Properties of Blood, Volume II, Chapter 0: The Family and Its Enemies

The family was born free, everywhere it is in chains.

This bogus quotation is a slight twist on the revolutionary declaration that Rousseau used to introduce The Social Contract:Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”  Rousseau was an original thinker who expressed himself in a brilliant prose style, but he was entirely wrong about many things and blind to the facts of human nature.  To a parent, or nurse, or anyone who has ever seen an infant up close, nothing seems clearer than the fact that man is born entirely dependent upon his mother without whom (or a surrogate) he could not survive a day.  

Moral freedom is one of those subjects with which philosophers and theologians have wrestled for millennia, but whether we are Calvinists or an Arminians, few of us could truthfully say we are entirely free.  Some men and women may, in the course of a long life, acquire a measure of social, economic, or political freedom, but it is the rare human being who does not depend on others for satisfying his needs (including the need for companionship) and for defending his life and property.  Even Daniel Boone had a wife and children and did much of his exploring with his friends and relatives.  Boone, the archetypal American loner, was in fact what we would call now “a good family man.” 

Rousseau’s provocative declaration was, in one sense, only a restatement of a cliché with a long history that found its most absurd expression in his book The Social Contract.  According to the ancient philosopher Epicurus and his disciples, men had originally lived as beasts, abusing each other as they liked.  Acknowledging the inconveniences of the bestial state, men came to together to agree to live by certain rules, and voilà, society was born and along with it the institutions of marriage and family.  Epicurus knew little of the lives of beasts, if he really believed they lived without constraints, but his counter-factual theory has had a long life.  In its Jesuit incarnation, the theory of natural liberties and rights was used to justify a Catholic’s opposition to his king; in the pessimistic version, Hobbes argued that only a strong authority prevented men from returning to the brutish anarchy of the natural state; while in the more optimistic theory put forward by John Locke and classical liberals, men are free to resume their natural liberties whenever an  oppressive government infringes upon their natural rights.  

Rousseau, mad as he was, saw more clearly than Locke that individuals by themselves could never secure their liberties, which could only be enjoyed in the totalitarian paradise, the construction of which was the dream of Robespierre and, later, of Karl Marx.  Implicit in the theory of the social contract are the twin notions that individuals are natural and that the family is an artificial creation.  Whatever the positive value to mankind of the French and Russian revolutions—and I would suggest it is not much—the basic notion of natural anarchy is simply wrong.  So long as we have been human, we have lived in natural communities of kinship and friendship rooted in ties of blood and marriage. 

But, some perceptive reader will ask,even if man is not born free, how can the family, which is made up of men, have been born free?  Besides, can we really say that the family was born?

English is not a good language for precise distinctions.  For example, the word “to bear” is used to mean both carry or sustain, on the one hand, and produce naturally (as in the tree bears fruit) on the other.  In this second sense, whatever comes into organic existence naturally can be said to be born, though we use the word so frequently in a metaphorical sense that the meaning has become obscure.  Stars--both astral bodies and film actors--are born, nations are born, and if you are an urban song writer  jerking tears, you can say that "Every song in my breast dies a-bornin without you."  We have strayed a bit from nature.

 The Greeks had a better word to express this idea: phuein, which means “to cause to exist” and (in certain tenses) “to exist naturally.”  From this verb is derived the noun physis, “nature” or “the power of growth,” which gives us such words as physics and physical.  Aristotle, who unlike Rousseau had seen babies born and directly observed animal and human life, says that man is born (ephu) for citizenship, that is for life in a commonwealth.  Why?  Because the basic element of human social life is neither the individual nor the state (whatever that shifty word means) but the conjugal pair of male and female that form a household with their children, kinfolks, and (occasionally) servants.  The family is thus a natural institution, from which flows the authority of a legitimate commonwealth.

When we say that something in human life is “natural,” we can mean one of several things.  We call something natural, for example, if it is part of our physical body or among the urges and instincts that are found in all or nearly all human beings.  For a custom or institution to be natural (at least in the sense I am using the word), it either has to satisfy some natural urge—as procreation does—or provide the means of satisfaction, as marriage provides a means not only for satisfying sexual desires but also for taking care of the results.  Of course, marriage and family are also social or conventional institutions to the extent that they vary in form from culture to culture and are regulated by law and custom.

