Chesterton & Family

You all would be much better served if you spent the time you’re spending here reading or rereading Chesterton. But since you are here, I’ll just have to throw some Chesterton at you.

Our Chesterton Reading Group is working its way through In Defense of Sanity, a ‘best of’ collection of Chesterton’s essays.  I’ve read through it a couple of times now, and one consistent theme, especially of the essays written more toward the end of his life, is Family. On the one hand, when a really smart guy says what you have been trying to say (however infinitely better he says it), what’s not to like? On the other, being Chesterton and all, he goes much deeper and sees things better than I ever could, so it’s not just a better echo chamber. Here are some bits from an essay we read last night, On the Instability of the State (about 3/4 of the way down). Of course, you’d be better off following the link and reading the whole thing, or, better, getting and reading In Defense of Sanity.

There are certain sayings which for the last hundred years or so have not been considered quite respectable, because they were religious; or perhaps connected with the sort of religion that was not quite respectable. One of those statements is this: “The Family comes first; it comes before the State; its authority and necessity are anterior to those of the State.” This always sounded perfectly horrid to rows and rows of earnest young people, learning statistics for Fabian Socialism at the London School of Economics. To that type, to that generation, the State was everything; that great official machine, which managed the traffic and took over the telephone system, was the very cosmos in which these people lived. For them, The Family was a stuffy thing somewhere in the suburbs which only existed to be the subject of Problem Plays and Problem Novels. The only question about it was whether its gloom should be brightened up by suicide; or its selfishness exalted by self-indulgence. But the whole of this view, though it is a view very nearly universal in the big modern towns, only exists because the big modern town is an entirely artificial society. Those inside it know no more about the normal life of humanity than the equally select society inside Colney Hatch or inside Portland Gaol. In some ways a lunatic asylum or a convict settlement are much better organized, are certainly much more elaborately organized, than the hugger-mugger of human beings doing as they like outside. But it is the human beings outside who are human; and it is their life that is the life of humanity.

Written in the 1930s. Things have not improved.

Now the sweeping social revolutions that have swept backwards and forwards across Europe of late, the stroke of the Bolshevists, the counter-stroke of the Fascists, the imitation of it in Hitlerite Germany, the recovery of the secret societies in Spain, the new creation in Ireland, all these great governmental changes may serve to bring men’s minds back to that big fundamental fact which the big cities have fancied to be a paradox. The big cities had this notion for a perfectly simple reason: that in the modern moment in which they lived, and especially in an industrial country like ours, the framework of the State did really look stronger than the framework of The Family. The modern industrial mob was accustomed to the endless and tragic trail of broken families; of tenants failing to pay their rents; of slums being condemned and their inhabitants scattered; of husband or wife wandering in search of work or swept apart by separation or divorce. In those conditions, The Family seemed the frailest thing in the world; and the State the strongest thing in the world. But it is not really so. It is not so, when we take the life of a man over large areas of time or space. It is not so, when we pass from the static nineteenth century to the staggering twentieth century. It is not so when we pass out of peaceful England to riotous Germany or gun-governed America. Over all the world tremendous transformations are passing over the State, so that a man may go to bed in one State and get up in another. The very name of his nation, the very nature of his common law, the very definition of his citizenship, the uniform and meaning of the policeman at the corner of his street, may be totally transformed tomorrow, as in a fairy-tale. He cannot really refer the daily domestic problems of his life to a State that may be turned upside-down every twenty-four hours. He must, in fact, fall back on that primal and prehistoric institution; the fact that he has a mate and they have a child; and the three must get on together somehow, under whatever law or lawlessness they are supposed to be living.

This is why I’ve said, for example, here, that it’s not just wrong, not just evil, not just insane, but impossible for the state to presume it can redefine the family. The death of a state is given; not if, but when, no less certain than the death of a man. When it dies, if it doesn’t immediately fall back on family relationships, such that the dead king’s son, or some favorite of the strongest families, or Napoleon’s nephew is handed the throne, then culture and society, however much they may have to hide and no matter how attenuated, will be fostered and handed on by families.

States don’t live long enough to handle the task of creating and developing cultures. States can’t even create states.(1)  At best, as is clearly the case in just about anywhere any remotely civilized person would want to live, the state is a product of families. Sometimes, it’s the Medici (and, it should be pointed out, the dozens of other families the Medici married into or had deals with – the web of ‘family’ can extend far) who were at least a little benevolent once in a while; sometimes, it’s the house of Saud, which hasn’t worked out as well, to say the least. Once, it was Washington, Adams and their buddies, all of whom were family men, or at least respecters of families.

The destroyers of families who have tried to found states include the Bolsheviks, who founded a state-sized gulag, and others who didn’t do even that well.(2)  China is the last one standing of that crowd, and that state may not be long for this world, since it has presumed to manage families, and so is starting to run out of cannon- or factory-fodder.


In the break-up of the modern world, The Family will stand out stark and strong as it did before the beginning of history; the only thing that can really remain a loyalty, because it is also a liberty.

  1. Look at Europe after WWI, when Wilson, Clemenceau and George (but mostly Wilson, a self-righteous elitist pig if ever there were one, the very personification of C. S. Lewis’s warning about moral busybodies) decided to divvy up Europe and the Middle East into ‘nations’ more to their liking. The old practice of merely plundering the defeated would have done less damage, if afterwards they’d have let them be. The next 40 years, indeed, the next 100 down to us, have their piles of dead to show how well this sort of thing works out.
  2. I’d laugh to see Castro’s brother ruling, Hugo Chavez daughter living on ill-gotten billions  and North Korea run by the funny-looking son of the dictator. Communism: a family business! I’d laugh, except for the millions murdered or suffering under these hellspawn.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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