Arguments about the Meaning of Family

by James Matthew Wilson on June 21, 2011 · 24 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Conrad

Devon, PA.  Scott Yenor, Associate Professor of Political Science at Boise State University, has provided two dispassionate and informative articles on the historical function of the family and the means we may take at present to regain a more just evaluation of its necessary function and nature.  I recommend both essays for a number of reasons, not least of which is the systematic researchYenor has undertaken to found his claims and the caution with which he formulates his recommendations.  I shall not mention what reservations I have about his analysis because, first, no doubt his argument was constrained by the length suitable for a short column and, second, because I intend to re-furnish my own precise position Thursday.

Much of the writing I publish at FPR comes under attack, especially those essays on the nature of the family.  Many or our readers seem to be attracted by the vision of community and place foundational to this journal’s mission, but have not fully thought out the conditions that make substantive communal life possible (much less the goods that are the final cause of human community).  Others seem to read essays on this site, because they envision place and community as an crown of arugala to bejewel and season otherwise conventional lives in the age of the superstate and global capital, and we provide occasional, weaker nourishment along the lines of what one can also get at Whole Foods or in those expensive magazines on living a simple life.  Still others come here because they have made the erroneous calculation that, because they find global capital and its myriad deleterioius material effects repulsive, the local, as its definitive antithesis, must be good.  Such a belief would seem to comport well with those who are generally suspicious of all institutions and customs that constrain individual autonomy.

But, as thinkers from the philosophes of Enlightenment up to the reactionary thinkers of the early Twentieth Century (such as T.S. Eliot and Jose Ortega y Gassett) understood, you cannot have place without limits or community without laws of inclusion and exclusion.  To desire to be part of a community, as all persons on some level do, is nothing other than a desire to conform to the laws of our human nature, and so it is the first of many acts of submission to various laws that make possible human happiness.  And thus, modern liberal notions of individualism and autonomy are not only incompatible with the sustaining of human community, but are the result of misconceptions of our natures and those desires that had done so much to make human happiness impossible in our day.

Much of my writing has been in the effort to envision, or to re-imagine, what a life lived in conformity to our natures looks like — to show forth, that is, its form.  I have sought to do so by considering it in terms of the vision of human fulfillment and happiness.  But I have also tried to present the startling consequences, the incongruity, real communities and communal life have when compared with what is now the assumed life of the individual in that sprawling global zoo we had better call the “cosmopolis” for fear of discrediting the word “society.”  My hope would be, therefore, to show why the traditions of communal life are good and why, because they are not goods for consumption but laws imposed on us by the Creator of our and every nature, those traditions also have consequences that may, to the modern individualist, feel like great sacrifices.

Naturally, those who want their communal cake and to eat it too are going to resist much of what they find in my writing.  But, though I have just accused many such readers of having inadequately considered their own positions, I have typically found their comments laced with good insights and occasioned by serious questions worthy of response.  Because I publish a great deal, much of the time, I find myself thinking that a given reader’s question (or counter-argument) has already received due consideration in another of my essays.

This was most starkly the case in an essay I published at Eastertime, “Deracinated Meritocrats and the ‘Marriage Debate.’”  Several readers attended not to the essay’s main theme, but to its position on homosexuality and homosexual relationships.  This was understandable, of course; the main implication of the essay was that the “defenders,” such as they are, of legal recognition of homosexual involvements do not really support that recognition on the basis of arguments in its favor.  Rather, I suggested, their support is symptomatic of a wider inability to understand or imagine the nature of community and marriage — an incapacity that has been brought about by the disintegration of communal and familial functions over the last several centuries.  In brief, having never fully experienced or understood the nature of community, family, and marriage, the “meritocrats” of Brown (and elsewhere) do not understand how their positions further undermine these things, much less that homosexual unions are incompatible with them.

I was not terribly surprised at the response to the essay, for I have made a more universal and absolute related claim elsewhere; namely, that the approval of homosexuality found in our day is not primarily driven by any actual acceptance of the practice but out of a desire in our age to break down every barrier to sexual license so that the libido may find any satisfaction it should crave without the resistance of law or custom.  While there are many reasons one might support the acceptance of homosexuality or the various parodies of the family the homosexualist movement now promotes, at root lies the general drive of libido dominandi, the desire to reshape reality to conform with the will.  Because the wills of most persons in the modern world are decidedly powerless things, this voluntarist project exercises the most widespread and obvious force in the struggle for “sexual autonomy.”  Most of us are not Nietzsche’s superman threatening to command the heights by force of will; on some level aware of this, we would at least dominate our little pleasure dome, and this desire leads to ideas that might have initially seemed unrelated.  This general condition, I have called the “culture of atomic eros.”