The institutions of marriage and family, though they exhibit some variations throughout human experience, are universal.  Despite constant efforts to find evidence of societies without one or the other, an honest person, even one who hates the whole idea of marriage and family, has to conclude that they have been, up till now, a part of the human condition.  They are not merely useful inventions, devised to accommodate self-interest or survival: They are rooted in our most basic passions and affections that are wired into our nervous system and triggered by hormones. Under most normal circumstances, a human mother (like her primate cousins) will love her baby and hate any creature that attacks it.

In the modern world, we think of marital households as places where men, women, and their offspring sleep and spend some of their free time and the family itself as an institution created by law and subject to complex regulation that circumscribes what can be done, but in pre-modern societies families were virtually sovereign states within the tribe, kingdom, or empire in which they existed.  A family’s external relations with other families was somewhat constrained by law and tradition, though even in homicide cases, blood revenge was, perhaps, as common as trial by jury.  But domestically, the family was often a law unto itself, with the exception that many societies have prohibited incestuous sexual relations and homicide within the household and have set down rules for legitimacy, especially as questions of inheritance are involved.  

I have already written at some length on the peculiar institutions that serve love and hate, perhaps at greater length than readers with delicate stomachs might have wished.  But granting, for a moment, that the family was born free, why do I say it is everywhere in chains and, perhaps more to the point, what difference does it make—the “so what?” question that should be put to every generalization?  Let us start with the second question, because if the “so what?” question cannot be disposed of in a summary fashion, there is hardly any reason to continue the argument.  If, for example, I tried to persuade you that 8-Track tapes would soon disappear, I should scarcely arouse your interest unless I could make the improbable case that musical standards would plummet.  In putting the “so what?” test to the family, we shall have to begin by looking at the arguments that have been devised to strip the institution of its legitimacy.

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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

7 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Very good and insightful writing. It’s hard for a generation so far removed from Greek and Latin as you are not, to see how much meaning has been lost in the diminished symbols we must use from contemporary English. Chaucer’s English symbols for the Latin are much richer than ours but our advances in technique and technology blind us to that honest understanding. My kingdom for a horse…. and old scholar who knows the two languages that made us what we once were as a people.

  2. Clyde Wilson says:

    CALHOUN begins his A Disquisition on Government in the same place.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Calhoun is about as sound a political thinker as one can find over the past 500 years. How much he had read, I do not know, but I find echoes of Cicero and Aristotle. His sources are less important than the coherent and forceful application he made of them to his own times.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Why don’t we have an online discussion of the Disquisition. I could moderate and you could be the voice of authority?

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Have been reading Andrew Lytles
    Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company and was pleased to notice his high regard and mention of Calhoun in his excellent introduction to Forest. Calhoun understood the difference between mob majorities and a determinate number of patriotic citizens. Have not seen mention of that distinction from American writers in decades.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    A discussion on the Disquisition? Excellent idea!

  7. Robert Peters says:

    From 2004 to 2008, I was privileged to be the headmaster of a tiny private school called the United Community Christian Academy. The upper school from the 7th to the 12th grades had only fourteen students. Our school was in an abandoned Masonic Lodge. It was located on the same grounds as a Southern Methodist Church and stood right next to the Hollywood Cemetery where baseball legend Joe Adcock is buried. My students participated in the state literary rally and in various competitions. One young lady participated in the regional “social studies” fair in which about one hundred schools were represented. We were by far the smallest among the participants. Her project and story board were on John C. Calhoun’s Concurrent Majority. The fair was held at a large regional university with the faculty being the judges. She was visited by three judges over the course of the day. Each of them complimented her efforts. One of them told here that John C. Calhoun was, however, not in the university’s history or political science curriculum. My student did not place; the first place went to a presentation of the “historical figure” Hannah Montana! Such are the times.