The central argument of the proponents of alternate forms of “families” is that these “new varieties” bring as much (if not more) mutual happiness to partners and children as that which naturally exists between spouses and their offspring.
The defenders of traditional marriage and family answer in kind, limiting the scope of the debate to the family considered in its primary elements: father, mother, offspring, parental influence over their children, the union of soul between husband and wife, and the cohesion among siblings.
Pedagogical concerns are also raised, particularly regarding the importance of the values that parents convey to their children.
Hence—in a slightly Cartesian way—the discussion concentrates on matters related to the formation and education of offspring, thus ignoring the fact that the family—far from being a mere convention—is actually a natural institution, and as such exercises influences that extend far beyond its primary elements.
The family is commonly referred to as the basic unit of society, inferring that each family constitutes a stone or brick which, when joined together, in turn constitutes a building which is society. In fact, the family is the mother cell of society, and as such is the latter’s life source. Consequently, the health and vitality of the family is a matter of public well-being. This premise considerably broadens the scope of the debate.
Our thesis is that there is only one kind of living society and its life source is the traditional family. In other words, as far as forms of society go, there are only two options: either we cultivate an organic and living society, or we become an androgynous and dying society.
Going from theory to practice, consider the role of the family during the Dark Ages (between the VI and IX Centuries).
At its apogee of earthly splendor and glory, when the Roman Empire was renowned for its administrative and judicial institutions, the cities of the Roman Empire were linked by roads that are an engineering feat, some of which still survive. These roads served a military purpose, allowing troops to quickly deploy anywhere in the Empire to defend it against invasion and insurrection.
These roads also facilitated travel, a rather more common occurrence than we might suppose, even though transportation was either by foot, horse, or oxen-cart. The latter was the luxury mode of transport of the time: a convoy of up to ten carts provided all sorts of amenities for their travelers, even snow with which to make ice cream.
This situation drastically changed when the barbarian hordes overran the Empire. Centralized authority disappeared and marauding bands put an end to carefree travel. Bridges collapsed through neglect and the roads fell into disrepair and were overgrown by vegetation. Cities emptied and towns became islands unto themselves. As a matter of survival, these isolated towns became self-sufficient, since all outside commerce was cut-off. In these conditions, each small community developed a unique character that it imprinted on its own architecture, its own dress, its own customs, and even its own language, with dialects appearing. By the XI–XII centuries, Europe resembled a mosaic of tiny cultures that were small worlds unto themselves, each bursting with life.
Many of these regional variations yet survive. Indeed, the principal attraction Europe exercises over tourists is the variety of regional dress, architecture, dance, music, and cuisine that are faint remnants of the varieties that proliferated in medieval times. Each region and each town produced its own civilization that was distinct from the next, even if it were just a few leagues down the road.
It is not hard to see that this proliferation of tiny cultures was a grassroots movement: these were small communities where individuals and families had more say and where public authority was limited. It was a time when the individual, family, and custom communicated life to and influenced the ambience more than the local authority.
This situation suffered a profound transformation, beginning in the XII century, when feudal warfare ceased and Europe experienced relative peace. The knights-errant had cleared the thoroughfares of bandits and commerce had resumed. Consequently, towns banded into regions, cities began to grow, a capital appeared in all kingdoms, and around the king a court and a nation were formed: everything tended toward centralization.
This centralizing trend continued gathering force well into the XVII and XVIII centuries, with monarchs like Philip II of Spain, Peter the Great and Catherine of Russia, and others who wielded greater power than their ancestors. This concentration of authority upset the flow of influence from the grassroots upwards. This shift of influences is most noticeable in the court of Louis XIV.
He is known as the Sun King: the paradigm of a king, surrounded by a nobility that was the perfect model of courteous aristocracy and who were imitated by aristocracies all over Europe. In that century, the French grandes dames were already the prototype of elegance, charm, and feminine beauty. The king had notable statesmen in his service. Even the Church played a role in France’s prominence at the time, with Bossuet, followed shortly thereafter by Massion, both considered as accomplished orators throughout Europe.
All of France—indeed all of Europe, in varying degrees—took its lead from the court of Louis XIV.