The typical denizen of our day tolerates the homosexual aberation not primarily because he finds it good or acceptable, but because he needs to convince himself that it is harmless and morally neutral so that he may also view his own, different indulgences are harmless and morally good.  He is logically consistent enough to know he cannot have his cake if others may not have their pudding.  Thus, my accusation makes bold to claim not only that the arguments in support of homosexual activity or the recognition of homosexual unions are bad arguments, but that the arguments themselves are, at root, not in earnest.  Other motives lie behind them that can be traced back, on the one hand, to a desire for absolute sexual lawlessness under the guise of “autonomy,” and on the other,to  a modern need to idolize sexual pleasure as the final cause of human life, an enslaving god of endless becoming to replace the loss of belief in the God of Being — our therapeutic religion of eros.

This is not to say that the arguments in favor of such things do not merit direct answer on their own terms; only that, to my mind, such answers are often beside the point.  One thinks of John Rawls’ defense of abortion: though Robert George and others have shown, on Rawls’ own terms, that he ought to have opposed abortion, he rejected their arguments by various evasions.  If rational argument had really been at the foundation of Rawls’ position, he would have changed it to conform with the stronger argument.  Instead he changed his criteria of reason to conform to his will.  Was George’s effort wasted?  Certainly not.  But one cannot only confront the modern epiphenomas of reason; one must also, when possible, use one’s reason to confront the deep voluntarism that has driven the movements of modern life.

My love and concern for my children, and an accute consciousness of my own failings, has made the profound depths and depravity of that voluntarism a vision from which I have difficulty diverting my eyes.  We are used to voicing the phrase cri de coeur only facetiously, but I would own it in seriousness.  And so, much of my writing has been an attempt to examine that heart of darkness.

After the 2008 election, I published a two-part essay entitled “Sarah Palin, Speculacular Politics, and the Death of the Family” on ISI’s First Principles website.  The second part took Palin’s words on homosexual unions during the Vice Presidential debate as occasion to explore what we, in our day, typically think of when we think about family – and what we ought to think.  What I had written was longer than what I actually published then.  Today’s words I hope shall serve as a sort of preface.  On Thursday, I shall publish here the unabridge second part.  I cannot imagine that it will satisfy many of my critics, but I do hope that it will take several steps in demonstrating that I have considered many of the very points they call into question in my other work.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar C R Wiley June 21, 2011 at 6:35 am

Looking forward to reading more. It is my conviction that we will not see a vindication of traditional teaching on family until we recover an Aristotelian understanding of the political and economic functions of the family as a household.

avatar C R Wiley June 21, 2011 at 7:28 am

I think the follow up article (Family: What is the be done?”) — shows some promise but is inadequate. Love understood solely on psychological grounds is not up to the task. An older and more biblical understanding of love as fidelity within political union is needed. Economy flows out of that.

avatar Brandon June 21, 2011 at 10:40 am

“Much of the writing I publish at FPR comes under attack, especially those essays on the nature of the family.”

Not from me, Dr. Wilson. If it weren’t for voices such as yours and Prof. Deneen’s, I would not be all that fond of FPR.

avatar David June 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I appreciate your postings, though I do not always comment.

I argued with you about Stoicism and Christianity, and even then, the argument was subtle and not of terrible import. I believe Stoicism as praxis is compatible with Christian virtues and in modern discourse can provide language and context for communication of Eccesial truths; particularly asceticism. A rejection of asceticism is at the heart of the failure of the modern project. Modernity is the ascendancy of the will and its utility.

You sound a bit off-putting when you declare that some of your objectors won’t ever support you because they don’t get some fundamental truths. You are correct, but pointlessly so. This is the state I reached with “Sam M” and our argument about corrupting influences, there is no point in revisiting it here except to share a similar point.

Those who are concerned primarily (I mean this ordinarily not necessarily predominantly) with utility as your objectors are (and “Sam M” was our debate) don’t see the point in trumping utility with virtue. Since utility is a virtue in their construction, there is no real conflict. One can be a heart surgeon of the highest caliber AND go to a Sodom for a college education. In fact, they must–ability becomes licence becomes necessity, no?

