On Love To One’s Offspring by Plutarch

Story type: Essay

Sec. I. Appeals to foreign law-courts were first devised among the Greeks through mistrust of one another’s justice, for they looked on justice as a necessity not indigenous among them. Is it not on much the same principle that the philosophers, in regard to some of their questions, owing to their variety of opinion, have appealed to the brute creation as to a strange state, and submitted the decision to their instincts and habits as not to be talked over and impartial? Or is it a general charge against human infirmity that, having different opinions on the most necessary and important things, we seek in horses and dogs and birds how to marry and beget and rear children, as though we had no means of making our own nature known, and appeal to the habits and instincts of the brute creation, and call them in to bear witness against the many deviations from nature in our lives, which from the first are confused and disorderly. For among the brutes nature remains ever the same, pure and simple, but in men, owing to reason and habit, like oil in the hands of the perfumers, being mixed up with many added opinions, it becomes various and loses its original simplicity. And let us not wonder that the brutes follow nature more closely than human beings, for in that respect even they are outstripped by inanimate things, which, being dowered neither with imagination nor any appetite or inclination contrary to nature, ever continue in the one path which nature has prescribed for them, as if they were tied and bound. But in brutes the gentleness of mood inspired by reason, the subtlety, the love of freedom, are not qualities found in excess, but they have unreasonable appetites and desires, and act in a roundabout way within certain limits, riding, as it were, at the anchor of nature, and only going straight under bit and bridle. But in man reason, which is absolute master, inventing different modes and fashions of life, has left no plain or evident trace of nature.[44]

Sec. II. Consider in their marriages how much the animals follow nature. For they do not wait for any legislation about bachelor or late-married, like the citizens of Lycurgus and Solon, nor do they fear penalties for childlessness, nor are they anxious for the jus trium liberorum,[45] like many of the Romans, who only marry and have children for the privileges it bestows, not to have heirs, but to be qualified for succeeding themselves to inheritances. Then, again, the male animal does not go with the female at all times; for its aim is not pleasure but procreation: so in the season of spring, the most appropriate time for such pairings,[46] the female being submissive and tender attracts the male by her beautiful condition of body, coming as she does from the dew and fresh pastures, and when pregnant modestly retires and takes thought for the birth and safety of her offspring. We cannot adequately describe all this, but every animal exhibits for its young affection and forethought and endurance and unselfishness. We call the bee wise, and celebrate its “making the yellow honey,”[47] flattering it for its tickling sweetness; but we neglect the wisdom and ingenuity of other creatures, both as regards the birth and bringing up of their young. For example, the kingfisher after conception weaves its nest with the thorns of the marine needle, making it round and oblong in shape like a fisherman’s basket, and after deftly and closely weaving it together, subjects it to the action of the sea waves, that its surface may be rendered waterproof by this plash and cement, and it is hard for even iron or stone to break it. And what is more wonderful still, so symmetrically is the entrance of the nest adjusted to the kingfisher’s shape and size, that no beast either greater or smaller can enter it, they even say that it does not admit the sea, or even the very smallest things. And cats, when they breed, very often let their kittens go out and feed, and take them back into their entrails again.[48] And the bear, a most savage and ugly beast, gives birth to its young without shape or joints, and with its tongue as with an instrument moulds its features, so that it seems to give form as well as life to its progeny. And the lion in Homer, “whom the hunters meet in the wood with its whelps, exulting in its strength, which so frowns that it hides its eyes,”[49] does it not intend to bargain with the hunters for its whelps? For universally the love of animals for their offspring makes timid ones bold, and lazy ones energetic, and greedy ones unselfish. And so the bird in Homer, feeding its young “with its beak, with whatever it has captured, even though it goes ill with itself,”[50] nourishes its young at the cost of its own hunger, and when the food is near its maw abstains from it, and holds it tightly in its mouth, that it may not gulp it down unawares. “And so a bitch bestriding her tender pups, barks at a strange man, and yearns for the fray,”[51] making her fear for them a sort of second anger. And partridges when they are pursued with their young let them fly on, and, contriving their safety, themselves fly so near the sportsmen as to be almost caught, and then wheel round, and again fly back and make the sportsmen hope to catch them, till at last, having thus provided for the safety of their young, they lead the sportsmen on a long way. As to hens, we see every day how they watch over their chicks, dropping their wings over some, and letting others climb on their backs, or anywhere about them, and clucking for joy all the time: and though they fly from dogs and dragons when only afraid for themselves, if they are afraid for their chicks they stand their ground and fight valiantly. Are we to suppose then that nature has only implanted these instincts in fowls and dogs and bears, anxious only about their offspring, to put us mortals out of countenance and to give us a bad name? considering these examples for us to follow, while disgrace justly attaches to our inhumanity, for mankind only is accused of having no disinterested affection, and of not knowing how to love except in regard to advantage. For that line is greatly admired in the theatres, “Man loves man only for reward,” and is the view of Epicurus, who thinks that the father so loves his son, the mother her child, children their parents. Whereas, if the brutes could understand conversation, and if anyone were to introduce horses and cows and dogs and birds into a common theatre,[52] and were to change the sentiment into “neither do dogs love their pups, nor horses their foals, nor birds their young, out of interest, but gratuitously and by nature,” it would be recognized by the affections of all of them to be a true sentiment. Why it would be disgraceful, great God, that birth and travail and procreation should be gratis and mere nature among the beasts, while among mankind they should be merely mercenary transactions!