No longer did the little towns set the cultural tone. Regional differences were sacrificed as everyone strove to imitate life in the capital, where a new social class appeared that takes the reigns of society: technocrats and specialists. The transformation was now complete: no longer was society fashioned by the exuberance of life flowing from rural families. Instead, society had become inert, allowing itself to be molded by the centralized public authority.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this centralization did not cease with the French Revolution. The Comité de Salut Public (Committee of Public Safety) exercised greater centralized authority than Louis XVI, which in turn was surpassed by Napoleon. Many historians and jurists agree that the current French head of state has much greater means with which to lead the social body than Louis XIV had at the height of his glory.
With the transition from monarchy to democracy, the people are now (theoretically) king. The centralization trend has also evolved, though, and we now have what some sociologists have identified as a “doxocracy” (1): for each concern arising within society, a commission—predominantly composed of specialists—is established to draft a solution, which in turn is presented to the general public via the means of social communication (mass media). Thus informed by the mass media, the people are free to elect the politicians who will implement the social programs of their preference.
In a modern democracy, the methods of centralization have changed, but the determinant influence over society still emanates from the artificial life of the capital and the large cities. Style, fashion, behavior, every social trend and cultural expression is manufactured—or at least launched—from within the city, and from there it filters down to all of society. Similarly, regionalism and local variety find little appreciation within the rest of society, hence they have no real chance to grow and are gradually disappearing.
The consequence of this situation is the impoverishment of modern man. People are poor not just in the material sense: many (perhaps most) wealthy individuals are also impoverished in a more spiritual, intangible way. We have gradually become so accustomed to reacting only to external stimuli (all means of social communication, primarily the television, the printed media, cinema, and the internet) that we are becoming incapable of any internal stimuli.
Eloquent proof of our incapacity to resist the pressures of mass media can be found in the escalating anti-smoking campaign. Even though we are amply aware of the inherent health risks of frequent smoking, we still require that all cigarette advertisements include additional warnings. Furthermore, the movie and television industries are now frequently criticized whenever smoking is portrayed in a glamorous fashion: there even have been demands for smoking scenes to be censored from classic movies and cartoons.
An anti-obesity campaign is now brooding over us. The premise of both health campaigns is that a considerable and growing number of citizens are incapable of resisting both the obvious and subtle solicitations to which we are submitted—or to which we submit ourselves—compelling the public authority to intervene, under the pretext of averting a health crisis.
This deplorable state we are in is precisely what Pius XII described when he contrasted the masses with the people:
The people, and a shapeless multitude (or, as it is called, “the masses”) are two distinct concepts.
1. The people lives and moves by its own life energy; the masses are inert of themselves and can only be moved from outside.
2. The people lives by the fullness of life in the men that compose it, each of whom—at his proper place and in his own way—is a person conscious of his own responsibility and of his own views. The masses, on the contrary, wait for the impulse from outside, an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who exploits their instincts and impressions; ready to follow in turn, today this way, tomorrow another.
3. From the exuberant life of a true people, an abundant rich life is diffused in the state and all its organs, instilling into them, with a vigor that is always renewing itself, the consciousness of their own responsibility, the true instinct for the common good.
The elementary power of the masses, deftly managed and employed, the state also can utilize; in the ambitious hands of one or several who have been artificially brought together for selfish aims, the state itself, with the support of the masses, reduced to the minimum status of a mere machine, can impose its whims on the better part of the real people; the common interest remains seriously, and for a long time, injured by this process, and the injury is very often hard to heal. (2)
The traditional family as the safeguard that keeps ‘the people’ from being transformed into ‘the masses’ will be the topic of our next article.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------Note: This article is adapted from a speech given by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in São Paulo, Brazil, on 1 July 1966. At the time, a bill that would legalise divorce had been introduced into the Brazilian legislature. The Brazilian TFP organised a nationwide petition drive against that bill, which was defeated, thus staving off the legalisation of divorce for nearly a decade.
1) Literally, governed by opinion.
2) Vincent A. Yzermans, ed., The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII (St. Paul: North Central Publishing Co., 1961), Vol. 2, p. 81. The numbering and corresponding arrangement in separate paragraphs were added to facilitate the reader’s analysis.
TFP Viewpoint is published by the Tradition, Family, Property Bureau for the U.K.