Montaigne: On Education

July 23, 2018

On the Education of Children
Michel de Montaigne
Translated from the French by Charles Cotton
(Doubleday, 1947) [c.1580]
40 p.

In an essay on sixteenth-century literature C.S. Lewis, describing the Essays of Francis Bacon, makes the observation that

if Bacon took his title from Montaigne, he took nothing else. His earliest essays resemble essays by Montaigne about as much as a metallic-looking cactus raised on the edge of the desert resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

which, of course, disinclines one to read Bacon ( — as does another of Lewis’ memorable witticisms at Bacon’s expense: “Everyone has read him, but no-one is ever found reading him”). At the same time, his comment suggests, by the art of subtle implication, that the essays of Montaigne might be quite delightful, rather like a whole countryside of forest, filled with light, etc.

On the strength of this recommendation, I, some years ago, purchased a volume of Montaigne’s essays and now, some years later, have read one of them. This particular essay is in the form of a letter to Madame Diane de Foix, Comtesse de Gurson, counselling her on the education of her son.

*

Montaigne’s own education, it comes out, was an odd one. His parents assigned him a Latin-speaking tutor, and kept him (Montaigne) isolated from other children, with the consequence that he grew up speaking Latin as his mother tongue. Little good it did him, in the long run, for, as he tells us, when once he left the tutulage of his master and began to speak French, he rather quickly lost his Latin and retained little into adulthood, an experience that will be familiar to many children of immigrant families.

Among the most contested questions in the history of thought about education is whether we should tell the little darlings what they should find interesting and important, or whether the little darlings should tell us what they find interesting and important. There are arguments on both sides, and Montaigne comes down decisively in the mushy middle. On the one hand, he tells us that we ought not to pay too much attention to the learning objectives of the young:

…I am clearly of opinion, that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years…

On the other hand, the education a child receives should be responsive to that child’s abilities and inclinations:

…children are to be placed out and disposed of, not according to the wealth, qualities, or condition of the father, but according to the faculties and the capacity of their own souls.

It seems that as to the matter of education Montaigne holds that children should be guided and instructed, but as to the manner, they should be seduced — that is, made to think that they themselves have chosen that which we have chosen for them:

Education ought to be carried on with a severe sweetness … tempting and alluring children to letters by apt and gentle ways.

There is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.

And so students should be lead on, not wholly receptive, but engaged in a dialogue with the material, and the teacher

permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn.

In this way, the student will appropriate the material he learns, making it his own, so that he can make use of it naturally and readily, as the body makes use of food:

‘Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct.

Montaigne himself sets a good example of this art of appropriation, for he liberally salts his essay with passages from ancient authors — Horace, Virgil, Lucan, Seneca — but in each case the authority has been turned to purpose, saying aptly what Montaigne needs him to say.

In all of this, the teacher is obviously of the greatest importance for the student, acting now as Solon and now as Socrates. Montaigne counsels that parents seek a teacher “who has rather a well-made than a well-filled head”, and, interestingly, he counsels against mothers instructing their own children:

A child should not be brought up in his mother’s lap. Mothers are too tender, and their natural affection is apt to make the most discreet of them all so overfond, that they can neither find in their hearts to give them due correction for the faults they may commit, nor suffer them to be inured to hardships and hazards, as they ought to be.

Such hazards may be greater for boys than girls, and would be more concerning for only children than the abundantly-siblinged. And Montaigne perhaps did not foresee our schools, in which elementary school classrooms, at least, are almost uniformly peopled with female teachers not widely noted for the hardships and hazards they impose upon their charges. But, even so, it is noteworthy that Montaigne thinks sternness more salutary than gentleness.

If the Comtesse de Gurson was hoping to be provided with a well-organized curriculum for her son, she would have been disappointed with Montaigne’s letter, for he has relatively little so say about what the child should study. He recommends poetry for its pedagogical value:

…as Cleanthes said, as the voice, forced through the narrow passage of a trumpet, comes out more forcible and shrill: so, methinks, a sentence pressed within the harmony of verse darts out more briskly upon the understanding, and strikes my ear and apprehension with a smarter and more pleasing effect.

and he testifies to the good done by reading old books:

[The student] shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages.”