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Sec. III. But such a statement is not true or worthy of credit. For as nature, in wild growths, such as wild vines, wild figs, or wild olives, makes the fruit imperfect and inferior to the fruit of cultivated trees, so has she given to the brutes an imperfect affection for their kind, one neither marked by justice nor going beyond commodity: whereas to man, a logical and social animal, she has taught justice and law, and honour to the gods, and building of cities, and philanthropy, and has contributed the noble and goodly and fruitful seeds of all these in love to one’s offspring, thereby following the very first elements that are found in the construction of the body. For nature is everywhere perfect and artistic and complete, and, to borrow the expression of Erasistratus, has nothing tawdry about her: but one cannot adequately describe all the processes appertaining to birth, nor would it be perhaps decent to pry too closely into such hidden matters, and to particularize too minutely all their wondrous ingenuity. But her contrivance and dispensation of milk alone is sufficient to prove nature’s wonderful care and forethought. For all the superfluous blood in women, that owing to their languor and thinness of spirit floats about on the surface and oppresses them, has a safety-valve provided by nature in the menses, which relieve and cleanse the rest of the body, and fit the womb for conception in due season. But after conception nature stops the menses, and arrests the flow of the blood, using it as aliment for the babe in the womb, until the time arrives for its birth, and it requires a different kind of food. At this stage the blood is most ingeniously changed into a supply of milk, not diffused all over the body, but externally in the breasts, so that the babe can with its mouth imbibe the gentle and soothing nutriment.[53] But all these various processes of nature, all this economy, all this forethought, would be useless, had not nature also implanted in mothers love to their offspring and anxiety for their welfare.

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“For of all things, that on the earth do breathe
Or creep, man is by far the wretchedest.”[54]

And the poet’s words are especially applicable to a newborn babe. For there is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul as a newborn babe: to whom almost alone nature has given an impure outlet to the light of day: being kneaded with blood, and full of defilement, and like one killed rather than born: which no one would touch, or lift up, or kiss, or embrace, but from natural affection. And that is why all the animals have their udders under the belly, women alone have their breasts high on their bodies, that they can lift up their babes to kiss, to dandle, and to fondle: seeing that their bearing and rearing children comes not from necessity but love.