There is some connection to the other FPR blog post today. Patrick points out that utilitarian arguments for the Middle Ages are entertaining curiosities, but ultimately irrelevant. Until one confronts one’s own will and the violation of natural law at the heart of individualism, there is no rhetorical bridge from there to here.

I do look forward to your next article.

(My apologies to “Sam M” for using our previous conversation as a rhetorical foil, I am sure my interpretation of our exchange would be right contested by him.)

avatar Eli June 21, 2011 at 5:44 pm

“The typical denizen of our day tolerates the homosexual aberation not because he finds it good or acceptable, but because he needs to convince himself that it is harmless and morally neutral so that he may also view his own, different indulgences are harmless and morally good.”

This is sick – I mean, really pathological. People usually say this jokingly or sneeringly, but please believe me when I say that this is sincere: seek help.

avatar Rob G June 21, 2011 at 6:27 pm

“A rejection of asceticism is at the heart of the failure of the modern project. Modernity is the ascendancy of the will and its utility. ”

Hear, hear. If you want evidence, just try getting your average Left-liberal to admit the necessity for self-moderation w/r/t sex, or Right-liberal for the same w/r/t getting and spending. The emancipation of lust and the emancipation of avarice both arise from the same source.

avatar Brandon June 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm

“This is sick – I mean, really pathological.”

Yes, of course, Mr. Philosopher. Resorting to ad hominem diagnosis instead of presenting any thoughtful engagement.

Yes, yes. I know what you would answer: There can be no thoughtful engagement with such pathological “bigotry”.

avatar love the girls June 22, 2011 at 8:46 am

James Matthew Wilson makes the nice insightful comment :

“The typical denizen of our day tolerates the homosexual aberation not because he finds it good or acceptable, but because he needs to convince himself that it is harmless and morally neutral so that he may also view his own, different indulgences are harmless and morally good.”

To which Eli responds : ”

This is sick – I mean, really pathological. People usually say this jokingly or sneeringly, but please believe me when I say that this is sincere: seek help.”

Today it’s telling the Wilsons of the world to ‘seek’ help. Tomorrow, Big Brother will not be so indulgent.

While I appreciate F.P.R. efforts, I don’t expect them to end well. The American intelligencia will have their communal cake and they will eat it too, and damn to the psyco ward those who say otherwise.

avatar Tim H June 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Mr Wilson
And what if homosexuality, and the need for primal bonds regardless of our sexual orientation are “imposed on us by the creator”? Do you presume to know the creator? I haven’t read beyond what you’ve written for FPR, but I find the reasoning so fundamentally flawed—as well as self-righteous and arrogant—that I see no reason to. With all due respect, it strikes me as an exercise in misplaced nostalgia, along the lines of, “Remember when there weren’t any homosexuals?” These posts of yours demonstrate to me only that long-entrenched social prejudices will have their defenders even among the highly educated.

Without wishing to side with anyone else here, I must say that your incredibly unfair and presumptuous characterizations of the reasoning of those who disagree reinforces the sense of deep prejudice on your part and leaves me feeling that my arguments are a waste of time. That said, in case anyone else might be interested, here’s my criticism:

This whole line of thought seems confined to rational-seeming assertions about our biological nature. But with that approach one could just as easily argue that white people are unnatural inhabitants of tropical lands, or that women are unsuited to certain types of labor. This is a common abuse of science. If you’re going to use science, please present scientific evidence to support your assumption that homosexuality isn’t natural. Apart from its logic, your current thinking raises a host of disturbing ethical doubts that I’ve not seen you address. Asserting the unnaturalness of a whole class of fellow human beings is deeply troubling.

If there is a way forward on this particular path it must begin by your addressing the fundamental questions (which I tried to raise in your “Deracinated Meritocrats” entry) on which your whole position stands: Is homosexuality unnatural? Whether or not it is, do homosexuals deserve to have, and have recognized, their primary bonds? Is homosexuality learned (and therefore taught)? Does it exist as anything but unbridled licentiousness? Unless and until you marshal real biological, anthropological and historical evidence to convincingly support your apparent answers to these questions (and Mr Yenor’s articles don’t), the rest is a waste of time. Unless and until you present some basis to your argument, it remains DE-based and unpersuasive—a bunch of unexamined prejudices, most notably that gay marriage, unlike heterosexual marriage, is based on a failure to restrain the libido and on “a desire for absolute sexual lawlessness.” Anyone who’s known many gay people will find this to be baldly uninformed and so the whole argument built upon it to be groundless. Failing to do your “homework” (if we can apply that word to ordinary experience with other human beings), you simply come off as one who has never encountered and gotten to know many gay people—at least enough of them and well enough to know that they share your humanity and deserve as much as you do a place in community.

avatar C R Wiley June 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Keep up the good fight, Mr. Wilson. The nerve you’ve struck rings a chord to many.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 23, 2011 at 10:38 pm

I believe this man is on to something, although I am no fan of either Plato or Aristotle, and I am not particularly hostile to same-sex couples.

