I want to sidestep the brief, silly article running in Esquire about the increasing number of “kaleidoscopically shifting arrangements” we honor with the name family, but I also want to use it to frame what I think ought to emerge as a new vein to be mined in the sometimes barren-feeling realm of political theory. As predictable and pat as the Esquire piece may be, there’s little doubt that the new consensus on family — “straight people blew up marriage a long time ago” — has powerful adherents quite a bit further up in the clouds than the average Esquire reader, or writer.
Political theory today is a friendly and welcoming place for scholars interested in blowing up — er, deconstructing — not only marriage but the authority of the family itself. Certain conservatives, meanwhile, have recently become able to carve out a space for the defense of the authority of the family on traditionalistic grounds, especially by way of natural law.
As instructive as it is to trace the logic of Sade, Emerson, Freud, and others into the post-Foucauldian territory we frequent today, and as worthy a task as it is to reemphasize the natural character of the traditional family, both these sides of the family debate seem to me to miss something essential: a special aspect or character of the family that is non-natural. Typically, those who defend the family on natural-law grounds are happy to further demonstrate the compatibility of the nature-based approach with a supernatural one, wherein the authority of the traditional family results from the imposition of sacred order upon the natural substrate or raw material of biological necessity on the one hand and possibility on the other. But the question of whether that imposition is soft or hard is an important one; at least some commentators, particularly on the left, will not tire of pointing out the potentialities, in Christianity, particularly, for a sacred order that imposes commanding truths against certain aspects of the traditional family. The pagan, republican, quintessentially Roman family — as Tocqueville took a moment to hint — runs fundamentally contrary to the typical sort of family lived and theorized by natural-law Christians.
There are a variety of ways in which this is so, but, at the same time, it’s clear that certain aspects of pagan familial virtue are not exactly incompatible with the Biblical sacred order that can check or overcome their excesses and pathologies — just as the Biblical order imposes powerful interdicts, not to be confused with taboos, against the kind of violent desires that, to the morbid fascination of the ancient Greeks, deconstructed and destroyed the identities of family-bound individuals. Above all, for individuals in families Biblical order interdicts two kinds of pride, which combine and culminate in aristocratic nobility: pride in the unity of bloodline and virtu. Nonetheless, Biblical order has been unable to destroy both pagan familial order and the residual pride in family identity and family accomplishment that persist, especially among ‘real Americans’, to this day. It is not too much to suggest that Biblical order, in practice, has been unwilling to destroy these things.
What is true in this respect about religion is, perhaps paradoxically, largely untrue about philosophy. Philosophers, as Nietzsche made powerfully clear, are some of the most anti-family people around. The practice of philosophy itself, Nietzsche posited, is virtually inimical to the practices required of family life, to say nothing of family creation or leadership. But it is strange and striking how little else Nietzsche has to say out loud about family, because the classical or pagan pursuit of what it means for a family to be great is perhaps the most significant and enduring example of noble values that a philosopher of noble values could hope to find. If Christianity is skittish at best about familial nobility and not just dignity, as a pridefully creative project of life-defining meaning, is it not remarkable that the most venomous and blatant of the anti-Christian philosophers is so circumspect and muted on the matter? Is there not an uncanny alliance between reason and revelation against familial nobility (and what nobility is not familial)? Is it not the case that religion and philosophy both urge individuals in families to fundamentally orient their souls away from their family as a foundational source of meaning?
Add to this the rise of psychotherapy, charismatic transgressivism, and the romantic notion that the experience of full individuality, not the knowledge of individual being, is the source of selfhood, and it’s no surprise that the authority of the family as a noble institution has been, if not ‘blown up’, significantly undermined. Yet, puzzlingly, the authority of the noble family stubbornly persists, in a way that cannot, I think, be chalked up to mere biology. More than a natural degree of loyalty, discipline, sacrifice, tenacity, and vision, I think, is required of anyone seeking to cultivate an authoritative family that presumes to offer its members a nobility beyond the simple dignity of a sentient animal, even a human animal. This ‘aristocratic’ ideal would seem to have been compromised or made ‘imperfect’ as it has been democratized. But perhaps its democratization, in conjunction with the persistence of Biblical faith among many of those who retain the ideal, actually points the way toward its further ennoblement. The lingering question is how this intriguing state of affairs should provoke us to view anew the past, present, and future of political thought. Assuming we are indeed stuck with virtue in a certain way, so too may we well also be stuck with a certain type of ‘noble values’…