The Great Conversation:
Authority—Part VI

By Gabriel Blanchard

We have discussed autonomy and the authority spheres of the temple, the forum, and the academy; one more remains.

This is the final installment in a series. You can find the previous installments at these links to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

We have discussed the idea of family here at the Journal before; there, however it was a mainly self-contained topic, dealing with its form and internal dynamics. The authority proper to the family, and what relationship it rightly bears to other kinds of authority, are another question.

For the sake of space, we shall have to pass by the internal hierarchy of the family with minimal comment. Fortunately, while it can have certain wrinkles, this hierarchy consists of only two main dimensions: the parent-child relationship, and that between the spouses. The authority of parents over children has, shall we say, mellowed considerably since classical antiquity,* but it continues in existence without serious challenge in principle. The authority of husbands over wives, on the other hand, has been challenged, and (with exceptions) more or less discarded, in the Western world at least. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Muslim world, South Asia, and the Far East—i.e., most of the world—largely continue to observe older norms; however, women rising to the heights of public office has become normal in many countries of these regions. Which, coincidentally, is a good point at which to pivot to the overarching concern of this post: namely, how the authority of the family is to relate to the other spheres. Handily, the state is a convenient place to begin.

As it happens, several of today’s hot-button issues revolve around the rights of the family to privacy and self-governance, as contrasted with what duties it has to society at large (embodied in the state), but also to expert opinion on questions pertaining to the family (like appropriate health measures and educational decisions). Not being a parent himself, the present author will not presume to address either topic in this forum. Nevertheless, if we are willing to credit whoever is on The Other Side from ourselves with at least some real good will and intelligence, it may become quite easy to see why such questions are so divisive. It is genuinely challenging to balance society’s need for things like transparency, safety, and health with the individual’s and the family’s rights of autonomy and conscience. (Any one of these concerns would be a delicate remit for a single person to look after, and we have all of them being managed by a democracy!) While we must consider our opponents incorrect,† we are not bound to believe them malicious, or even stupid; and that, as Gandalf said to Frodo of his “being meant to bear the Ring,” may be an encouraging thought.

More broadly, tension between loyalties to one’s family and to the community as a whole is one of the oldest topics in the Great Conversation, and forms a major motif in literature. The Oresteia, Æschylus‘s masterpiece, is famed as a story of choosing the rational justice of Apollo over the irrational revenge code represented by the Furies; it is also and equally about deciding in favor of the welfare of society over the grudge-bearing ego of one family.

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.

Of course, this ideal was as highly lauded and spottily practiced in later history as it had been before. Feuds within or between families were the bane of every realm in the medieval period, even the Papal States—especially the Papal States. The magnificently-named House of Theophylact effectively had a lock on the papacy from the beginning of the tenth century through the middle of the eleventh, one of the most notoriously corrupt ages of its history, more even than the Renaissance. Realms less entangled in ecclesiastical politics fared no better. England’s fifteenth-century succession crisis, the Wars of the Roses—so named because the two warring cadet branches‡ of the House of Plantagenet chose a red and a white rose respectively as their symbols—have long been a byword for hopelessly complex conflicts, and even helped inspire the popular fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Not only were there many reversals in the course of the war, but many important parties swapped sides, sometimes over, yes, family grudges. A pre-existing feud between the Neville and Percy families was so sour that they did not only join opposite sides when war first broke out: when the Nevilles switched sides from the white rose to the red, the Percies, apparently out of sheer orneriness, switched sides from red to white!

Speaking of the Papal States, another curious note is struck in the New Testament’s ambivalent attitude to the family. The Holy Family of Christ, the Mother of God, and St. Joseph has been a motif in and object of Christian devotion (especially among Anglicans and Catholics) for many centuries, and the various epistles contain many commands and pieces of advice dealing with family life. More than that, salvation itself is described in familial terms, “adoption” and “heirship” being particularly frequent refrains. Yet we are also told of Christ that his own brethren did not believe in him, and he himself states that he that doeth the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother, in the kingdom of heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household for the sake of the kingdom. He even tells a prospective apprentice who asks leave to bury his father before coming along to let the dead bury their dead. Nor has the subsequent history of Christianity rid itself of this ambivalence. Celibates have persisted even in those smaller communions (large though they loom in American culture) that have no monastic orders; while in those that do, a large proportion of the greatest saints and theologians have persistently been the inhabitants of the cloister.

The conventional Christian resolution of this tension is by what is called, in Augustinian terms, “the ordering of loves.” (The other historically important religious traditions in the West, namely Islam, Judaism, and classical paganism, offer somewhat different solutions, but sadly we have no space for these.) Ordering here is a somewhat fossilized rendering of the Latin; the idea is both “directing things to a goal or purpose” and “getting priorities straight”—as the saying goes, a place for everything, and everything in its place. On the Augustinian view, and indeed on virtually any Christian view, the purpose of the family is to pursue and promote natural happiness for itself and the community it is a part of, or in Biblical language to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried; yet this natural happiness must be subordinated to the supernatural purpose of salvation, which transcends nature, so that if ever the two conflict, it is the interests of the supernatural that must prevail. Thus, the fatherhood of the priest, generally speaking, has been considered to outrank that of the father.

Having touched briefly on the spheres of expertise, government, and religion, this leaves one final pairing of spheres to consider: the authority of our family over us versus our own authority over ourselves. When family and autonomy play the same card, so to speak, which suit is trumps?

I don’t know. Go clean your room.

Suggested reading:
Confucius, Analects
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
The Pearl
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

*The Hebrew Bible is notorious for including provisions allowing parents to execute chronically rebellious children; it is unlikely that the law was intended for any but the most extreme and violent cases (the sort who today might be called sociopaths), but in any case the law does exist. Along similar lines, Manlius Torquatus—considered a hero of the early Roman Republic—exercised one of the ancient and terrible powers of the paterfamilias in handing his son over to execution for disobeying orders during a campaign.
†I.e., we must in the logical sense, insofar as our two opposing positions cannot be harmonized. We are of course under no moral obligation to never change our minds!
‡In the most common European custom, a cadet branch of a dynasty is a subset within the family, typically descended from a younger son; if an heir in the senior line (i.e., eldest son to eldest son) failed to produce a son that survived him, the crown would pass to the most senior cadet branch of the house. (Noble marriages abroad also often brought cadets to power, and is why most of the royal houses of Europe are interrelated.) The cadets in the Wars of the Roses were the House of Lancaster and the House of York, both descended from John of Gaunt, a junior son of Edward III. The senior Plantagenet line had gone extinct with the death of the childless Richard II in 1399, casting the succession into doubt; two strong kings, Henries IV and V, staved off civil conflict for some time thereafter, but Henry VI was a shy and unstable personality, and the Wars of the Roses began in 1455.


Gabriel, of the Blanchard family, is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and is a proud uncle to seven nephews, brother to two sisters and brother-in-law to two brothers-in-law, and son to etc.

If you or your family enjoyed this, you may also like our introductions to other topics in the Great Conversation, like life and death, matter, and the soul; check out our ongoing series on the men and women of the CLT Author Bank, too. Be sure to look for us on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts, too. Thank you for reading the Journal, and have a great weekend!

Published on 15th June, 2023. Page image of the tapestry The Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones.

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