Sec. IV. Refer the question to the ancient inhabitants of the earth, to the first mothers and fathers. There was no law ordering them to have families, no expectation of advantage or return to be got out of them. I should rather say that mothers would be likely to be hostile and bear malice to their babes, owing to the great danger and pains of travail. And women say the lines, “When the sharp pangs of travail seize on the pregnant woman, then come to her aid the Ilithyiae, who help women in hard childbirth, those daughters of Hera, goddesses of travail,”[55] were not written by Homer, but by some Homerid who had been a mother, or was even then in the throes of travail, and who vividly felt the sharp pain in her womb. But the love to one’s offspring implanted by nature, moves and influences the mother even then: in the very height of her throes, she neglects not nor flees from her babe, but turns to it and smiles at it, and takes it up and caresses it, though she derives no pleasure or utility from it, but with pain and sorrow receives it, “warming it and fostering it in swaddling clothes, with unintermittent assiduity both night and day.”[56] What hope of gain or advantage had they in those days? nay, or even now? for the hopes of parents are uncertain, and have to be long waited for. He who plants a vine in the spring equinox, gleans its vintage in the autumnal equinox; he who sows corn when the Pleiads set, reaps it when they rise; cattle and horses and birds have produce at once fit for use; whereas man’s bringing up is toilsome, his growth slow; and as excellence flowers late, most fathers die before their sons attain to fame. Neocles lived not to see Themistocles’ victory at Salamis, nor Miltiades Cimon’s at the Eurymedon, nor did Xanthippus hear Pericles haranguing, nor did Aristo hear Plato philosophizing, nor did their fathers know of the triumphs of Euripides and Sophocles. They heard them faltering in speech and lisping in syllables, the poor parents saw their errors in revelling and drinking and love-affairs, so that of all Evenus'[57] lines, that one alone is most remembered and quoted, “to a father a son is always a cause of fear or pain.” Nevertheless, parents do not cease to bring up sons, even when they can least need them. For it is ridiculous to suppose that the rich, when they have sons, sacrifice and rejoice that they will have people to take care of them and to bury them; unless indeed they bring up sons from want of heirs; as if one could not find or fall in with anyone who would be willing to have another’s property! Why, the sand on the sea shore, and the dust, and the wings of birds of varied note, are less numerous than the number of would-be heirs. For had Danaus, the father of fifty daughters, been childless, he would have had more heirs, and of a different spirit. For sons have no gratitude, nor regard, nor veneration for inheritance; but take it as a debt; whereas the voices of strangers which you hear round the childless man, are like those lines in the play, “O People, first bathe, after one decision in the courts, then eat, drink, gobble, take the three-obol-piece.”[58] And what Euripides has said, “Money finds friends for men, and has the greatest power among mankind,” is not merely a general truth, but is especially true in the case of the childless. For those the rich entertain to dinner, those great men pay court to, to those alone orators give their services gratis. “A mighty personage is a rich man, whose heir is unknown.” It has at any rate made many much loved and honoured, whom the possession of one child would have made unloved and insignificant. Whence we see that there is no power or advantage to be got from children, but that the love of them, alike in mankind as among the animals, proceeds entirely from nature.

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Sec. V. What if this natural affection, like many other virtues, is obscured by badness, as a wilderness chokes a garden? Are we to say that man does not love himself by nature, because many cut their throats or throw themselves down precipices? Did not Oedipus put out his eyes? And did not Hegesias by his speeches make, many of his hearers to commit suicide?[59] “Fatality has many different aspects.”[60] But all these are diseases and maladies of the soul driving a man contrary to nature out of his wits: as men themselves testify even against themselves. For if a sow destroys one of its litter, or a bitch one of its pups, men are dejected and troubled, and think it an evil omen, and sacrifice to the gods to avert any bad results, on the score that it is natural to all to love and cherish their offspring, unnatural to destroy it. For just as in mines the gold is conspicuous even though mixed up with earth, so nature manifests plainly love to offspring even in instances of faulty habits and affections. For when the poor do not rear their children, it is from fear that if reared to man’s estate they would be more than ought to be the case servile, and have little culture, and be debarred of all advantages: so, thinking poverty the worst of all evils, they cannot bear to give it their children, any more than they would some bad disease.[61]


[44] Much of this is very corrupt in the Greek. I have tried to get the best sense I could; but it is very obscure. Certainly Plutarch’s style is often very harsh and crabbed.

[45] The jus trium liberorum assigned certain privileges to the father of three children, under the Roman Emperors. Frequent allusions are made to this law by the ancient writers.

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[46] Compare Lucretius, i. 10-20.

[47] A quotation from Simonides.

[48] We are not bound to swallow all the ancients tell us. Credat Judaeus Apella!

[49] “Iliad,” xvii. 134-136.

[50] “Iliad,” ix. 324. Quoted again in “How one may be aware of one’s Progress in Virtue,” Sec. 8.

[51] “Odyssey,” xx. 14, 15.

[52] A theatre, that is, in which animals and birds and human beings should meet in common.

[53] All that is said here about the milk, the menses, and the blood, I have been obliged somewhat to condense and paraphrase. The ancients sometimes speak more plainly than we can. Ever and anon one must pare down a phrase or word in translating an ancient author. It is inevitable. Verbum sat sapienti.

[54] Homer, “Iliad,” xvii. 446, 447.

[55] Ibid. xi. 269-271.

[56] A fragment from Euripides, according to Xylander.

[57] Evenus of Paros was an Elegiac Poet.

[58] Aristophanes, “Equites,” 50, 51.

[59] See Cicero “Tuscul.” i. 34.

[60] Euripides, “Alcestis,” 1159; “Helena,” 1688; “Andromache,” 1284; “Bacchae,” 1388.

[61] The discourse breaks off abruptly. It is directed against the Epicureans. It throws ridicule on appealing to the affection of brutes for their offspring instead of appealing to human nature.

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