Arguments about the Meaning of Family

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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