Properties of Blood I.8: Spouses and Heirs, Part E

From Kith to Kin to Commonwealth

If there is one commonplace that is shared by political theorists who view human societies not as a set of abstractions but as an organism or ecosystem it is that the commonwealth is an outgrowth of the household or family.  Wherever we turn—to Aristotle or Cicero, St. Thomas or Althusius, Sir Robert Filmer or French counter-revolutionaries—we find the family at the foundation of the evolving social order. The steps of this theoretical social evolution usually echo Aristotle’s account that traces the coalescence of households into a village and villages into a city or commonwealth.  Aristotle and St. Thomas, to name only two, could take for granted some knowledge of household and village life and of the significance of kinship.  Since modern writers are not fortunate enough to have readers embedded on powerful structures of family and kin, some little attention to how the process might work will not be wasted.

One phase in the transition from a married couple with children to the modern nation state is the development of broader kin groups of clan and tribe, in which artificial ties of kinship are eventually—and inevitably—recognized.  We have already seen that in classical Athens, households were bound together by their ties, in decreasing order of closeness, to genos, phratry, deme, and tribe (phyle).  Each level of organization conferred certain benefits and required particular obligations.  In the case of the heirs of Cleonymus, the boys took their stand on the close relationship within the genos, whose ties should take precedence over an the transient whims of an elderly testator.

Not everyone in a Greek community of Homeric times, perhaps, belonged to a genos, but if we think of a highland clan, we remember that it was filled out with poor relations and even fictionally adopted families.  Something similar certainly took place in ancient Greece.  The word genos is derived from a verb that means “to be born,” thus the members of a genos claimed to be descended from one common ancestor; they were bound together in a particular cult, which made the genos a kind of religious corporation, and they were also bound by ties of friendship (philotes, or, later, philia) and shame (aidos). Kinsmen are bound by shame in the sense that one is ashamed of doing ill to one’s family or failing in obligation.  One small aspect of this is that it was considered bad form to take one’s kinsmen to court.

Households grow into extended families, clans, and tribes, which even after generations may preserve some recognition of kinship.  Tribal Jewish kinship, it has been argued, was expressed through genealogies, and there is an interesting parallel between the recital of the generations of Jesus’ ancestries—traced through his non-biological father—and tracing of Aeneas’ future descendants in the sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid.  In both instances, the significance of the hero is highlighted by his position in a long line of ancestors or descendants.

In a pre-literate or lightly literate society, genealogical facts can be maintained over several generations, though over the centuries the memory of some facts can be blurred and alien descent-groups can be grafted onto the family tree.  In the course of time, intermarriages may render the distinction between real and fictional descent meaningless.

People of my name in Scotland were clearly descended from Flemish immigrants, some of them weavers and others Flemish warriors who accompanied the Conqueror in 1066.  Some of them were grafted onto Clan Murray, into which they also married.  (Some Flemings, including my father, have disdained the connection with Flanders and prefer to derive the name from Anglo-Saxon.)  The mere name “Fleming,” then, is only rarely an indication of any genealogical connection, but this does not prevent me from resenting the depiction of a crooked lawyer Fleming in an old movie, or resenting Faulkner’s creation of the character Fleming Snopes.  On the other hand, when I met an African-American young lady named Fleming—with whom there could be only the remotest chance of kinship—we jokingly called each other cousin, when we met at conferences.  Kinship is a natural way of interpreting the world, and we invoke it even when it is the accident of a name.

To maintain affiliation with a clan, the members must know their place in the genealogical scheme of things.  In our world at least, poor people outside the rural South rarely have the leisure for genealogies.  By contrast, Highland Scots and ancient Greeks tended to be proud of their lineage.  Homer’s aristocrats counted back two or three generations and, in the case of Homer’s Diomedes,more than that.  In Book Six of the Iliad, Diomedes is about to fight with a young Lycian named Glaucus.  Diomedes is clearly the greater warrior, but Glaucus has fought so impressively that the Greek, wanting to make sure he is not, once again, about to fight with a god, asks who he is.  Glaucus, with a wisdom beyond his years says it does not matter because the generations of men are like leaves blowing in the wind.

Glaucus’ world-weary exhalation is sometimes misleadingly translated as the lives of men or simply as men, but the melancholy point is the brevity not of human life but of human memory of earlier generations.  Generations come and go, like the seasons, and the time comes when we are gone forever.  Nonetheless, when Glaucus sketches out his family tree (going back to the early hero Bellerophon), Diomedes rejoices to find a descendant of Bellerophon, who had been a xenos, that is a guest-friend of his grandfather.  The word, xenos, means stranger or foreigner and later comes to mean mercenary, but a xenos whom you have entertained in your house (or vice versa) is like an adopted friend or member of the family.  You may not injure him or fight with him, and when you visit his town, or he visits yours, the two of you are supposed to look out for each other’s interests.  This relationship is not automatically inherited over several generations, but since Diomedes and Glaucus acknowledge it, they will not attempt to kill each other in battle.  They are now the equivalent of kinsmen.  In a way, Diomedes’ response to Glaucus complaint is an affirmation of continuity among men of good will.

