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



Gozzoli’s Augustine III. The Christian Individual: Augustine

As has been often noted, the problem for Platonic and Aristotelian political theory is that they venerated a social hierarchy with a foundation firmly established on inequality and misogyny. The family could be relegated to meaninglessness because the individuals involved in the institution were consigned to irrelevancy in the classical teleology. In Schochet’s formulation, the family served as the “rudimentary form of association,” but this did not confer value on it – the family was not a “building-block” of society, rather it was the raw material. Since the state was formed by a rudimentary, natural coalition of families, the family and the state were in one sense equivalent. But this was an equivalence much like the relationship between logs and a fire: the logs are used to provide the material for the fire, but they are then consumed in the generation of the heat and the flames.

The rise and spread of Christianity challenged, and ultimately overthrew, this paradigm. With Jesus Christ’s teaching that men and women, slaves and free people are all equal before God, the individual was no longer dispensable. Elshtain argues that Christianity directly challenged Aristotle:

Christianity defied [Aristotle’s] rigid categorical separation of human beings by declaring that the potentia of every single human being was as great as any other and equal in God’s eyes. . . One reason the figure of Jesus remains important to political thought is his insistence that the realm of necessity. . . is not a despised forum for human endeavor. . .


Thank you (foot)notes:

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

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Also see Part 1

Part 2

Although this new mode of thought did not immediately lead to equality for women and freedom for slaves, it was the beginning of a slow-burning revolution in human relationships. It began a millennium-long process of democratization in the family that influenced the move toward egalitarianism in the political realm. This pivotal role of Christianity in inaugurating individualism is somewhat strange given that in the evolution of political thought “the family” is now largely associated with religious values, and “individualism” with secularism.

James Q. Wilson argues that changes in the family itself spurred the development of individualism. Throughout the Medieval period in Northwestern Europe there was a movement away from the arranged marriages of the clan system and toward marriages of “affection” and individual consent. Following the fall of the Roman Empire:

Monogamous marriages triumphed over polygamy and male divorce power, and gradually shifted its focus away from parental and kinship concerns to the advantage of the conjugal couple. The family they were founding, despite losses of important functions to Church, state, and society, consolidated its position as the basic cell of Western society.

I believe it is possible that individualism and the development of family autonomy were mutually reinforcing trends. Which came first? Wilson reports that the move toward consensual marriages was galvanized by Pope Alexander III in the twelfth century for unclear reasons. While affection-based marriages may indeed have spurred the development of individualism, perhaps the increased acceptance of choice in mate selection reflected a shift toward viewing the woman less as property and more as a person worthy of making her own marital choice. Wilson mentions that St. Augustine had argued that marriage must be a sacrament – and sacraments could only be received by individuals acting voluntarily. Wilson’s conclusion illustrates how a shift in family relationships has significant societal ramifications: “[the principle of consent] created an assumption that individuals have a right to accept or reject the conditions of their lives, an assumption that was very different from that which prevailed among cultures committed to clan-controlled marriages.”

In fact, St. Augustine was largely responsible for developing Christian thought in ways that profoundly influenced both the family and the state. With the shift in the ontological status of the individual in society came a corresponding transformation of his telos. No longer were men, or women, dependent on participation in civic society for purpose and meaning in life. They were now, ultimately, citizens of the City of God. Being a citizen of the polis paled in comparison. There was, in a sense, parallel to the elevation of the individual, a demoting of the state – far from celebrating the polis as the seat of self-actualization, Augustine held it liable for being the site of sinful self-aggrandizement – until the family and the state had reached a rough parity. No longer relegated to the realm of mere necessity, the family now served as a civic partner in the pursuit of peace:

[the household is the] beginning or element of the city, and every beginning bears reference to some end of its own kind, and every element to the integrity of the whole of which it is an element, it follows plainly enough that domestic peace has a relation to civic peace – in other words, that the well-ordered concord of domestic obedience and domestic rule has a relation to the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and civic rule.

As political theory, the source of familial authority had shifted, which then affected its relationship with the state. Under classical thought, the family was established on a basis of nature. With Christianity and Augustine, that basis shifted to scripture. The family and the state were viewed as parallel institutions of societal organization, both established and ordained by God to provide for order, discipline and charity. However, with the rise of the humanist narrative, which challenged the metaphysical account of family and state order, the paradigm would eventually shift again.

