Properties of Blood I.7: Kith and Kin, Part A

 The Nature of Kinship

And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.   [Matthew 10:21]

Many things, apart from faith in Christ, divide Christians from the conservatives, liberals, and leftists who think within the revolutionary tradition.  While the children of the revolution believe firmly in a human progress that insures that every day and every way things will get better and better, Christians have been promised a day of judgment that will come in response to a horrifying social breakdown in which brothers betray each other to the authorities, parents kill their children, and the children rebel against parents and compass their death.  St. Paul, echoing the Master, says that in the last times  “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection” [2 Tim 3]:

In our own day, when brothers and sisters live thousands of miles apart and face neither punishment nor shame for neglecting each other, when  mothers are lauded for having abortions, and euthanasia is increasingly discussed either as a virtue or at least as a regrettable necessity, the prediction sounds less like the last days than a description, albeit poetically expressed, of contemporary experience.  No one blinked an eye when the son and brother of Bernie Madoff informed on the corrupt financier, and, no one scorns the children of celebrities when they publish attacks on their parents.  In fact, these ghost-written libels are so popular that they make the disloyal children richer and their mercenary publishers richer.  “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”  One red-diaper baby turned neoconservative boosted his career by denouncing his communist father.

Unbreakable Bonds

In Jesus’ own time, however, and in most previous and subsequent ages, there was no worse crime than parricide and no sin more serious than disrespect for parents.  Jesus’ picture of the last days has much in common with the prediction of Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived some seven centuries earlier.  In Works and Days—a poem on farming and everything else under the sun—Hesiod predicts a future age when children will be born with grey hair, fathers and children will quarrel, brothers will not love each to her or respect their parents.  In portraying the ultimate inhumanity, stories of the end times, whether revealed wisdom, as in the Christian case, or merely fictional, as in the case of Hesiod, give us an insight into what normal human life is supposed to be like.

The Christian Dante is close in spirit to the Greeks, who thought of kinship as the defining form of friendship.  In Italian, this is typically expressed by "I miei"—my folks—which can include both family members and friends.   In Purgatorio [VIII 120] Currado Malaspina says with pride:  "Ai miei portai l’amor"—I bore love to my folks.  Whereas the evil and malicious barrator (bribe-taking public servant) from Navarre boasts that he's so full of spite that he can cause harm "ai miei" presumably those closest to him.  Thus political and legal corruption eats at the very core of morality and society.

The relationship of parents and children and between siblings, while the most immediate and demanding of blood ties, is not the only degree of kinship that imposes obligations. There have been many societies—and not all of them “primitive” or non-European—in which second or third cousins enjoy the right to inherit property or find themselves subject to penalties for crimes committed by fairly distant relatives.

Strong ties of kinship have been a human norm down into the 20th century, and when we try to ignore this reality, we cut ourselves off from our history and our literature.  It is difficult to read Shakespeare with understanding if we fail to understand the horror with which audiences reacted to the murder of King Hamlet by his brother Claudius or to the young princes murdered in the tower at the order of their uncle Richard or to the mistreatment inflicted on of King Lear by his disloyal daughters.  In Shakespeare’s England, as in Hesiod’s Greece or the Israel depicted in the Old Testament or in the time of Christ, it was understood that kinship lay at the foundation of all human society.  Jesus could, therefore, take it for granted that, when he referred to his disciples as his “brethren,” they would correctly interpret brotherhood as a relationship entailing profound responsibilities.

The alternative—a society in which kinship did not matter—was only conceivable to a few philosophers who imagined they might build their utopias on some other other basis than the brute facts of human nature.  Even Augustine, for all his severity toward Greco-Roman society, has to concede some virtues to a pre-Christian civilization that fostered moral decency.  Although the men in the  Terrestrial City, in their pursuit of the good things in life, engage in violent conflict at every level, "non autem recte dicitur ea bona non esse quae concupiscit haec civitas, quando est et ipsa in suo human genere melior," that is, it is not right to say that those things this city craves are not good, since the city is itself better in its human fashion than man in his natural state.  Augustine goes on to say that the commonwealth is an improvement upon the natural man, and an important part of this improvement lies in the realm of what is sometimes called “family values.”

Kinship entails an inventory of duties and prohibitions, and Augustine admits, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that some progress has been made by pagan cities in the matter of incest.  In the first generation of the human race, men had to marry their sisters, and this practice, permitted in the beginning only out of necessity, did not die out all at once.  The Romans, by contrast, were comparatively strict and, without outlawing marriage between first cousins, had strongly discouraged a custom that might weaken aversion to brother-sister incest.  Since custom (mos) serves to control lust, traditional restrictions on incest must be honored.  Augustine adds the sociological insight that incestuous marriages do nothing to encourage the integration of society that is brought about by uniting two families in a marriage: This advantage is lost when the couple has only one father-in-law.

On the other hand, he suggests quite shrewdly, it would have been dangerous to run to the extreme of exogamy (out-marriage): The fathers of old, he argues, had a religious concern lest kinship (propinquitas) itself, little by little loosening its ties in the course of generations, might grow apart and cease to exist.  For this reason they prescribed marriages between families but within the clan (genus).  In Augustine's vision, incest rules, complemented by solidarity among kinfolks, was the basis for a stable social order.

