Our age, the final (one hopes) expression of the Enlightenment, is addicted to the idea of novelty, in the sense that all new ideas are presumed to be good ideas. The necessary corollary is that old ideas, even those that have existed for thousands of years across hundreds of different cultures and through countless political and social upheavals, are bad if they contradict what is understood to be a new idea.
This is what Progress means to the modern mind: the overthrow of established ideas and the practices those ideas engender in favor of new ideas. We don’t know, yet, what practices the new ideas will engender, because that takes time. We are always to plunge ahead, under the tacit assumption that whatever new practices arise from new ideas will necessarily be good.
This state of affairs, this seemingly eternal state of crisis and brouhaha wherein no old idea is ever considered good and settled, flows both from and toward a certain constellation of issues:
– The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Is New Idea A better than Old Idea B? All moderns in every case I’ve ever come across seem to believe that the goodness of New Idea A is luminous, that only a fool or a blind man or, most especially, someone motivated by evil would dispute it. But if it is indeed a new idea, then it has no track record – there’s no pudding. The only way to find out definitively is to see what practices idea A results in.
So, for example, there are old Christian practices around sexual propriety, whereby men are to be respectful and protective of women, and women are to be supportive and deferential to men and where marriages are sacred and permanent. The old idea upon which these practices were built is that people – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak – on the one hand, exist for their own sake – we are not means to an end – and on the other, exist to love, honor and serve our Creator.
Since God is Our Father, the old idea goes, a human family is a reflection, however dim and imperfect, of the Divine Love. The family shows us how we are to treat each other (as brothers and sisters). The family is the fundamental ordering principle of a good society.
Here we need not consider if this idea of the person being of infinite worth regardless of their sex or status in life is true or not, or if God is a Father or even exists, but merely note the historical fact that it was held as true by great swaths of peoples across great areas of Europe and the New World for many centuries. It is a common theme throughout art and literature in the West, and had to be paid at least lip service by anyone hoping to rule. In practice, it meant that even a king was held to a standard, whereby he had no absolute right to the lives of his subjects and indeed no right to interfere in their family lives. Compare with, for example, the emperors and kings of the east, for whom their subjects were mere personal property.
– Western societies as they now exist were created and sustained by families. This is also a simple historical fact. Within a family under the Christian model are a set of obligations and what we might call rights. Like the king or lord, the father is preeminent but his authority is not absolute. He does not own his wife and children, and in fact is supposed to be ready to lay his life down for them if required. His wife and children are every bit the child of God he is, and his authority extends only as far as is required for him to fulfill his duties toward them. In the same way, the duties of wives and children are built upon the idea that they are participating in the family and, indeed, in their own salvation – they are never a means to an end, but their lives are an end in themselves.
It hardly needs mentioning that these ideals are rarely approached in real life, but they do provide a measure and corrective: there are some things a man may not do, and the ideal has the power to draw actions towards it.
These are the old ideas and the practices that spring from them that the new ideas must of necessity overthrow. We can see the new idea – family is whatever we say it is; relationships of all kinds are whatever they say they are; obligations are only what we choose to accept for however long we choose to accept them. What we cannot see, yet, are the cultural practices that will result from them. We see, now, only the cultural chaos – what, if any, practices will be sustained through generations we won’t know until they happen – assuming, of course, that the new ideas really are new.
– Like families themselves, societies built on families can endure a lot of shock and stress without breaking. Thus, they have so far endured a couple of centuries of ever escalating attack by those who would reform society on some foundation other than family. (1)
What that new form looks like is unknown, and cannot be known until it happens. It has not happened yet – we live in a house built by others upon principles modernity has rejected. (2) We cannot know if a society worthy of the name can be built on the every-growing rights of individuals with ever-shrinking obligations. It has never happened, it is truly a new idea. All societies so far have been built on some form of family structure, expanded to tribe and nation-state, or reduced to a totalitarian individual or group. In each case, obligations are understood, either in taking care of one’s own and taking up arms for the whole, or in doing the bidding of a divine king of some sort.
Christianity, which happily found itself among the Greeks and Romans, did not have to reform either fierce tribalism or divine kings right off the bat. (3)
– Progress looks a lot like a return to tribalism. The irony here is that an endless focus on ever-growing individual rights leads, in all cases, to the rights, responsibility and value of individuals, where these exist, being replaced by group rights, responsibility and value. A man is not judged responsible for his own actions, but rather from what are believed to be the actions of his group or class. If his group is understood to have suffered oppression, then he is a victim and his every action good; if his group is judged to have committed oppression, he is guilty no matter what he personally has done. Thus Che Guevara, a psychopathic mass murderer, is a *good* guy; while Mother Teresa, as a member of a oppressive patriarchal church, is a bad guy.
Revolutionaries don’t have the stomach or time for individual judgement. They’ve got a brand new world to create, a just world in which the means they use to get there – blanket condemnations of entire classes of people – would be, one imagines, the ultimate horror. To save the village, one must destroy it.
It is merely insane for the Supreme Court to assume to decide on whether marriage is a right granted by the state, to be defined by the state. Many imagine government springing up from disassociated individuals consenting to be governed, who then get to decide on each and every association in their lives, including some they choose to label marriage. Like the world on the backs of 4 elephants, this assumes it’s turtles all the way down. Or rather, that this brave new world can exist without any ties with the real, historical world it wants to destroy and replace.
Every man is a son; every woman a daughter. We come from some discrete place and time, from among particular people with particular habits and traditions. None of us chose any of that, yet they make us who we are. Some of us will enter into marriage and raise children, regardless of the extent to which we have agreed to be governed, if at all.
Marriage is to form families that sustain and pass on culture – and make government of, by and for the people possible.
1. The seeds of these attacks were planted in our country with her founding – the ‘all men are created equal’ concept assumed an ideal man as a patriarch – and indeed, almost all the Founders were family men. In this context, voting is a duty – a very much secondary duty – exercised by a man who is responsible, or hoped some day to be responsible, for a family. But since the founders assumed family to be a permanent feature of the social landscape – I think the current state of affairs would have been simply unimaginable to them – they did nothing to spell that out. Under the dominant Protestant Sola Scriptura logic that flows through the veins of our nation, it was only a matter of time before the founding concepts were reinterpreted to mean something else entirely. In the same way that Calvinist Pilgrims became Unitarians, logical gravity when applied to the texts out of context made the unencumbered individual the sacred unit, and attempts to build a society on that concept.
2. This idea of forms emerging from ideas over time is ancient. Hegel formalized it, envisioned it as driven by a peculiarly changeable God; Marx comes along and imagines the Dialectic as somehow both mechanical yet intentional, which is pretty much the definition of magic.
3. Rome and Athens were both built on families and the obligations those families demand. What makes them different from mere tribalism is the recognition that the city-state and nation are greater than the family in many respects and make legitimate demands beyond what the family may demand. The relationship was reciprocal, not subordinate: the family did not derive from the state, but the state arose to protect the interests of the families on a larger scale. Families created and sustained the state. Tribalism, when Christianized, can only imagine the state as an extension of a family, with its internal hierarchies of personal duties and obligations – feudalism.