The Personal and the Polis: The Intersection of Individualism, the Family and the State (Part 1 of 3)


The family is the foundation of the city and what we might call the ‘seedbed’ of the polity.

Cicero, De Officiis


CiceroThis article intends to examine the ontological status of the individual and the family in society and address the question of how political theory has viewed the family as a societal institution throughout history.

In order to give an over-arching account of the sweep of trends in political thought on the family, this examination will trace the broad contours of shifts in philosophic approaches, rather than examining any one period or thinker in depth.

Contrary to what one might expect, the progression of political thought did not move in a linear progression from a more collectivist, familial-oriented emphasis to a postmodern radical individualism. Although it is true that, in general, historically the family was accepted as a foundational institution more than it is today when even the very definition of a “family” is under review, the legitimacy of the family as an institution has never gone entirely unchallenged. For example, Plato viewed the family as a threat to the unity of the polis, while Aristotle viewed the family as a societal necessity.


Thank you (foot)notes:

This work was originally published by Charmaine at the University of Virginia.

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Nevertheless, what is striking about the history of political thought and the family is just how central the concept of family has been to political theory.

Across the ideological spectrum, as political theorists have grappled with fundamental questions of societal organization, they have had to confront the institution of the family in its enduring position as a primal form of human association. In her analysis of the intersection of family and political thought, Jean Bethke Elshtain has written that:

Those thinkers whose work comprises the canon of the Western political tradition found it necessary to situate the family within their overall vision of political society. Some placed the family into a private sphere deemed nonpolitical by definition and design. Others linked the family to the political community as one of its necessary conditions if not its integral parts. The family analogy, a theoretical argument based upon the presumption that familial and political authority, governance, and order were analogous one to another, dominated political discourse for centuries.

As theorists have grappled with incorporating the family into their systematic theories of state formation, family indeed has figured frequently as an analogy. However, the family has played other roles as well. In his examination of the intersection of political theory and the family, historian Gordon Schochet outlines three philosophical approaches to the family.

Theorists have approached the family, he says, as:

1) a precursor of civil society;

2) a metaphor for social institutions; and

3) a rudimentary form of association.

In addition to placing family in these differing functional categories, there are two different foundational starting points for theorists; some view the family as originating in and generating from “nature,” and others believe it is simply another social relationship humanly established and rooted in “contract.” Obviously, these two poles of thought parallel the discourse on origins of the state. Not surprisingly, then, the theoretical dialogue on state and family as institutions intertwines and influences one another significantly.

While the family and the state are both units of societal organization, offering an avenue of parallel analysis, they are also both vectors of power and authority. As a result, the history of political thought on the family is also deeply involved in questions about the status of women. Far from being a contemporary issue of relatively recent vintage, gender concerns and explorations of equality and difference stretch back into antiquity.

Part II will review Classical Political Theory: Plato and Aristotle.


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