Even Augustine, then, could take instruction from the Roman order.  He might have been encouraged by a sentence from St. Paul: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law do the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves."  Paul's obvious point is that even though pagans had not studied the moral law found in the Pentateuch, they were capable of following moral principle, “which show the works of the law written in their hearts.” [Romans 2:15]  It is an insight not always grasped by self-satisfied Christians, who routinely use “pagan,” as a term of abuse for egregious violators of the moral law.  Philanderers and adulterers are called pagans, and so are drunkards, gamblers, and wasters “who do not feel the moral beauty” of getting up with the birds.  St. Paul, though he was ever ready to cast the first stone at the foolish pagans who drank and fornicated their way to Hell, knew that some of them, at least, did their best to be decent spouses and dutiful parents.  They had the moral law engraved upon their hearts, because, as he told the Athenians on the Areopagus, He “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”  Unfortunately, too many Christians in every age of history are prone to exaggerating the vices of non-believers as a contrast to their own (all too often exaggerated) virtues.

Such propaganda, if not pressed too far, has its uses, in stimulating perseverance in Christian moral discipline, but it can also encourage the sort of self-righteous hypocrisy that blinds a believer both to his own vices and to the virtues of other sects and other religions.  Some Fundamentalists ridicule Catholics who, they say, are free to sin on Friday night in the knowledge that their sins will be forgiven once they go to confession on Saturday and receive communion on Sunday.  Many serious Catholics return the favor by assuming that all Protestants are moral anarchists, whose religions were created by the uncontrolled libidos of Henry VIII and the renegade monk Martin Luther, who condoned bigamy.

Christian complaints about the decline of the family in postChristian countries are usually limited to the nuclear family or, at the most, to the disappearance of grandparents from the domestic scene.  That is partly because Christians, as much as non-Christians, suffer from the strains of modernization that have eroded family functions and reduced their awareness of kin to the immediate family plus, in some instances, grandparents.  Cousins, aunts, and uncles have become more or less ornamental figures in the modern family scene.  By contrast, Greeks and Romans and Jews, whatever other sins and follies they might have committed, were rather more prone to over- rather than to undervalue the ties of blood.

There is, unfortunately, a strain of thought in Christianity that tends to discount the significance of kinship.  Misinterpreting Christ's dramatic appeal to let the dead bury the dead [Luke 9:60, Mat 8:22] or the admonition to would-be disciples to put love of kindred second to love of God, indeed, to hate their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and children [Luke 14:26], some Christians have concluded that, in accepting Christ as their savior, they are exempt--or at least somewhat detached--from the ordinary rules requiring respect for parents, affection between spouses, and care of children.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, but no one is more subject to foolish temptations than those who believe they have reached a higher spiritual plane.

Ordinary pagans, who scarcely had a higher morality than the everyday duties owed to family, kinfolk, neighbors, and fellow-citizens, were less subject to such a high-minded temptation.  Such idealism was left to philosophers who, from Socrates on, preached higher moralities, but the preaching of philosophers generally falls on deaf ears.  Epicurus himself, though he taught his disciples to be indifferent to human suffering, was tender-hearted towards his friends.  The early Stoics did preach a doctrine of universal obligation and world-citizenship, but in Roman hands this philosophy was reshaped (by, for example, Musonius Rufus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius) to account for the specific obligations that arise from one's station in life.

The Stoic Emperor Marcus resolved the conflict between his everyday duties and Stoic cosmopolitanism by thinking of himself as a dual personality.  As a philosopher, his devotion was to a moral ideal, but as a son and father, as a Roman and as an emperor, he was bound to fulfill specific obligations.  While the philosopher must always bear in mind that "all that partakes of reason is akin and that to care for everyone is according to man's nature," he should also act as a good Roman and in every circumstance.  He will tell himself that while this comes for God and this from chance and that

….comes from a member of the same tribe, a kinsman, and a fellow (one with whom life is shared), even when such a fellow is ignorant of that which accords with his nature.  But I am not, and therefore I treat him kindly and justly in accordance with the natural law of fellowship." (III.11).

Even under the the highly cosmopolitan Roman Empire, then, the power of kinship and fellowship was strong enough to hold its own against a powerful philosophy that regarded all men, whatever their blood or nation, as brothers.

Human brotherhood is a noble ideal, preached by Stoics, Christians, and post-Christian leftists, but kinship is a gritty and sweaty reality that can be dispensed with only by sages and saints and ignored, even by them, only at great peril.  Universalism is a moral and intellectual luxury, like foie gras and a fine claret.  Kinship is the everyday food no one can do without.  To starve yourself and your children in the pursuit of luxury is worse than foolish: It is as perverse as sex without procreation.

Kinship and its duties are not an ideal but an essential part of humanity's survival kit.  In the modern or postmodern world, though both law and mass culture have made steady inroads into the solidarity of families and kindreds, family reunions, Christmas letters, genealogical data bases and social networking sites are used to remind even distant cousins of their connections.  In my own limited experience, connections can be maintained more easily among people who all have experience of a living ancestor, but when the grandparents are gone, the bonds are weakened, especially if family members are scattered across the continent.

Ignoring the reality of kinship does not lessen its force or significance any more than ignoring the law of gravity will enable us to fly.  The consequences of kin-ignorance may take longer to be felt than the consequences of gravity-ignorance, but they are equally disastrous.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina