After Amy Chua’s article went viral last week on her forthright views about mothering with an authoritarian hand, I can’t help but notice the presence of a couple of formidable mothers in my recent reading. I’ve been returning to an introduction to the life and work of notable Christian thinker Augustine that I began before Christmas, and also reading Sarah Bakewell’s splendid How To Live, her quirky biography of Montaigne. Saint Augustine and Montaigne, the former from the fourth century, the latter from the sixteenth. Both men who made their mark on history, who left written legacies behind them that questioned and explored the way we put what we know into language, and that continue to exert their influence even into the present day. Two deeply contemplative souls. And both of them had powerful, pushy mothers. Who knew?
Saint Augustine was born in Roman Africa, rich, prosperous colonies at that time, Latin-speaking and highly cultured. His father was a difficult man, harsh and argumentative and not always faithful to his wife. His mother, Monica, was a different matter. She was a devout Christian who was frequently guided by her dreams and visions and she longed for her son to share her faith. She took him regularly to church, but the teenage Augustine had other ideas. He spent most of his time trying to catch the eye of pretty girls. The sins of the flesh, as they were often viewed in that time, were his particular weakness. But he had a profoundly philosophical side and was fascinated by the quest for happiness.
This led him down different alleys; he began by joining the Manichees, a sort of heretical sect within Christianity who believed that the lower half of the body was the work of the devil. Despite this, Augustine met and moved in with a young girl of much lower class than himself, who he lived with harmoniously for thirteen years. Eventually she bore him a son (to their initial dismay, but the child was much loved until he died at the early age of 17). Augustine began his career as a teacher of rhetoric, and it was clear he was talented and able. When he was given promotion to Milan as a professor, his devoted mother followed him there and sussed out his chances. If he was to win the honour and distinction he desired, she knew his uneducated partner had to go. Somehow she managed to persuade Augustine and the woman was sent back to Carthage. Monica then saw that he was engaged to marry a young heiress, whose dowry would set him in good stead. Augustine was told he would have to wait until the heiress was old enough to marry him (so goodness knows she must only have been a child), but he wasn’t bothered. He was suffering still from the loss of his love, and turned ever more towards theological thought to find recompense and guidance.
Augustine then followed Neoplatonic thought. Best not to get too much into this, but the point is its idealization of all that is purely spiritual and abstract. The more abstract a thing was, the closer it moved towards the divine. As such it preached interiority and reclusiveness. The life of the early Christians was profoundly ascetic – vegetarianism, no sex, lots and lots of meditation. Fretting over the issue of how to live left Augustine ill and weak, and this finally forced him into a series of decisions. He gave up his teaching post and had himself baptized, committed to the Christian faith in a way that delighted his mother. The two of them would live together for the rest of her life, sharing transcendent visions, exploring their faith, and Augustine’s enforced celibacy meant no other women getting in the way. Augustine spoke worshipfully of his mother, but it seems to me that her possessiveness and ambition must have had an insidious effect on her son, just as much as the philosophy he studied. Augustine had an eye for the ladies; it was his defining characteristic (and giving up sex was his greatest struggle), yet his mother’s more potent libidinal energies won the day. Sexuality, the great weapon of separation from the mother, was always problematic for him; he longed for it, it troubled him, and eventually love took on a different form: that of the Christian passion.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had a notably different relationship to his mother. In that household, it was his father who had the big ideological notions. He felt strongly that there was a certain way to bring up children, and it was with an odd mix of high culture and low authority. As a baby, Michel was put out to a wet nurse, perfectly common in those days, only he lived with the peasant family and not his own for the first two years or so of his life. When he returned to his own family, his father had another notion, and that was to teach him to speak fluent Latin without tears. Latin remained the language necessary for those who wanted to get on in life in the legal or civil service, and the Renaissance period idealized it as the source of all beauty and culture. He hired a tutor who then performed the role of constant interpreter between young Michel and the rest of his family, who were not so proficient in the language. What a strange early life this must have been! And most notable for the lack of opportunities it presented for Michel to bond with his own parents. Then at the age of about six he was abruptly removed from his pleasant if odd circumstances and packed off to school, which the child did not appreciate. Michel de Montaigne had had a lovely childhood in some ways, no corporeal punishment, plenty of deference and gentleness, a continual sense of his own importance and distinction, and yet he had also ended up wayward and eccentric. He was not like anyone else, and the independence of mind this brought with it would be his greatest gift and his greatest challenge.
For Montaigne carried on being smart and gentle, but also lazy and rather inept. He could only do what he was interested in, and he liked an easy life. His mother, Antoinette, seems to have been quite the opposite sort of person – fierce, determined, aggressive on occasion, opinionated. She was clearly a very competent sort of woman, and it seems she struggled with both her husband, who was a man of great energy but who started projects only to leave them half-finished, and with her son, who may have seemed both indolent and disrespectful. Michel’s father’s first will more or less cut Michel out, leaving his mother in charge of the household in the event of his death. This was an extraordinary move, indicating notable lack of faith in Michel, and surprising steadfastness on the part of Antoinette. A later will redressed the balance and seemed more concerned with organizing relations between mother and son. Michel’s father, Pierre, stated that Antoinette must be found accommodation – elsewhere if living on the estate didn’t work out – and that she should receive ‘all filial honour, respect and service’. Antoinette’s will showed the extent of her resentment when she cut Michel’s son out completely. She complained that her dowry should have gone on buying more property, and that her hard work for the past forty years had added considerable wealth to the family, which Michel and his son had benefited from; they deserved nothing more from her.
Michel de Montaigne is famous for the contemplative, meandering essay style he wrote in, and these writings were all accomplished in his library. Libraries were few and far between in these days and yet Michel’s was stupendous – full of books (a real luxury), decorated with murals and special ornaments. It was also up a tower set apart from the main buildings of the household. It’s thought that Michel was a sort of architectural visionary, but I wonder just how much he wanted to steer clear of his mother. There she was, evidently a nag and a sourpuss, her feelings curdled by the sense that she did all the work herself whilst her son enjoyed the fruits of her labour. Why wouldn’t Montaigne have created a little domain all for himself, where he could contemplate his own life and feelings, far away from the mother for whom he felt little affiliation? If Saint Augustine chose the contemplative life because it brought him close to his mother, then Michel de Montaigne may have chosen his because it shut his mother well and truly out. What’s that phrase about there being a strong woman behind every successful man? I wonder how often it was a mother, who needed to be appeased, or adroitly avoided!