The Family and Civilization

Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.

I have not read it myself.

The occasion for this discussion came from a student question.  Might monarchy return to western civilization? Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd.  But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time.  Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation.  It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out.  The cycle of “History” has ended.  Now all that we have left are “events.”

When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return.  But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen.  The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome.  Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic.  If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy.  Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name.  Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies appeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.

Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations.  We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line.  Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.

I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.  He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis.  But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality.  Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.

Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:

  • The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family.  Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
  • The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality.  The father heads the family, but they can own property outright.  The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility.  Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
  • The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age.  In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships.  The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion.  The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience.  It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members.  It has no horizontal sacred dimension.  Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.

Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it.  Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again.  He traces all three models this way:

Trustee Family Era’s

  • Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
  • Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
  • The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)

Domestic Family Era’s

  • 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
  • 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
  • 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)

Atomistic Era’s

  • Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
  • Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
  • Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day

The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.

The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline.  From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome.  This makes sense.  After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.

The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility.  Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model.  Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable.  It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own.  Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*

However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways.  They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent.  They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage.  Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family.  The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife.  The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.

All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.

Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal.  Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest.  Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state.  Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families.  Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family.  In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family.  In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.

Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.

  • Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy” and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
  • Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
  • Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.

Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom.  This view has some merit.  The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual.  The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”

But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability.  The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on.  If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family.  This happened in Rome.  When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias.  The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state.  We must choose.  But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.

We should not assume that the family has disappeared.  It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society.  It will return.^  Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist.  In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better.  He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society.  If they can be converted we might turn the tide.

I wish it would be so simple.  Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family.  Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before.  Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another.  This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise.  That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t.  It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation.  This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.

Dave

 

*We see this in other areas as well.  The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.

**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition.  Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament?  The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.

However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways.  It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation.  The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.

^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.

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