The Family in Political Thought

The Family in Political Thought

The Family in Political Thought

The Family in Political Thought

Excerpt

Jean Bethke Elshtain

The question of the family and its relation to the broader social and political order has bedeviled Western political discourse from its inception. Was the family to be seen, as Aristotle saw it, as a "necessary condition" for the polis--for the creation of a space within which the activities of free citizens occurred--but not as one of its integral parts? Were the social relations of the family, with their competing loyalties and standards of human conduct, a threat to political order and authority or a constituent feature of that order, as many current radical critics of the family claim? Opting for the former position, Plato aimed to eradicate or devalue private homes and sexual attachments, at least for his guardian class, as these militated against single-minded, total devotion to the ideal city. He cries: "Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together and makes it one?" For Plato authority must be single, but for Aristotle diverse forms of authority were possible and might coexist as long as the end of the greater and more inclusive association was served. Variants of these Platonic and Aristotelian themes on the family and politics echo throughout Western political thought and reverberate within contemporary debates on the family.

There is one position not to be found in the tradition of Western political thought until the late nineteenth century and the work of Nietzsche, and that is the radical view that the family, together with other traditional social forms, including politics, must be radically deconstructed--that we can either have done with them or transform them so dramatically that they will bear little resemblance . . .

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