The Story of the Family

The St. Louis Chesterton Society meeting on Monday, August 16th was on the essay The Story of the Family as published in Chesterton’s 1920 book The Superstition of Divorce.

It was clear from the discussion that Chestertonians think that many, many of  the social difficulties we’re experiencing come from the declining influence of families, and the mechanisms of the state simply can’t substitute.

One opinion expressed is that the “vagueness” of the family is not accepted anymore — we want to cast the family into a legal framework that cannot contain it and then look to the framework to determine the ideal state of family. We had a difficult time getting to the question “What is the Christian ideal of family?” because we were having difficulty getting to the question “What is the natural ideal of family?”

The first part of the essay seems harder to grasp than the last part. Chesterton starts out saying that The Family is the most ancient authority and because it is so ancient, it seems almost wild. He goes on to say that The Family is not a coercive authority and hints that comparing or mistaking the authority of The Family with the coercive authority of other human associations has led to all manner of ill results. He sees modern feminism as having made this mistake: he’s saying a general revolt of women against men has been portrayed as a revolt of vassals against lords or slaves against slave drivers, and this misses the point that the attraction between men and women from which familes arise is built into them — this attraction is wild and aboriginal, and the mutual love of men and women (not a man for a woman, or vice versa) not an institution that can be abolished, or a contract that can be terminated.  It is something older than all institutions or contracts, and something that is certain to outlast them all.

It is not a real revolution because it has no object except possibly the self.

He uses this theme of “ancient wildness” over an over again — he speaks of the “aboriginal family” in the sense of being the family considered almost in isolation from other families and the social customs that arise to permit multiple families to live in proximity.

 Chesterton calls a father, mother, and their children a truism: a bald fact regardless of what anyone thinks of it. He goes on to say essentially that children are not small, inexperienced adults and that all the theoriticians who seem to pretend they are don’t manage to convince the aboriginal family, those whose direct experience of themselves and their children inform their common sense.

Chesterton points out that each family is a unique thing, a blend of mother and father and child, and the “shade” it takes may be predominated by the mother, but really is a unique interaction:  A man does say “That is the sort of thing the Browns will like”; however tangled and interminable a psychological novel he might compose on the shades of difference between Mr. and Mrs. Brown. A woman does say “I don’t like Jemima seeing so much of the Robinsons”; and she does not always, in the scurry of her social or domestic duties, pause to distinguish the optimistic materialism of Mrs. Robinson from the more acid cynicism which tinges the hedonism of Mr. Robinson. There is a colour of the household inside, as conspicuous as the colour of the house outside.  That colour is a blend, and if any tint in it predominate it is generally that preferred by Mrs. Robinson. But, like all composite colours, it is a separate colour; as separate as green is from blue and yellow.

Which brings up another point made: Chesterton must not be read too particularly: he’s speaking in generalities about mankind, not about this or that family much less this or that mother. He seems to be saying towards the end that the government (especially) has read too particularly: it has noticed this or that dysfunction in a family and this has been come combination of pretext for or mandate to interfere in all families with the consequence that they break up. He says that Socialism wanted to destroy the family in theory by substituting the state for the family, but Industrial Capitalism has broken it up in fact by sending father to one factory, mother to a second, and the child to a third putting all three in a position of dependence on the factories rather than upon each other.  …the factory is destroying the family in fact; and need depend on no poor mad theorist who dreams of destroying it in fancy. And what is destroying it is nothing so plausible as free love; but something rather to be described as an enforced fear. It is economic punishment more terrible than legal punishment, which may yet land us in slavery as the only safety.

One member said in today’s world, it is a distraction to speak of (say) Gay Marriage as “an attack on the family” that may destroy it in theory while ignoring Industrial Capitalism and wage slavery that has all but destroyed it already in practice.

Of course there’s more to be said, questions to be asked, and so-forth. We have not milked this one dry, which points out the fundamental nature of the question.

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