The Family

Tempering the Political, Intimating the Eternal

by Dr. Michael Berton

No human institution is more primordial than the family. It is the proto-society that has to be presupposed by anyone who would properly understand the political. Those with a propensity to interpret or treat all things in the manner of mathematical or quantitative abstractions tend to consider the family as a simple unit able to be reduced to a mere numbered, mechanical component of the city or state. Plato, in exploring the need for authority and power in the city or political, came close to reducing or equating the family with the city or state. He was nonetheless innocent of advocating a full ideology in which the family might be annihilated at the whim of those with political power who would seek to realize some sort of utopian vision that would eradicate all diversity or difference of orders within the unity of creation, the very ground of subsidiarity within the political.

Component of the City

Later history, however, would not be lacking persons aspiring to such. They would, if need be, use any means to achieve diabolical visions in which the being of things in their similarities and differences, their very diversity in unity, might be obliterated under the weight of a homogeneous society. And so, at different times and in sundry places, persons have achieved power who sought in various ways to suppress or dispose of the family as a relevant political factor, and thus absorb all power and authority dispersed in the city or state within the bosom of those who govern, particularly in that most destructive of all centuries, the twentieth. Yet, eventually even the most strident experiments in communistic or socialist governance grudgingly had to acknowledge that such is impossible to accomplish totally.

Interestingly, Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle, shifted to a more comprehensive consideration of how the city or state and political was related to the family, perhaps because one of his primary interests was in living things rather than in taking a mathematical approach towards reality. As he realized, in the society established by a man and a woman one can detect various forms of rule or relations between superior and inferior that exist and which are held in tension. Between the father and his children there is a royal rule, while between the father-husband and wife-mother the rule or governance is royal and political, which means not merely one of command but also of mutual deliberation. Spouses, therefore, constitute a relation of rule that is similar to an aristocracy. However, the reason the relation of father and mother to children is royal or benignly king-like is due to the fact that it is only gradually that children come to exercise the power of understanding or reason so that they can deliberate prudently and reflectively choose what is good and true. Until then, they must be directed, enculturated to act in conformity with reason by instilling virtuous habits.

In contrast to the relations that inherently exist between the spouses and the parents and their children, one finds between and among the children themselves tendencies toward the democratic or a rule among equals, and especially among brothers there is a at times an inclination towards alternating with each other a role of privilege or honor. Along with such certain children may also, at different times and in distinct intensities, evidence tendencies towards a privileged elitism or oligarchical rule in relation to their siblings. However, it is the business of the parents to temper these legitimate dispositions or inclinations and maintain them in a living tension, for by sustaining a healthy living unity among these bonds one avoids the potential of the family falling into anarchy, an absence of any ruling or guiding principle, or even into some form of tyranny, in which the entire familial society is subjected to the private whims and passions of one or a few of its members.

Needless to say, Aristotle’s insights are profound in many ways. His depiction, although thoroughly philosophical, puts before a Christian philosopher important considerations that can illuminate how the family has been subjected to many vicissitudes in varying times and contexts throughout the history of civilization since it was first constituted in Genesis by the Creator. After all, even after the original integrity and order among our human powers and Creation itself were affected by the loss of original justice, the essential nature of the family remained and was to be chosen as the Providential means through which the Promise of Redemption given in the Covenant to Abraham would be intimated and fulfilled. Yet this fulfillment utterly exceeded what had been anticipated by the Jews in the Covenant, just as the Holy Family as vessel of the Incarnation fulfilled the essential nature of matrimony, yet totally exceeded such in terms of fruition and effect.

Intrinsic Ends

For these reasons and more, perhaps this is why in eras that eschew temperance the monogamous family is constantly and insidiously threatened by the promotion of divorce, contraception, and abortion. These respectively compromise, even nullify, the ennobling personal binding promise that confects marriage, the intimate relation of unitive friendship with procreative fruition, and the very effect and sign of fruition manifesting the common good that is one with marital society, the promise of legitimate offspring. And so, even though these aberrations may be purportedly sanctioned by human positive law, they inherently undermine not only the encouragement of virtue, but also, by promoting fictional “rights” unrelated to obligations rooted in the real structure of the human constitution, they ultimately contradict the intrinsic ends or finalities of jurisprudence, which is reason’s determination of what is truly right or just.

In this sense, in so far as the family and marriage are not only permitted but encouraged to be according to what they tend to be by their very nature, they are resilient to and even temper any presumption of human lawmakers who aspire to attain unlimited power over things human and divine. This tempering in relation to things political, however, is arguably only sustainable inasmuch as the family incarnates temperance within its own interior social constitution. To diminish the integrity of the family in any way must go hand in hand with seeking unrestrained expansion of power by government, whether such be in the service of lust for empire and power over others or for its corollary of unlimited monetary wealth.

In this broad meaning the term “temperance” refers to moderation common to all the moral virtues, whether such be justice anchored in the will or courage in the emotions or passions related to pain, deprivation, and fear. The permeating of the political order with temperance, thus, presupposes the vigilant inculcation of temperance in the strict sense within families and their members, for the family is, to say the least, the basis of all political existence.

School for Social Virtues

Being the primordial school in which liberty begins to find its perfecting limits through the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance, it is obvious that the family implies temperance in the strict or narrow meaning of the term as well. Now, there are certain intellectual virtues or habits that concern our attained knowledge of reality and things, such as the spontaneous understanding of principles, the habits involved in demonstrative knowledges or sciences, and the habitual possession of wisdom or comprehending things in light of all contributing causes, especially those most profound. One of the cardinal virtues, prudence, also concerns intellect, but as turned towards action. Another virtue, that of art or making, also concerns the use of intelligence in the activity of producing that which an artist or maker conceives as capable of being brought to exist.