Marriage has some objective foundations. We are a species that has two sexes. The primary function of these sexes is reproduction of the species. As humans, we have either received or invented deeper significance in our sexuality. Partly, that is because we are sentient individuals, in a way other mammals are not. Arguably, it is because we each have a neshama, a living soul, although that is not necessary to the argument. Arguably, the union of male and female reunites the two parts of the image of God – again, not necessary to the argument. Also, our various cultures have used sexual union as a tool of diplomacy, inheritance of property, entertainment…

The natural result of a marriage is children, albeit some individuals cannot conceive, and there may be sound reasons to space children out more than was prudent one thousand years ago. There is good cause, as noted in the linked essay, to apprehend that the healthiest environment for children to grow up in requires both male and female role models, for both female and male children.

I don’t accept the phrase “the homosexual aberration,” because it appears that in every generation, a minority of humans are attracted for some reason to their own sex, not the opposite sex. Perhaps that is a mere accident of biochemistry, or perhaps it has a divine purpose, but either way, the individuals affected are perfectly acceptable members of the community. I object when they insist that they are the norm. They are not. For objective biological reasons, with or without spiritual perspective, heterosexuality is the norm for the human species. In an objective statistical sense, homosexuality are outliers, deviations from the norm.

As long as there is a core concept of family, it does society no great harm that there are many deviations from that core, in practical life. But that core concept needs to exist, and be respected, and we are in deep trouble if more people than not all diverge from it in the same generation. It is at its highest form when voluntarily entered into by two autonomous individuals who choose to join their existences and their fates, and to take joint responsibility for the result.

I would hate to go back to some patriarchal form where the family is a mini-monarchy, with some individuals ruling over helpless dependents. We are not, in truth, autonomous individuals, nor are we mere pawns of a collective identity. We are gregarious organisms.

avatar Jordan Smith June 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Tim H

As a Christian I appreciate your comment.

avatar Tim H June 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm

@Siaralys Jenkins

Appreciate your temperance on this, but a couple of points I’d make.

Re: the union of male and female—reasonable belief, but perhaps the creator occasionally unites them within particular individuals.

Re: “heterosexuality is the norm for the human species”, we could also say abundant body hair is the norm for mammals. Does that make humans abnormal? Infinite variety is the norm for all of nature.

Re: “we are in deep trouble if more people than not all diverge from it in the same generation,” I see no evidence of a threat. You’ve mistaken gays coming out the closet with their proliferation or threat of proliferation, which assumes homosexuality is learned.

Re: “We are not, in truth, autonomous individuals, nor are we mere pawns of a collective identity. We are gregarious organisms.” —Beautifully said.

@ Jordan Smith
Amen. A shot of the golden rule would go a long way here.

avatar Rob G June 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm

“A shot of the golden rule would go a long way here.”

Recall that the dominical statement “neither do I condemn you” is immediately followed by “go and sin no more.” Do Christ’s words therefore evince a lack of charity? Does he break his own “golden” rule?

avatar Karen June 25, 2011 at 8:02 am

If community is not possible without limits on inclusion and exclusion, who gets to determine what those limits are? Who gets to enforce the “various laws that make possible human happiness?” How are those laws enacted? What happens to the people who violate those laws?

avatar Brandon June 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm

@Tim H and people with similar outlooks

In order for your (mostly) reasonable views to gain currency with those of us who view the issue more skeptically and are in Dr. Wilson’s camp, homosexuality will have to be decoupled from the general sexual liberationist movement which it has been aligned with for many years now. It must cease to be seen as an “edgy” way to transgress those “old fashioned, patriarchal, repressive” norms of the natural family. It must no longer be used as a method of celebrating polymorphous perversity.

All I can say, and in due respect, you all have your work cut out for you.

avatar Hermonta Godwin June 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I think this article on article on the orthodoxytoday fits closely with the reasoning in this article about why non gays support such and the reasoning is not really serious

http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Lee-The-Truth-About-The-Homosexual-Rights-Movement.php

avatar James Matthew Wilson June 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Hermonta’s link is helpful and I recommend it.

