Properties of Blood I.10: The Demands of Blood, Part F

From Kith to Kin to Commonwealth

The commonwealth is a dynamic tension between the forces of love and the forces of hate, both of which have been planted in our human nature long before (whether in a temporal or hierarchical sense) we were human.  In many cases, however, the forces of love must be invoked in the service of hate.   To defend those we love, we may have to fight and kill their enemy. Kinship, as an expression of love, confers many benefits.  Its laws stipulate the people whom we may marry and who can inherit our property and status.  But kinship, in addition to conferring benefits, also imposes burdens, some of them quite heavy.  Although modern states have lifted most of these burdens—just as they have taken away the benefits—this is probably a temporary condition that will last only so long as states maintain their monopolies on violence and charity.  During even a short-term crisis—natural disasters and wars—men and women turn inevitably to the core elements of their social existence: friendship and kinship.

Where a sense of community persists in North America, as it does along the Gulf Coast or in small Iowa farm towns, flooding and hurricanes bring out the best in people.  That was William Alexander Percy’s experience in Greenville, Mississippi, during a great river flood, and it inspired his nephew Walker to wonder why Will Percy was only happy when he was getting shot at in the First World War or leading the fight to save his town from the angry Mississippi.  In not so distant New Orleans, where much of the population has been torn up from the roots of family and kin and made radically dependent upon government, the response to Hurricane Katrina was quite different.  The simplistic answer (usually offered sotto voce) is racial, but rural black people on the Gulf Coast worked with their white and black neighbors to save lives and bring comfort.

Kinship creates community and community the commonwealth.  There can be no healthy political order that is not rooted in the properties of blood.  When political institutions disrupt and replace kinfolks, the result is dehumanization.  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.

Marriage and the family form the matter of the next volume, but, as we near the end of this this work, to touch lightly upon that theme by anticipation will not be amiss.  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 in 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 nephews  took their stand on the close relationship within the genos, whose ties, so they insinuate, 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 (like the Latin gens) 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 at Athens to take one’s kinsmen to court and illegal at Rome to sue a member of the family.

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 the 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 occasionally an indication of any genealogical connection, but this does not prevent me from bristling at the depiction of a crooked lawyer Fleming in an old movie, or resenting Faulkner’s creation of the white trash 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.  Death, within a few generations, wipes the earth clean of our existence:

The obits, which do not amount to much,

are  buried, after the perfunctory tears,

away in drawers where all dead things belong,

forgotten within ten or twenty years—

no matter, now, that they got it all wrong-- 

along with everything you ever said.

And that is when you know you're really dead.   

The ancients understood, far better than nihilists and existentialists, the futility of human life, but they did not cultivate despair or ignore the ties of blood they acknowledged.  When Glaucus, in the same episode, sketches out his family tree (going back to the legendary 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 the affirmation of a moral connection among men of good will.

In ancient Greece, where the poleis were independent and civil rights were literally the rights of citizens and not foreigners, xenia was the mechanism by which members of different commonwealths could treat each other as friends and kinsmen.  Unless two cities had made mutual agreements, a citizen might abuse a foreigner without friends without facing punishment.  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.

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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

5 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Good stuff, Dr. Fleming. I wonder how large this reality can be expanded before it becomes an abstraction. From Family, tribe, community, state, nation, empire, polyglot boarding house, The American exception, etc.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Reavis, your question brings to mind Aristotle’s discussion about the proper size of a commonwealth, Jefferson’s vision of ward republics and of the union splitting into smaller confederations when needed, and Marshall De Rosa’s vision of a Southern Confederacy wherein states divide into smaller states when necessary. As far as an answer to your question, well, that’s a tough one. Perhaps real federalism can allow for a larger entity without it becoming too abstract, at least to a degree.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Empires can work for a time but only if they are decentralized as the Roman Empire was from, say, the time of the Scipios down to Septimius Severus. The British Empire worked so long as they granted self-governing status to its outlying provinces. The exceptions that prove the rule–Ireland and the American colonies–show what happens when you refuse to allow dependencies to rule themselves. It is not size and scale per se that matter so much as centralization of power. We have gone farther down that road than either Nazi Germany or the USSR. I do not say ours is a more tyrannical regime, only that it has successfully (for the time being) expanded the power of the center into even the household.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    “expanded the power of the center into even the household.”

    There is an essay out there somewhere that most readers would agree with I think by an old Professor and friend from Texas, Fritz Wilhelmson. In this essay the city slicker, and cosmopolitan internationalist sailor he could be on occasion bled out into a kind of condescending little finger wagging towards the entire agrarian ground by which men have lived for thousands of years. He believed in a Gestalt sense that such efforts were nothing really more than hobbies and romantic efforts — what modernists and some Catholic leaders call nostalgic wisps. He argued it was no longer possible since the new ground was electric— television, computers, I phones etc., that the agrarian ground could be recognized again as anything more than play. It was an excellent essay that I did not like reading at the time and think even less of today after years of trying to live in both “the power of the electrical center in every household” and the old 19th century agrarian ground that poets like Wendell Berry still attempt to explore. But it remains an interesting question and one I have never completely understood or resolved.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Reavis – Do you mean Fredrick Wilhelmsen?