IV. Patriarchalism: Filmer and Locke

Although the pre-Renaissance period brought with it the secular challenge of humanism, and the Reformation’s challenge to Church authority, the widely-shared language of scripture continued to be a powerful force. Eventually, the Aristotelian distinction between family and state broke down. By the early 16th century, Erasmus had begun equating the two, borrowing the “natural, God-ordained” authority of the father to buttress, and instruct, the power of the monarch:

The good prince ought to have the same attitude toward his subjects, as a good paterfamilias toward his household – for what else is a kingdom but a great family? What is the king if not the father to a great multitude? He is superior, but yet of the same stock – a man, a freeman over free men, not untamed beasts, as Aristotle justly comments . . . We have been taught by Christ our teacher that God is the unquestioned prince of all the world, and we call him “Father.”. . .

This theoretical conflation of family and state developed into a full-blown justification of patriarchalism and the divine-right of kings in 17th century England.

The theory of patriarchalism was advocated most infamously by Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha. Filmer argued an extreme position claiming that based on God’s law “kings were entitled to the absolute obedience of their subjects.” This power was derived, he argued, from God’s original grant of authority to Adam. Although it is easy to focus on the enormous grant of power that Filmer wished to bestow on the king with this equation, there is another essential factor in his argument: the analogy to fatherhood was helpful to the monarch precisely because of the near-kingly status that had already been accorded the father. While patriarchalism was based on an appeal to scriptural authority, conversely it was buttressed by the Reformation challenge to Church authority. One effect of the rise of Protestantism was the vesting in the father of power, authority and roles that had previously been the exclusive domain of priests. As a result, the father, the paterfamilias, in 17th century England held a position of great strength and supremacy.

The specific historical context of Filmer’s advocacy of patriarchalism provides a beautiful example of the interaction between the dynamics of family life and political society. Patriarcha, which was published in 1680, was an entry in the polemics that swirled around the tumults of the English Civil War and the Reformation. Royalists, invoking the principles of divine right and patriarchy, claimed that there was no right to revolt against the king, Charles I. The Parliamentarians claimed that there was, introducing the political concept of the social contract. At the time, the marriage contract also still was considered a sacrament, which meant it was irrevocable. The analogy to the relationship between the King and the people was irresistible to the Royalists. As a result, controversy over the acceptability of divorce became a central facet of the political debate over the king’s authority. John Milton was a Parliamentarian and was the boldest among those calling for a liberalized view of marriage – and corresponding rights for citizens opposing the monarch:

He who marries, intends as little to conspire his own ruine, as he that swears Allegiance: and as a whole people is in proportion to an ill Government, so is one man to an ill marriage. If they against any authority, Covenant, or Statute, may by the soveraign edict of charity, save not only their lives, but honest liberties from unworthy bondage, as well may he against any private Covenant . . . redeem himself from unsupportable disturbances to honest peace . . .

The use of analogy then can work both ways, making the ensuing effects reciprocal. This debate had unintended externalities for many of the Parliamentarians who maintained their deeply held beliefs about marital hierarchy and indissolubility, and as a result had ambivalent feelings about pressing the divorce analogy. When Charles I laid his head upon the block and lost his life, he unwilling illustrated the severability of the social contract, both political and, by inference, marital. One of the eventual repercussions was a liberalized theory about marital relationships.

The theorist who picked up that debate and moved it forward was John Locke. When the Parliamentarians confronted the Royalist’s marriage contract analogy, they struggled because many of them were unwilling to push the argument to its logical conclusion. Locke had no such qualms, thereby establishing the next paradigm shift in political theory on the state and the family.

Locke completely rejected Filmer’s assertion that paternal and monarchic power were the same; in fact, the title page of Locke’s famous work originally read, Two Treatises of Government: In the Former, the False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, And His Followers, Are Detected and Overthrown. The Latter is an Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government. Contrary to Filmer, Locke argued that “the power of a magistrate over a subject, may be distinguished from that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave.” In opposing Filmer’s argument from nature, Locke advanced an argument based on social contract. Even though he assented to the contemporary beliefs in male superiority within the marriage, he denied that “paternal absolutism” was founded in nature, or even ordained by scripture. Rather, the marriage relationship itself was established by the mutual consent and negotiation of the man and woman. So, too, was the relationship between monarch and subjects; man was born free into the state of nature, and only entered into civil society by his own consent.

