The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

The family is a universal context and, accordingly, a universal concept.

The family is one of the oldest institutions in human existence, probably the very oldest. The relationships that compose it—sexual union, resultant offspring, and more indirect connections through those two—are of course as old as animal life, and, once there were any beings we could recognize as human, it is plausible that they thought and felt about those relationships much as we do. But of course we know nothing for certain until the advent of writing.

Once literature appears, the family is a continuous theme, especially as a source of duties. One of Plato’s earliest dialogues, the Euthyphro, is a discussion of whether due filial loyalty allows any public antagonism or rebuke between parent and child. Classical Greek drama, drawing on the semi-mythical history of the Mycenæan period, often hinges on familial or marital bonds, the drama deriving from their being either kept under extreme duress or violated in shocking ways. Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex are probably the most famous for obvious reasons; but Æschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, whose plot reaches into generations of intra-familial murder and incest in the House of Atreus, is arguably the grander and more effective. The conflict between the revenge code imposed by family loyalty, and the need to end the bloodshed for the sake of both line of Atreus and society as a whole, is ultimately resolved by allowing trial by jury to interrupt the cycle.

This introduces a theme that recurs in much ancient and Medieval literature, that of the proper relationship between the family and the state. In some authors and some societies, the two entities are not clearly distinguished; the clan system of the Scottish Highlands was more or less tribal, with civil and family authority both residing in the patriarch of the clan. Others do make the distinction, and often enough tend to favor the state over the family. The first book of Aristotle’s Politics deals with the family, and he considers the polis, i.e. civil society, as the body of which families are like individual cells: the good of the whole takes precedence over the more limited good of the part, if and when those two goods conflict.

A friend loves you for your intelligence, a mistress for your charm, but your family's love is unreasoning; you were born into it and are of its flesh and blood. Nevertheless it can irritate you more than any group of people in the world.

Of course, Aristotle also gives us a glimpse of how much broader the ancient idea of the family was. Household would almost be a better word than family; not only was multiple generations (what we, somewhat oddly, call “extended family” today) living together the standard arrangement, but slaves and servants were part of the ancient idea of the family, too. The modern concept of the nuclear family, restricted to parents and their children, is mostly a recent development—the term itself seems to be no older than the early twentieth century. Why the idea of the family thus narrowed is more mysterious, though it may have something to do with the influence of the British Empire; the “nuclear” arrangement became common in England as early as the High Middle Ages, unlike the more sprawling conventions of the Mediterranean and other parts of the world.

Most ethical, religious, or sociological studies of the family have tended to be quite positive about it as an institution, or at least to stress its capacity to be positive. Probably the most famous literary example is the Æneid, which opens with the stark image of its hero hoisting his aged father onto his back and leading his son by the hand, as Troy burns down around them. The image appealed to Roman sensibilities, which, as deeply as they treasured the gods of the city, treasured the gods of the hearth still more.

But of course, the family has its own negative side as well. Sigmund Freud famously set forth a complex theory of the development of the human mind that he believed accounted for a great deal of familial and personal strain. On a more recognizable level, C. S. Lewis comments at some length in The Four Loves about the ways family bonds can sour: “Can Mrs Fidget really have been unaware of the countless frustrations and miseries she inflicted on her family? It passes belief. She knew … Those terrible, wounding words—anything will ‘wound’ a Mrs Fidget—in which they begged her to send the washing out, enabled her to feel ill-used, therefore, to have a continual grievance, to enjoy the pleasures of resentment. … It is true that they are pleasures only to those who hate. But then a love like Mrs Fidget’s contains a good deal of hatred.” Psychological and religious resolutions to these sorts of conflicts continue to be pursued and debated to this day.

Suggested reading:
Euripides, Medea
The Wisdom of Sirach
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Origin of Inequality
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


If you liked this, check out some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this one on Sir Isaac Newton or this one about Edgar Allan Poe. And check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate interviews leading intellectuals on topics of education and culture.

Matt McKeown is an editor and staff writer for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

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