[…]

I never seriously settled myself to the reading any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Seneca; and there, like the Danaides, I eternally fill…

More important than the specific content of the child’s learning is the moral formation of the child, which he argues ought to be first both in priority and in sequence:

After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric …

(This last remark informs us that the education he has in mind, as to content, is a traditional classical education, such as is hard to get these days.)

This method of moral instruction first was that followed by Aristotle when he served as tutor to Alexander:

Aristotle did not so much trouble his great disciple with the knack of forming syllogisms, or with the elements of geometry; as with infusing into him good precepts concerning valour, prowess, magnanimity, temperance, and the contempt of fear.

Among the virtues to be taught is, first, a love and respect for truth:

Above all, let him be lessoned to acquiesce and submit to truth so soon as ever he shall discover it, whether in his opponent’s argument, or upon better consideration of his own.

To the intellectual part of learning Montaigne would have us conjoin a regimen of physical exercise and social decorum, out of respect for human nature:

I would have his outward fashion and mien, and the disposition of his limbs, formed at the same time with his mind. ‘Tis not a soul, ‘tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him.

*

Education is, as he admits, “the greatest and most important difficulty of human science”, and it is correspondingly difficult to speak sensibly on the subject. I find nothing wholly new in Montaigne’s advice to the Comtesse, nor nothing absurd. His advice, in miniature, is stout and solid: teach the tradition by means of charms; let the child appropriate what he learns; promote moral formation; discipline the body; honour truth above all.

Or, by implication, education ought not to be rote, not faddish, not value free, and not skeptical.

We can be gratified, at least, that our schools do not teach by rote.

*

I fear that in making the above summary of this essay, I have been unable to resist liberally quoting from it, disgorging what I ate in the same condition it was swallowed, and this is indeed a fault. Montaigne knows this vice, and has some choice words about me which, not without a certain perversity, I cannot resist quoting in full:

The indiscreet scribblers of our times, who, amongst their laborious nothings, insert whole sections and pages out of ancient authors, with a design, by that means, to illustrate their own writings, do quite contrary; for this infinite dissimilitude of ornaments renders the complexion of their own compositions so sallow and deformed, that they lose much more than they get.

This is just and true; my writing is a sallow and deformed thing when set beside the writing of many of the authors from whom I learn, Montaigne included. Though I read in translation, I found his style robust and pithy, with strong bones and little ornament. Were I to venture a metaphor, I should say that it resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

*

Montaigne is a writer who makes frequent asides and forges neat aphorisms with apparent ease. Here, indulging my vice for regurgitation to a truly revolting degree, I proffer some of these choice morsels:

[Sport and spectacles]
Well-governed corporations take care to assemble their citizens, not only to the solemn duties of devotion, but also to sports and spectacles. They find society and friendship augmented by it.

[Rote learning]
To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it, or fumbling over the leaves of his book. A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it.

[Truth as common ground]
Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after.

[Wisdom and serenity]
The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that of things in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.

[Lady Philosophy]
It is she that calms and appeases the storms and tempests of the soul, and who teaches famine and fevers to laugh and sing; and that, not by certain imaginary epicycles, but by natural and manifest reasons. She has virtue for her end, which is not, as the schoolmen say, situate upon the summit of a perpendicular, rugged, inaccessible precipice: such as have approached her find her, quite on the contrary, to be seated in a fair, fruitful, and flourishing plain, whence she easily discovers all things below; to which place any one may, however, arrive, if he know but the way, through shady, green, and sweetly-flourishing avenues, by a pleasant, easy, and smooth descent, like that of the celestial vault.

[Virtue and reward]
The height and value of true virtue consists in the facility, utility, and pleasure of its exercise.

[Actions and beliefs]
The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine.

[Speech and truth]
“Let the language that is dedicated to truth be plain and unaffected.” — Seneca, Ep. 40.

[Exhortation]
“Dare to be wise; begin! he who defers the hour of living well is like the clown, waiting till the river shall have flowed out: but the river still flows, and will run on, with constant course, to ages without end.” — Horace, Ep., i. 2.

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