Because my latest pair of essays are intended to help answer objections to my previous essays, I shall offer two brief points:

a) Those who read the “Atomic Eros” essay, as well as the previous ones that anticipate it, will see that my claim about disingenuous voluntarism at the root of defenses of homosexuality are not restricted to that slight phenomenon. My argument is that modern culture has taken as its first principle a libido dominandi and that, therefore, there is a voluntarism rather than a concern with truth that guides much of modern life. My phrasing above, I understand, led to a more restricted reading, which in effect was an error on my part; as the article that followed this one indicates, I view modern homosexualist culture largely (if not merely) as a symptom of a far more totalizing phenomenon.

b) Tim raises objections that I think are absolutely essential to consider. Namely, our use of the word “nature” is both equivocal and impoverished much as the word “normal” frequently is (i.e. “normal” can mean “typical” or it can mean “normative,” but these are often enough incompatible). Thus, last summer, I wrote a two-part essay here in the attempt to recover the teleological aspects of nature without which the word “natural” is utterly useless for ethical discussion. Unless we know what we are talking about when we talk about “nature,” then we will talk in circles and, contrary to some of the comments Tim makes, that knowledge will not come primarily from a greater personal or statistic acquaintance with the perversions under discussion. See the following, and I apologize for the length, but this is to my mind one of the most interesting questions in philosophy:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/07/fired-for-the-natural-law-part-i-against-the-laws-of-nature/

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/07/fired-for-the-natural-law-part-ii-toward-a-marriage-of-natures/

avatar JonF June 25, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Most people tolerate homosexuality because they know one or more gay people and have discovered that they are not storybook ogres, but ordinary human beings. For similar reasons people have gotten past their suspicion and hatred of Jewish people, the left-handed, people who keep cats, etc. And no, that doesn’t mean anyone who is tolerant and accepting of such folk wants to convert to Judaism, amputate their right hand, or take in cats if they don’t already have them.

There are enough forces in this world which sunder us humans from each other. Why drum up even more?

avatar James Matthew Wilson June 26, 2011 at 8:26 am

One additional note. I have altered a late paragraph in this essay more accurately to reflect the arguments made in the “culture of atomic eros” essay.

avatar Rob G June 26, 2011 at 3:53 pm

It will be interesting to see which sexual aberration gets the next big push from the “liberators.” I doubt that it will be bestiality, as that still has a large “ick factor” among the commoners and it’s also wrapped up in the whole argument about consent (Fido, not being human, can’t consent to being diddled.)

My guess is that it will either be polygamy (after all if we can change the understanding of marriage w/r/t the sex of the participants, why not the number?) or pedophilia. The latter will probably be initially promoted by a drive to have the age of consent lowered.

The sexual revolution is a juggernaut and will not stop at recognition of queerdom.

avatar Brandon June 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm

@RobG

Exactly.

avatar djr June 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Rob G said: “If you want evidence [of the ascendancy of the will and its connection to people's refusal to condemn homosexuality], just try getting your average Left-liberal to admit the necessity for self-moderation w/r/t sex, or Right-liberal for the same w/r/t getting and spending. The emancipation of lust and the emancipation of avarice both arise from the same source.”

I find this somewhat amusing, since I do not believe that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and yet find the necessity for self-moderation with regard to sex and money to be, well, a rather pressing practical necessity. I would also agree that the dominance of an essentially voluntaristic conception of value is a symptom and a cause of much that is deplorable in our culture, but don’t think that homosexuality is essentially tied to it. But then again, I’m not your average left-liberal or your average right-liberal. So I guess I won’t constitute any sort of counter-example. Alas, defeated by circular reasoning yet again.

avatar Albert July 19, 2011 at 10:02 am

djr, the reasoning that has “defeated” you is linear, not circular. Since you by your own admittance are not your average left-liberal or right-liberal, you’re not in view…

Karen, there are many answers to your questions. In fact, everyone lives in a number of different communities and is able to observe just how such decisions in question are made. For example, in the USA, you are born into a political system you do not choose. When you turn 18, you get the right to vote. You vote for political representatives at a number of different levels. They make laws. Other authorities punish lawbreakers. The point is that every communities has such authorities that determine the bounds of membership–who is included and who is excluded–as well as the answers to your other questions. Much depends on the particular community in question. Nation-states are different from families which are different from chess clubs which are different from churches, etc. I hope this helps.

JMW, you set a high example with the tone of your writing. This is much appreciated.

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