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Michel de Montaigne Was 37 When...

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His first daughter was born in the Chateaux de Montaigne. Michel Eyquem—his real name; the chateaux was acquired by his great-grandfather—and his wife Françoise de la Cassaigne crossed paths thanks to a fixed marriage, as was customary among the wealthy in that time.

Life as a parent turned out to be very cruel: Michel and Françoise had six daughters, of which only the second, Léonor, would survive infancy. In Montaigne’s Essays, he rarely mentions them, and if he does, he does so dismissively, as if nothing that bad happened, it was just “misfortune”. He must have either had a really strong back or simply decided to skip writing about parenthood and children all-together. Which he didn’t, as he dedicated one essay, Of the education of children, completely to the subject. It was also Michel’s job to produce boys to carry on the family name, which he failed to do.

Two years before becoming a parent, he got bored of the active—and according to him also very corrupt—life as a lawyer in Bordeaux. Instead, Montaigne decided to devote the rest of his life to the real challenging life questions, or in other words, philosophy. Not that this grand idea didn’t go as planned: at one point during his tour throughout Europe, the king of France demanded his immediate return in order to pick up the role of mayor of Bordeaux to temper the uneasy mood there, which he of course couldn’t refuse.

Montaigne’s philosophical views on child education are still quite relevant today: he argues that children should develop their own interests, abilities, and virtues, through questioning and analyzing, not simply through memorizing information by solely learning from books, as was common during that time. If you were fortunate enough to get any education at all, you studied the classics, and by studying, memorization of quotes and “good practices” was the purpose. Questioning what one is reading is out of the question (heh). Instead of force-feeding children stuff, as a teacher, one

[…] should have his pupil taste things, select them, and distinguish them by his own powers of perception.

Another interesting aspect of the essay is the criticism of typical classrooms: multiple students and one teacher, which, according to Montaigne, greatly inhibits individual learning capacities. Instead, we should turn to private tutors and let them guide the children and help them discover the truth. As a fan of Cicero and the skeptics himself, he wrote that it’s not good enough to know how they acted and lived: it should also be taught how to apply that knowledge to themselves and the world. Oh, and studying philosophy leads to happiness. Of course it does.

The more I read about Montaigne, the more I ask myself whether or not he lived by his own rules, as Cicero did. Cicero was one of the richest men of Rome, but wrote that we should live in poverty and be happy. Montaigne wrote about child education, yet did not attempt to put his words to practice when it came to his own daughter(s). Instead, when Montaigne was 47, he decided to visit Germany and various spas in Switzerland and Italy—without wife and child. Not entirely without family, though: his youngest brother Bertrand, 20 at the time, would join in, together with the husband of one of his sisters, and the teenage son of one of the neighbors and a friend? They can go, but Léonor, by then nine years old, couldn’t? A nobleman was supposed to travel with a big company to show off his wealth, although in the Essays, Montaigne claimed he hated to put on that show.

Sure, his kidney stone illness was flaring up, and it was believed that Italian warm spas did wonders—which they didn’t—but still, I wonder: how did he pull that off? “Honey, I’ll be gone for seventeen months, take good care of the kids and the winery, will you?” It’s well-known that Montaigne didn’t share his bed with his wife (except to procreate), but I can’t imagine simply leaving your children in favor of philosophical interest. In the 1570s, taking a trip to Italy was dangerous (he was robbed) and took weeks. It wasn’t exactly one cheap flight away. Perhaps Of the education of children was already written and a small army of private tutors were paid a year in advance to keep Léonor busy. Perhaps that reflection was made after returning from the trip and witnessing the repercussions of his absence.

I love reading about Michel de Montaigne; it’s my favorite philosopher because he’s witty but still very much down-to-earth. One of his favorite activities, for example, is sitting with his hands on his lap (read: doing nothing). He was burdened with political tasks he’d rather avoid but couldn’t completely because of his heritage, and his philosophical opinions are concrete, not abstract and theoretical, like other philosophers of his time he loved to scoff at.

There’s another reason why I love Montaigne. Michel de Montaigne Was 37 When… his first daughter was born. In a few months, we’ll be expecting our first child. I’ll be 37 when our first daughter will be born. I am over the moon, yet at the same time, very anxious: things will change—no wait, everything will change. Voices in my head make me worry about raising a child in this selfish capitalist world, and those same voices constantly make me question the bigger than average age difference.

Fortunately, Montaigne will be there to keep me company. To keep me grounded. To help me put things into perspective. To help me pull up a chair, and now and then put my hands in my lap, and just sit there.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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