First of all, a person may possess the intellectual virtues of understanding of speculative principles, of demonstrative science, and even a semblance of wisdom in certain limited ways, as well as expertise in the production or arts, fine or not, yet that same person may lack moral integrity attained through the cardinal virtues. A brilliant mathematician, physicist, painter, composer, or designer may be excellent in those domains, yet be an immoral woman or man in terms of what she or he chooses as goals and means to achieve those ends. And it is obvious that if one lacks moral integrity concerning what truly ought to be done and what proper means should be used for those ends there is a lack of prudence. In turn, this implies related disorders or vices within the will and the irascible and concupiscible appetites, the former mainly pertaining to privations or pains and the latter to attainable pleasurable goods, due to a lack of the other cardinal virtues. Instead, one will encounter only their counterfeited or adulterated semblances.

Temperance, thus, along with courage and justice, by being either present as operative habits or absent and mimicked by opposed vices, affects the unity of human existence, even to the point of indirectly disposing one to exercise choice either for better or worse regarding ends and means prudently. Some persons tend to overlook the fact that these different sorts of perfecting virtues or moral habituation are interrelated. Others tend to believe that all of them are merely a matter of simply training one’s will power. Both of these views are incorrect on the whole, although each acknowledges a truth. The virtues may be considered individually and one’s disposition of will is important in inculcating them in a sustained manner. However, the complex unity of ourselves as enfleshed souls possessing intellect and will makes the matter more subtle.

There are four unified domains of interrelated powers within our soul-body unity that can be subject to instilling each of the cardinal virtues, and since we are living unities, these virtues also have a profound unity and are interrelated to one another in different ways. Some are rooted directly within the soul’s powers of intellect-reason and will, while others are rooted in our ensouled bodily being. Intellectual reason and the will must be habituated with prudence or a disposition towards right acts for good ends using good means in appropriate circumstances, and the overarching appetite for good that is will requires the instilled habit of justice to be disposed towards rendering to each person, whether created or God, what is due or appropriate.

In contrast, the irascible emotions or passions are subject to courage in the right use of force in confronting pain, suffering and difficult to attain goods, while the concupiscible emotions or passions deal with pleasurable goods and are in need of temperance, so that one will desire proportionally what is proper to one’s person, particularly in regard to pleasures related to touch, food and generation. There are many intriguing details that might be developed from this overall depiction, but most of them are readily available in the many reliable presentations of Ethics as developed by St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for how parents instill these virtues, they do so with rituals, gestures, words, silences, acts and omissions. With firm constancy, they gently guide and tutor the heirs of their very own personal history and lineage towards a life’s odyssey, the details of which are known only by the Creator Trinity, towards a goal that can be but that same Eternal Trinity. They already have done so by their fervent loyalty and devotion one to another as spouses, for in having made their convenant they chose monogamy and tempered any possible disposition towards bigamy, whether such be polyandry or polygamy.

Example of Virtue

Both of these imply not only an adulteration of what the family always intimated, that as vessel through which the Incarnation would occur, but also aberrations within the social order in which marriage would be subservient to the mere conservation of limited material wealth or resources among certain castes by permitting some women to have many husbands, or one in which children may readily be cast one against another in fratricide, since legitimacy and inheritance have been compromised, as may occur within Islamic cultures and others permitting the possession of many wives by one husband.

Parents thus are and ought to be for their children the first known exemplars of virtue and grace. In performing their roles diligently and generously, there is already bequeathed a tacit awareness of what it is to temper one’s own will and appetites in the service of others, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. In the midst of the unique idiosyncrasies that always are proper to familial existence, it is the parents who exercise royal and political rule between themselves and royal rule over those given to them until these, also, eventually are capable of going forth and exercising self-rule in the light of the gifts of reason and grace. It is the parents who set limits and order, but they are only able to do so because they have instilled order within themselves, likely beginning under the tutelage of their own parents, and if blessed, with the assistance of sanctifying grace.

Yet it is an order that is durably flexible yet consistent, just as is natural law impressed within the being of man by the Creator, that can permit spontaneity and liberty yet always temper tendencies towards anarchy or absence of rule and measure, as well as tyrannical selfishness. From the horarium of the family that accords with its own unique living rhythms, to the unique tone and temper permeating the daily routine of familial functions, the consistent yet flexible temperance incarnated within the customs of the integral family is capable of accommodating the most vigorous of its members as well as the weakest, those within its ranks with the most exuberant constitutions and mannerisms and those possessing the most refined, even fragile sensibilities or vulnerabilities.

Never autocratic or despotic, familial temperance must dispose each of its members towards all the other virtues in accord with due measure or intensity, species or number, and weight or end, not according to a preconceived rationalistic program imposed as some uniform inflexible model, but rather through those very personal bonds and inclinations established from the Genesis of history by the Creator. In the economy of grace offered through Christ even the natural propensities noted by Aristotle that rise within familial bonds are able to be transfigured. As St. Paul in Ephesians (5:31-32) remarks in a passage that occasionally has been totally misinterpreted by some in order to imply that wives should be subject to their husbands as indentured servants or even slaves, there are profound analogies between the grandeur of marriage as intended by our Creator and the bond that exists between “Christ and the Church.” And it is these very bonds and inclinations that have been redeemed and sanctified through Him conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin spouse of Joseph at a definite time, in a definite place, to a definite royal lineage, Who tempered all humanity’s woes by fulfilling a unique promise that only the Eternal Exemplar of Temperance would accomplish.