In the first part of this touching tribute to his best friend Etienne, Montaigne discusses friendship, and relationships between parent and child
I have noted the technique of a painter in my employ, and would not mind imitating it. This painter chooses a beautiful spot – the middle of some wall or panel – and draws his picture there with utmost art and care. Then, he covers the blank spaces around the picture with grotesque art, odd fantastic figures with no grace. In truth, what are the things I scribble here but grotesque and monstrous bodies, made of various parts but without any clear figure and containing, except by accident, no order, coherence, or proportion.
So in the second part I am like the painter, but in the first and better part, I fall very short of him. I don’t have the powers to produce a rich and finely polished piece. I have therefore thought it fit to borrow from Etienne de la Boetie, a piece that will honour and adorn the rest of my work. It is a discourse called ‘Voluntary Servitude’. Etienne wrote it before he was even eighteen years old, and it has since run through the hands of men of great learning, all of whom praise it, because it is finely written and as full as anything can be. And yet, one can confidently say it is far short of what he was able to do. In the more mature age when I knew him, Etienne had decided to commit his thought to writing, the way that I am doing now. We would have had a great many rare things that would have rivaled the best writings of antiquity if he had done so, for I know no man comparable to him. But he left nothing behind except this discourse, which he bequeathed to me along with his library and other papers, in his last will.
I came to know of Etienne because of this discourse, and only became acquainted with him long after he had written it. This discourse, in fact, proved to be the first cause and foundation of our friendship, which we afterwards improved and maintained for as long as God allowed us to be together. Our friendship was so perfect, inviolate, and entire that none like it could be found in any story, and amongst men of our time there is no sign or trace of such a thing. So much concurrence is required for such a friendship that it is much if fortune allows it to pass even once in three ages.
There is nothing to which nature seems to make us as inclined as to society. Aristotle said that good legislators respected friendship more than justice. The most supreme point of its perfection is that those who derive pleasure, profit, public or private interest, or any nourishment from a friendship, other than friendship itself, cannot enjoy one as beautiful and generous as those that don’t. Also, the four ancient kindnesses: natural, social, hospitable, and sexual – either separately or jointly – cannot help in making a true and perfect friendship.
The relationship of children and their parents is based on respect. Friendship is nourished by a communication that is impossible between parent and child, due to great differences. This communication would offend the duties of nature, for neither are all the secret thoughts of fathers fit to be communicated to their children (this would lead to an indecent familiarity), nor can advice and reproofs (one of the principal offices of friendship) be performed by the son towards the father. There are some countries where it was custom for children to kill their fathers, and others where the fathers killed their children, to avoid their being an impediment to each other’s lives. Naturally, the expectations of the one depend upon the ruin of the other.
Many great philosophers have made nothing of parent-child relationships. When Aristippus was pressed about the affection he owed to his children, he spat forcefully and said that that too had come out of him, and that we also breed worms and lice. Plutarch refused to reconcile with his brother, saying he would not give him extra importance just for ‘coming out of the same hole’.
The word itself is fine and delectable, and for that reason Etienne and I called each other brother. But the complication of interests, the division of estates, and the fact that the wealth of the one is also the property of the other weakens and relaxes the fraternal bond. Brothers who pursue their fortunes by advancing along the same path often jostle and hinder one another. Besides, why do the correspondences of manners, parts, and inclinations that beget true and perfect friendships have to meet in blood relations? Father and son may have completely different temperaments; my son, or my brother, may be passionate, ill-natured, or a fool. These are friendships more imposed on us by the law and natural obligation and less by choice.
Personally, however, I have not experienced anything to corroborate, as I have the best and most indulgent father, even now when I am so old, that ever was. And he himself is descended from a family for many generations famous and exemplary for brotherly concord.
In part 2 of this essay, Montaigne discusses, amongst other things, the difference between friendship and the love one feels for a woman. Soon to come …