Fiddling While Rome Burns, Part Three

The Household is not just a “castle” but a little commonwealth.  When Cain was expelled from his father’s polity of hearth and home, he realized that exile from the community of kinfolks was a fate at least as bad as death.  ”My punishment” he declared,  “is greater than I can bear....I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

The family is primarily an expression of blood-ties and the affections they engender.  In a broader sense, however, the household is a model for the commonwealth.  As an economic institution, the traditional household combined both production and consumption functions.  Food was grown, stored, and prepared on the home place, and items for exchange or sale were produced by family members working at home. 

Social autonomy and economic autonomy are obviously interlinked.  For a family to be free, it must have the resources with which to shelter, feed, clothe, and protect its members.  Such a state is easier to imagine in the case of Adam and Eve or Homer’s Cyclopes than in an advanced state of civilization, where commerce and trade have developed.  Women in republican Rome or on the American frontier may have made dresses and grown vegetables, but they also bought their needles and plates from someone else.  

Complete autonomy, if it were possible outside of tales of castaways on desert islands, would be a brutish kind of existence unsuited to human beings who require companionship and interchange, but so long as a family owns its home (or has a right to continued possession) and has sufficient property and income for its needs, it can feel itself secure.  In troubled times, when warring armies sweep across a land or a brutal tyrant or oppressive ruling class confiscates a family’s wealth and labor, such confidence evaporates.  The early Middle Ages, in many parts of Europe, must have been that sort of time, but in human history periods of uncertainty have been all too frequent.  

Are American families today economically secure?  American workers earn high incomes, relative to their distant ancestors, but few of them actually own their own houses; many are deeply indebted, not just to the holder of their home mortgage, but also to credit card companies.  Men and women, it would appear, in liberating themselves from the constraints of blood and custom and faith, may have sold themselves into bondage, to national governments and to global corporate interests.

Although we should always be suspicious of self-evident truths, the enduring evidence of human reality leads us to the obvious conclusion that a household that is managed and governed largely by its inhabitants is, if not a prerequisite for happiness, at least an institution that most people in history would regard as conducive to happiness.  It should then follow that in periods of social disruption, when households are not secure, the happiness of men, women, and children living together is put at risk. 

This happiness is the fulfillment of lives lived in conformity with the laws of nature and of God.  It is not the happiness of one person or even of one generation.  It is a state of being that is rooted in past generations and includes the future.  The house, therefore, was home not only to the living members of the family but also to dead ancestors.  In early times, the bones of ancestors were actually buried under the floor but later, when burials were made outside, memorials and masks preserved the memory of the dead.  Death and burial were not the end of the story.  In Greece and Rome, the anniversary of an ancestor’s death was commemorated in ceremonies that included the household gods.   But there were other occasions like the Roman festival Lemuria, celebrated in May (9,11,13), when the father of the family paid tribute to the spirits of the unquiet dead and other malignant spirits, who might cause the household some trouble, while the more cheerful Parentales in February celebrated the family dead who left their tombs to feast on offered food.

A household, then, is more than a zone of economic independence: It is also a religious and cultural institution.  Every part of a Roman house was presided over by a divine spirit, and if he went out into the fields, there were gods to watch over every single detail of sowing, cultivating, and reaping. 

In Christian Europe and America, where worship was centered on the church, the home remained, nonetheless a sacred space, where grace was said before (and after) meat.  The house was blessed by a priest or minister, sacred images adorned the walls, and a stoup of holy water might be found beside the door.  In Protestant homes, the Bible was read in the evening and the father led the family in prayer; Catholic and Orthodox Christians kept up particular customs associated with feast days and the saints: the coin buried in the Twelfth Night cake, the eerie traditions of Midsummer’s Eve and All Hallows Eve, and the Mexican Day of the Dead. 

Andrew Lytle celebrated familial piety in his family memoir, A Wake for the Living, whose very title is evocative.  In the world in which Lytle grew up, the connection to kinfolk was a vital necessity, but in the world in which he grew old, the bonds had weakened: 

 If you don’t know who you are or where you come from, you will find yourself at a disadvantage.  The ordered slums of suburbia are made for the confusion of the spirit.  Those who live in units called homes or estates— both words do violence to the language—don’t know who they are.  For the profound stress between that union that is the flesh and the spirit, they have been forced to exchange the appetites.

Mr. Andrew was, perhaps, fortunate in not living any longer than he did.  He would have been far more at home in the Roman Republic than in Schaumburg, Illinois. At an American funeral in the 21st century, relatives and friends arrive at the funeral parlor or church, dressed in every style and color, and, when they are not chatting up the widow and children, speak casually of sports and entertainment.  I frequently hear people even older than I am say things like, “I am so glad we don’t have to wear black any more—dark colors are so depressing, don’t you think?  Aunt Joan would not have wanted us to feel sad…”  However, we still take sufficient interest in the dear departed, when there is money or property to be inherited.  

In his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Lytle told Southerners to detach themselves from mass-produced culture and return to their own traditions:  “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.”  

Among those traditions, the Christian religion surely ranks high.  In Protestant countries, the reading of Scriptures and family prayers, until fairly recently, were a normal part of family life.  Robert Burns, in his poem “Cotters’ Saturday Night,” paints picture of poor a family in Calvinist Scotland gathered round to read Bible:

  They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; 

  The sire turns o'er, wi patriarchal grace, 

  The big ha'-Bible, ance his father's pride.… 

This little service was also the evening’s entertainment, which is a reminder that home was once the primary place in which families amused themselves: Stories were told, visitors received, and games organized with little reliance on what the outside world could provide. 

In more recent generations, however, families have tended to “outsource” their piety to the churches, and religious practices conducted at home now seem to smack of fanaticism.  This does not have to be the case, though the frequency with which American families change houses does little to contribute to the sense of the home as a sacred place.  It is still possible to set up a corner of the house with religious images, and even the most tepid believers could find some considerable benefit in turning off all computers, television, and telephones and reading together some pages of the old sacred stories.

The use of home as the place of recreation and instruction was not a Scottish peculiarity.  In “Snowbound,” a poem once memorized by schoolchildren, Whittier paints a scene of Americans surviving a blizzard in New England.  Since the poem is set in New England, the atmosphere is less religious than didactic:

We sped the time with stories old,

Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told,

Or stammered from our school-book lore

"The Chief of Gambia's golden shore.”

Today, a snowbound family would more likely to turn to television, DVD’s, videogames, and the internet, all of which supposedly liberate people but in fact reduce them to dependency.  Try spending a weekend in the wilderness, if you don’t believe me, with 20 somethings cut off from all electronic communication. 

In the earliest stages of civilization, the homeplace was also the schoolhouse in which sons and daughters learned the arts and techniques that they would practice as adults.  Even today, many families are tutoring their children at home to make up for the deficiencies of public schooling, and some have gone so far as to set up home schools in which they educate their children through high school and even beyond.  However parents decide to educate their children, they would do well to understand that the responsibility for what their children learn lies in the hands of parents and not of people paid to take the burden off their shoulders.  

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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

2 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    I was so impressed when I heard Dr. Fleming speak on this in North Charleston. It is so well written and I learned so much I want to look into. Also their were things Dr. Fleming discusses that seemed to agree with me on an intuitive or spiritual level.
    Awesome article!

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    Regarding the point in paragraph seven, my great-grandmother from Corleone said that families would picnic with their relative’s skeleton in the catacombs for their birthday.