For Locke, the power and authority of the father differed from the monarch in kind, but the basis for both was the contract. As Schochet points out, “political debate in England at the end of the seventeenth century was characterized by the attempt to replace the familial metaphor with a contractual one.” The family and the state, which under Filmer had undergone a fusion, were returned to a parallel relationship. Even though Locke refers to scripture and God throughout the Two Treatises, he was still an Enlightenment theorist and an empiricist. As such, he rejected the scriptural basis for an understanding of family and state, and cleared the path for the new paradigm of social contract.

V. The Proletarian Family: Engels

As political theory moved deeper into modernity, the institutions of family and state ran headlong into Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Liberalism had become the dominant ethos; equality and the individual were king, replacing hierarchy, class differentiation and domination. Or had it? As a theory, liberalism had been uncashable: although, theoretically, all men were created equal, reality was something different. When Marx and Engels surveyed the societal landscape they believed the individual had been betrayed by his philosophical champion. By their account the patriarchy had been merely whitewashed. Richard Krouse writes that from the Marxian perspective:

. . .the egalitarian logic of liberal individualism is itself undermined by the persistence of class and sex inequality in the private sphere of property and family relations. In the case of the latter, more particularly, the voluntarist principles of individual contract and consent are subverted by the anachronistic survival of patriarchal family formations, that, no longer sanctified by the purpose of nature of the will of God, stand bereft of all justification before the bar of liberal principles.

The family was again viewed as worthless and relegated to the ash-heap; this time not because it was consumed with the mere necessities of life, but this time because it did not perform that job well enough. Marx and Engels emphasized that the family was just another institution of repression and exploitation. Their opinions on the family and the state were best expressed by Engels in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. “The modern individual family,” wrote Engels, “is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. . . Within the family [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.” Engels believed that marriage was often just “the crassest prostitution” the only difference for the wife was that, unlike the prostitute, “she does not let out her body on piecework . . . but sells it once and for all into slavery.” The anthropologist, Eleanor Burke Leackock, argues in her introduction to Engels, that this is really the critical point: “It is crucial to the organization of women for their liberation to understand that it is the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society, that is basic to their subjugation.”

Their modern answer was a quasi-return to classical thought: Reenter the Platonic solution. Like Plato, they saw the accumulation of private property as the essential evil. However, unlike Plato, who was concerned that property led to competition and disunity among men as equals in the public sphere, Marx and Engels believed property ownership enabled men to consolidate personal power in the private sphere, acquiring other people, wives and slaves, as more property. Their communist vision involved abolishing private property and, like Plato’s Republic, turning the private functions of the family into a common enterprise. Engels gave a description of this process that is worth quoting at length:

We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy as they have existed hitherto will disappear just as surely as those of its complement – prostitution. Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual – a man – and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other . . . But by transforming by far the greater portion, at any rate, of permanent, heritable wealth – the means of production –into social property, the coming social revolution will reduce to a minimum all this anxiety about bequeathing and inheriting. . .. With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not. (Emphasis mine.)

For Marx and Engels, the family and the state were sequential, codependent institutions. Not as units of societal organization, but as units of societal oppression – both corrupted by class interests founded on property accumulation and wealth. “The state,” wrote Engels, “is an organization for the protection of the possessing class against the non-possessing class.” The family serves as a starting-point, a way for the oppressor to build a base of operations and develop a power base. As Engels traces the development of the state, civilization follows the establishment of families with the introduction of money, merchants, private property and slave labor. Then he summarizes:

The form of family corresponding to civilization and coming to definite supremacy with it is monogamy, the domination of the man over the woman and the single family as the economic unit of society. The central link in civilized society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class.

Under the marxist paradigm, the bases of these two institutions was equivalent: class oppression; their power was also the same in kind, differing only in magnitude and application. Working in tandem as institutional systems of exploitation, they both needed to be abolished.