In classical Greece, xenia was the mechanism by which members of different commonwealths could treat each other as friends and kinsmen.  Like real kinsmen, xenoi were expected to support each other by giving counsel, lending money, and, in times of crisis, taking care of each others’ families, or even serving as stepfather to the children.

Friendships and alliances can develop independently of blood ties or lineage systems.  If kinship is the model expression of social amity, then those who enjoy such amity begin to be regarded as something like kin.  Though kinship may seem exclusive, an iron destiny dictated by blood, there are formal mechanisms in many societies by which outsiders can be be adopted into the lineage.  These range from transparent fictions—such as drinking out of the same cup and pledging Bruderschaft—where the burden is felt rather lightly—to ritualized adoptions that confer nearly all the rights and duties of kinship upon the adoptee.  In Roman law, an adopted son was subject to the same rights, penalties, and incest prohibitions as a son by birth.

It is difficult if not impossible for the denizens of modern and postmodern North America to appreciate the significance kinship has had for most of the earth’s societies.  The great stumbling block is the liberal theory or rather myth of individualism that dominates the entire spectrum of political debate and has so interwoven itself into our consciousness and dreams that we cannot read the tragedy of Antigone without making her an individual or even a proto-feminist martyr, when in fact her heroic action in burying her brother derives from the duty of kinship.  This danger is underscored by the anthropologist who has already been cited for his insights into the duties of neighbors in a Spanish village:

A system of thought that takes the individual as its starting-point and assumes that he is motivated by self-interest, faces a difficulty in confronting the examples of behaviour that is not so motivated... the majority of the world’s cultures do not share the individualism of the modern West and have no need to explain what appears to them evident: that the self is not the individual self alone, but includes, according to circumstances, those with whom the self is conceived as solidary, in the first place, his kin.

After this prefatory admonition, Julian Pitt-Rivers goes on to take up his subject, how kith become kin, that is how we come to treat an outsider as a member of our kin group, imposing and accepting the bonds of altruism.  There are, as can be expected, gradations of acceptance from casual friendship to ritualized forms of friendship to unritualized fictive kinship (“This is your uncle Chris”) to formal and ritualized brotherhood or adoption into the clan.  A key element, Pitt-Rivers argues, is ritual, and he points to the role of god-parents in Mediterranean societies.  In parts of Spain and Latin America a godparent or compadre, is not only treated as kin to the child and his family but also accepts certain responsibilities toward another compadre.  A similar bond is expressed in Serbian by the word kum, which describes such relationships as godfather and something like the best man at a wedding.  It is in principle an enduring bond, not a mere social convention.

A sociological survey of fictionalized kin rituals would drive the point home, if it did not put readers to sleep, but anyone familiar with any traditional society will immediately think of parallels.  The distinction between kin and kith, while real enough in biological terms, can be obscured by oaths, rituals, and other customs.  While it is probably too much to say that kin is always the model for kith or that the Greeks were right in using the same word, philia, for both sets of relations, it does seem probable that our ability to form stable friendships arises in part from our experience of kinship.  Friendships come in different forms, for different motives, and with different levels of intensity.  Comrades in arms or in work may drift apart as soon as the war is over or the job finished.  Ritualized friendships, remade on the model of kinship, are more stable and anticipate the brotherhood of all faithful believers preached by the apostles.

“Nothing gold can stay,” as Homer’s Glaucus understood all too well, and over the generations the bonds of kinship become fragile, evanescent.  The same process takes place in social evolution as law and contract replace the ties of blood and tradition, a point made famously by Sir Henry Sumner Maine.  The obligations of kinship begin to fade, as societies grow more complex and cosmopolitan, and alternate institutions, often dependent upon or at least related to the state, take over the functions of family and kindred.  However, in periods of social disintegration, such as the early Middle Ages, the bonds of kinship are strengthened.  In most of Italy at that time, even village institutions had not yet come into force, and yet, as Chris Wickham observes:

The relative weakness of early medieval villages did not mean that peasants were socially isolated.  Rather, they acted in informal groups of friends and neighbors, sought the help of patrons, and, above all, operated in webs of kinship.

Kinship, biological and fictional, is the natural mechanism by which men and women, couples and families, are integrated into a larger social order, not just in a theoretical scheme of social evolution but in everyday life.  When the ties of kinship are eroded, the human person is degraded to the individual and kinship is replaced by the almighty State.

Even before national governments began in earnest to reduce familial households to dependency upon the state, they had come to regard clans and kindreds as a threat to their own growing power.  One family can hardly stand up against a king, but Scottish clans did just that, as did the kin-based factions that supported the Yorkist or Lancastrian claimants on the English throne during the Wars of the Roses.  Such resistance today would be not only futile but impossible, because no political conspiracy is held together with the tight bonds taken for granted within a clan.

The modern state’s erosion of kinship is one phase of the state’s war on human nature.  Like feminism, the legitimation of same-sex marriage, the subsidization of abortion, and government-imposed controls on child-rearing, the whittling down  of kindreds to households and the reduction of households to mere residences for individuals have reduced the dimensions of the human person to very small limits.  Men and women who were once children and parents, kinsmen and clansmen, neighbors and citizens, are now, at best, mere taxpayers, or, at worst, tax-consuming criminals.  John Locke, thou has triumphed!

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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