The Family and the Political Order

By Carlson, Allan C. | Modern Age, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Family and the Political Order


Carlson, Allan C., Modern Age


Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought by Scott Yenor (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011)

In this provocative intellectual history of the concepts of marriage and family, Scott Yenor makes a sweeping generalization: "Modern political thought has been a battle over the character and meaning of nature." His discussion of an eclectic series of marriage theorists--beginning with the predictable Locke and Rousseau and ending with the less predictable David Popenoe and Pope John Paul II--returns frequently and properly to disputes over the word natural. Along the way Yenor, a professor of political science at Boise State University, provides fresh and useful insights into the oft neglected social philosophies of his subjects. Examining the contemporary "marriage debate," where change advocates seek a "revolution" in the meaning of marriage while "voices of retrenchment" emphasize the "socially desirable goods" that traditional marriage promotes, Yenor also puts forth a promising alternate course: "I do not think that either side in this debate fully captures the communal character of marriage and family, and this book attempts to prepare the way for a richer treatment of marriage as a union of family and community." All the same, the book stumbles at times through a curious exclusion of several important "schools" of political thought, an incomplete recognition of the legal and rhetorical circumstances facing "voices of retrenchment," and a failure to grasp the full implications of the forces driving today's marriage crisis.

Yenor begins with compelling dissections of the ideas of both John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Concerning the former, Yenor emphasizes how Locke's defense of revolution (against the Stuarts) required him to debunk all human institutions thought to be natural, from kings to couples. He reduced marriage to a limited contract focused primarily on the procreation and education of children. This accounts for Locke's openness to divorce, polygyny, and polyandry. Yenor correctly emphasizes that Locke's family system would work well within a culture informed by Christian principles, yet also "unravels without these props." Rousseau was "more concerned than Locke that the family approximate nature" and emphasized the natural aspects of maternity, breastfeeding, and the sexual division of labor. He also recognized the need to promote sentiments to combat the selfishness that characterized modern life. One result was Rousseau's model of republican motherhood, a "miracle" woman who would shape her husband and sons into exemplary citizens: "Is there a sight in the world so touching as that of a mother surrounded by her children ... procuring a happy life for her husband and prudently governing the home?"

The book's most original chapter focuses on G. W. F. Hegel, who--Yenor argues--successfully reconciled the goods found within marriage and family life with the goods produced by larger communities. Hegel's trademark mode of dialectical analysis usually showed "natural" institutions overcome by the progress of History. His only exception came as he contemplated the home; in Yenor's summation, "A 'natural' family--private, small, tightly knit, mutually dependent, effective, emotionally intense, and unified--emerges once History purges it of unnatural elements." Hegel emphasized that marriage begins as contract only to supersede it as marital partners "consent to constitute a single person and to give up their natural and individual personalities within this union." Such "ethical love" is consummated where "I find myself in another person." In this self-limitation of marriage, men and women actually achieve liberation. Such analysis leads Hegel to conclude that the sexual division of labor is "natural" and "that nature is, in this case, normative." Yenor says that Hegel "overstates the differences between the sexes" but otherwise finds the Hegelian family admirable. …

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