VI. The Feminist Family: MacKinnon

Marxism was adopted by many feminist theorists looking to extend liberalism’s promise to women. But one of feminism’s most prominent theorists, Catharine MacKinnon, argues that Marx and Engels conceptually missed the core issue. Even though their indictment of liberalism was that its ideal of equality for every individual had not been actualized, they still concentrated their theory conceptually on class interests, and not the individual per se. It was left to feminism, MacKinnon would argue, to focus on actual personhood. Without the explicit recognition of gender as the oppressive force, the ideals of liberalism will be left unrealized.

MacKinnon specifically critiques Engel’s account of female oppression as skewed and unwittingly sexist. “From the proposition that class power is the source of male dominance,” she argues, “it follows that only those men who possess class power can oppress women in the family.” By dividing his exploration of class oppression into categories of “the bourgeois family” and “the proletarian family” she says, Engels entirely misses the unique nature of oppression for all women, regardless of class.

There is some sacrifice of clarity in referring to “the feminist family” because it is in feminism that the apotheosis of individualistic theory is finally reached. From this viewpoint, the family is not the correct unit of analysis or the appropriate vantage point for observation. The essential argument of feminism is that people are to be viewed as individuals, not through the prism of roles and assigned place in institutions. “Feminist theory,” writes MacKinnon, “sees the family as a unit of male dominance, a locale of male violence and reproductive exploitation, hence a primary locus of the oppression of women.”

This is not to say, for it would be inaccurate, that there is no such thing as a “feminist family.” Although there are communist and socialist versions of feminist thought that would abolish the family, a more predominant view would advocate a transformative approach. The form that this change would take is an ongoing contemporary debate. Nevertheless, there is feminist agreement that the family is a societal construct based — not in nature, or scripture, or contract — but in brute power games. This is, says MacKinnon, the “prime moment of politics.” The personal is political. MacKinnon writes that feminist theory parallels the marxist argument:

As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class, workers, the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its social structure, desire its internal dynamic, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

Family is the congealed form of the organized expropriation of the sexuality of woman. This is a new power paradigm of family. As such, of course, it is a paradigm that coalesces easily with a theory of the state. Again, like marxism, feminist theory views the power and oppressive nature of the state as being equal in kind with that of the family, differing only by virtue of venue. “The rule of law and the rule of men are one thing, indivisible, at once official and unofficial – officially circumscribed, unofficially not,” writes MacKinnon:

State power, embodied in law, exists throughout society as male power at the same time as the power of men over women throughout society is organized as the power of the state. . . Male power is systemic. Coercive, legitimated, and epistemic, it is the regime.

In this way, feminism conflates family and state, indeed all institutional relationships, as vectors of power. As a result, what form they take, private or public, family or state, becomes largely irrelevant. The atomistic individual in a solitary “rage against the machine” takes center stage.

VII. Conclusion

The contemporary debate over “the family” is too often cliched and sorely lacking in historical perspective. Some arguments characterize the family as being a victim of a relentless assault by modernity and radical individualism. Others characterize the past as easily dispensable; it was either an unrecoverable idyll of bourgeois romanticism or, alternately, a bleak arena of utilitarian functionalism. Plato’s ruthless utopian vision of a family-less Republic stands in direct contradiction to the former claims. And the enduring, and relatively stable, presence of the family as both a societal and a political institution throughout the ages should challenge the latter.

There is clearly a dynamic, and indestructible relationship between the family and the state. While some might like to dichotomize this association, the reality is far more complex. Others tend to view the changes in the relationship as a linear progression – a march toward the “end of history.” However, the peculiar tension that characterizes the family/state nexus appears to have remained remarkably consistent over time despite its changing manifestations. The family and state as institutions maintain a symbiotic relationship, adapting and evolving to meet the particular historical and sociological contingencies of each age. Both have endured.

In concluding an essay on political thought and the family, Jean Bethke Elshtain noted that archaeologists once unearthed the skeletal remains of a man who had died 60,000 years ago. In doing so, they found . . . remnants of ancient flowers. Flowers bespeak a feminine presence, mourning his loss. He may have been primitive, and in unfathomable ways different from modern man, but it isn’t hard to imagine him mourned by his family, who shed tears exactly like our own.


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