Genealogy of the “Traditional” Family

Over at HuffPo Religion, John Whitehead has penned a high-minded piece taking Christians to task for failing to understand they are major contributors — given their high divorce rates — to the perceived breakdown of the “traditional” family.  I have bracketed “traditional” in the same manner that we should bracket “natural” — these are historical concepts developed by people and institutions who have an interest in creating these categories and then mystifying those interests.  Few things in human history can be considered either “natural” or “traditional.”

In a previous post, I genealogized the concept of “natural” as it applies to the not-timeless and not-universal “moral law” that condemns homosexuality.  In today’s post, I will briefly genealogize the concept of “traditional” as it applies to the contingent category of “family.”

As a starting point let’s look at an assertion made by Whitehead, who implicitly recognizes that the “traditional family” is an historical construct.  After observing that “traditional marriage plays a critical role in the structure of free societies by interposing a significant legal entity between the individual and the state, ” Whitehead quixotically cites D.H. Lawrence in support:

The marriage bond is the fundamental connecting link in Christian society. Break it, and you will have to go back to the overwhelming dominance of the State, which existed before the Christian era. The Roman State was all-powerful, the Roman father represented the State, the Roman family was the father’s estate, held more or less in fee for the State itself. Now the question is, do we want to go back, or forward, to any of these forms of State control?

It is marriage, perhaps, which has given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the State, given him his foothold of independence on which to stand and resist an unjust State. Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects, and a few square yards of territory of their own: this, really, is marriage. It is a true freedom because it is a true fulfillment, for man, woman, and children.

Lawrence may have been a great novelist — Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Sons and Lovers, and Women in Love are all literary masterpieces — but he was not a great historian.  The problems are evident right from the start — the “Roman State” is hardly a helpful category.  The western Roman “state” or polity had multiple incarnations — monarchy, republic, and empire — over its 1,125 year existence (752 BCE-476 CE) and was not all powerful for all people during this immensely variable and lengthy span of time.

Lawrence’s division of history into two eras — the tyrannical Roman era and the free Christian era — is absurd.  It is even more absurd to suggest that the causal dividing line for these eras is the institution of marriage, in which husband and wife carve out a tiny sovereign space and lord over their children or subjects.  Neither freedom nor democracy was born when peasants living in muddy huts formed a Christian marriage bond and put their children to work in the fields.

There is, however, a plausible and even compelling argument for dividing human history into two epochs.  Moreover, this division directly bears on the idea of the “traditional” family.  What is this division?  It is between hunting and gathering pre-state societies on the one hand and agricultural state societies on the other.

Before the domestication of plants and animals (often glossed as the Neolithic Revolution), all humans were foragers living in tribal societies.  We know, from ethnohistoric and ethnographic records, that pre-state societies had a much larger conception of “family” than husband, wife, and their children.

These were kinship based societies in which “family” was vastly larger than the tiny nuclear one which we associate with state level societies.  We also know that people living in these societies enjoyed much more freedom than people who live in state level societies, and that this freedom had nothing to do with the fluid institution of “marriage” or pair bonding.

If we are going to talk about “traditional” families, we should be talking about the family as it existed before the Neolithic Revolution and the formation of city-states or empires.  Contrary to the beliefs of classicists and Christians, history did not begin in Greece or Rome.

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