and once I would have agreed. But, maybe it's because I've put some years between me and college, I see no reason to "throw the baby out with the bath water." It is the governing nugget of thought that matters most sometimes, not the cultural baggage that surrounds it. Take, for instance, "On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children." Montaigne cares only for the male children here. He also makes passing comparisons between women and animals. Yet all but one of Montaigne's children died in infancy, the surviving one a girl. It is clear that he cared for his daughter and his wife and he also had association with and respect for society women who were well educated (yes, yes there are class issues here too but that's for another time) and comments that he thinks estates are too often entailed.. So I am getting the impression that while Montaigne spouts the party line, so to speak, he made exceptions. In this essay Montaigne writes about two kinds of children, actual biological children and brain children. Montaigne believes you should stop and think a moment before you decide to have children (the flesh and blood kind). Consider, that you will love your children more than they love you and that they will be in debt to you for more than they will ever pay you back. Consider as well that "things are so ordered that children can only have their being and live their lives at the expense of our being and our lives, we ought not to undertake to be fathers if that frightens us." Good advice that. If you have children, fathers should not become too attached to them as babies that way if they grow up to be disappointments your heart won't be broken and it will be easier to treat them appropriately. Instead, a father should moderate his affections and as the child grows and the father gets to know him better, and if the child shows he "deserves it, we should cherish them with a truly fatherly reason." While love is important, Montaigne believes that a father should be tempered by reason instead of letting emotion run wild. A father wants to be loved by his children but he should attain that affection through means of virtuousness and goodness. A father who can only hold the love of his children by making them dependent on him, by not giving them their freedom and forcing them to ask for money and other necessities "is wretched indeed." A father should not deprive his children of their share of the property but teach them and guide them so that they know how to use their share well. I kept thinking about King Lear while reading this essay, a prime example of a bad father. But literature is rife with bad fathers and mothers and children; they are so much more interesting than good ones. Tolstoy had it right, happy families are all alike but unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way. Which leads us to... The second part of the essay where Montaigne writes:

Now that we consider the fact that we love our children simply because we begot them, calling them our second selves, 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.
Children of the flesh grow up and become their own persons, so while they are a part of their parents, they do not belong to anyone but themselves. Brain children on the other hand belong entirely to the parent forever. Montaigne tells the story of Labienus whose books were sentenced to "death" by the Roman magistrates who required that they be burnt. Labienus was so distraught that he could not "bear such a loss nor survive such beloved offspring" and had himself shut up alive in the family vault. A more dedicated and loving father would be hard to find insists Montaigne. But would Montaigne do the same for his brain child? Doubtful. But I don't blame him, I wouldn't do it either. Back on track for the weekend and the next Montaigne essay: On the Armour of the Parthians"