Does it principally take a village?
One might imagine that the good of society depends upon the size of the city. If families (and consequently society) thrived during the social upheaval of the Dark Ages, when it was dangerous to travel even short distances for fear of robbery; and if cities had a negative impact upon society since they also spawned the centralizing trend, we could well conclude that cities are detrimental to society, whereas villages are ideal, and the smaller and more isolated they are, the better.
While it is clear that the isolation and size of villages in the Dark Ages were a characteristic of the society from whence Christendom was born, we must not confuse these traits with causes. Today there are still many isolated villages scattered all over the United Kingdom and the world, some of which may not even have TV or radio (but which immediately hook up to them or the Internet, as soon as they become available), which have not given birth to a culture or a civilization. The inhabitants of these isolated villages can be as amorphous as a city-dweller.
The good of society depends upon another factor — more profound than isolation and town size — which was present in the formation of that apogee of Christian civilization which was the Middle Ages.
The appropriate atmosphere wherein each child can develop his unique personality
We do not deny that the Middle Ages had its faults: indeed, every human epoch has had — and will have — its shortcomings. However, as Pope Leo XIII attests in his encyclical Immortale Dei, the Middle Ages was an era of intense religious life. A clearly understood and truly religious life will foster the formation of individuals who are aware of their own personality, encouraging them to express themselves to the fullness of their own individuality, so that the uniqueness of each person shines forth in all clarity, with sharp features. In other words, a truly religious formation shapes men with strong personalities.
Leo XIII, encyclical Immortale Dei, November 1, 1885, Bonne Presse, Paris, vol. 2, p. 39 :
There was a time when the philosophy of the Gospel governed the states. In that epoch, the influence of Christian wisdom and its divine virtue permeated the laws, institutions, and customs of the peoples, all categories and all relations of civil society. Then the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, solidly established in the degree of dignity due to it, flourished everywhere thanks to the favor of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates. Then the Priesthood and the Empire were united in a happy concord and by the friendly interchange of good offices. So organized, civil society gave fruits superior to all expectations, whose memory subsists and will subsist, registered as it is in innumerable documents that no artifice of the adversaries can destroy or obscure.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that God created each man with an identity, whereby he is unique from all other men. In modern terms, we could say that God does not “mass produce”: every human being, indeed every creature is unique, without being extravagant. Hence, the proper order of things is for every human being to identify his unique characteristics and to develop them as best he can; to allow his uniqueness to flourish and attain its complete expression. It is the cultivation of this uniqueness or personality that is precisely at the root of the prodigious originality of the Middle Ages, and it is of fundamental importance for the good of human society.*
Imagine a world where each individual is able to appropriately express his unique personality (**) to its full potential. Such individuality would pervade all areas of private and public life like a bubbling fountain that would be the life source of a “people”, and not “the masses”, as Pope Pius XII contrasted so well (cfr “The people and the masses”, TFP Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 4, September 2007).
What does the family have to do with this personality? Just about everything. This uniqueness or personality, this condition whereby each one of us is unique and hence even the least of men is a masterpiece of God containing a quality that no other human being can ever acquire, no matter how greater they may be: this un-replicated quality lies deep within us and has great potential. However, we are born weak and timid, hence this unique personality needs great care and nurturing which provides the helpless child with the ideal conditions wherein this uniqueness can gradually unfurl and attain its full stature and maturity. It is within family life that personality finds all the support it needs.
Two important factors that greatly enhance the family setting, which is naturally suited to provide them
Rather than list all the factors that demonstrate how the family is adequately suited to fostering the development of a child’s unique personality, we will instead focus on two social factors that have historically augmented the strength and cohesion of the family, greatly increasing its ability to carry out this task, but which nonetheless have been greatly maligned, misunderstood, and even sometimes abused. These two factors are heredity and tradition (***).
Pope Pius XII masterfully synthesised the importance of both factors:
The nature of this great and mysterious thing that is heredity — the passing on through a bloodline, perpetuated from generation to generation, of a rich ensemble of material and spiritual assets, the continuity of a single physical and moral type from father to son, the tradition that unites members of one same family across the centuries — the true nature of this heredity can undoubtedly be distorted by materialistic theories. But one can, and must also, consider this reality enormously important in the fullness of its human and supernatural truth.
One certainly cannot deny the existence of a material substratum in the transmission of hereditary characteristics; to be surprised at this one would have to forget the intimate union of our soul with our body, and in what great measure our most spiritual activities are themselves dependent upon our physical temperament. For this reason Christian morality never forgets to remind parents of the great responsibilities resting on their shoulders in this regard.
More specifically, the same pontiff also reiterates the role of tradition:
Yet of greater import still is spiritual heredity, which is transmitted not so much through these mysterious bonds of material generation as by the permanent action of that privileged environment that is the family, with the slow and profound formation of souls in the atmosphere of a hearth rich in high intellectual, moral, and especially Christian traditions, with the mutual influence of those dwelling under one same roof, an influence whose beneficial effects endure well beyond the years of childhood and youth, all the way to the end of a long life, in those elect souls who are able to meld within themselves the treasures of a precious heredity with the addition of their own merits and experiences. Such is the most prized patrimony of all, which, illuminated by a solid faith and enlivened by a strong and loyal practice of Christian life in all its demands, will raise, refine, and enrich the souls of your children.
A home in the fullest sense of the word is where a family that cultivates these reciprocal factors of heredity and tradition dwells. A family that has a hereditary character, in which biological factors act upon psychological traits that in turn are shaped by faith values and culture, constitutes a world unto its own. Each new member is born into the common substratum that exists among the family members, which is marvellously suited to the personality that deeply embedded the uniqueness of every child. While favouring the uninhibited development of family traits, the family also stimulates the development of individual characteristics that are also linked to the family. Thus strengthened by heredity, the family constitutes that primary ambience that is comprehensive, homogeneous, and un-inhibiting, that encourages the child to blossom, expand, and develop his personality.
Then there is tradition. Each family passes its way of being onto the next generation and thus, with each successive generation, the family traits grow stronger, accentuated by the unique contributions of individuals that enrich the common heritage. Hence, through this symbiotic relationship between heredity and tradition, the family creates the appropriate atmosphere for the blossoming of individuals.
Providing children with the best means to resist peer pressure — three concentric circles
Families thus constituted have an incalculable impact upon society at large. Such families would normally be extended — not nuclear — families, with regular interaction between cousins, even second and third cousins. A child raised in such a family is surrounded by three concentric circles: the first is his immediate family, where everything is very similar to him; the second covers from thence until the house of his most distant relative, wherein he finds similarities but also diversity; and the third covers from the street to the rest of the world, where all similarities and diversities casually mingle.
If a child is supported in the first two circles, he can take on the world. If a child knows that his family — including his extended family — is on his side, he can stand for himself anywhere he goes, he can weather both popularity and unpopularity, because he has a framework of support whereby he can express his uniqueness, his personality, even amidst adversity.
How different are the circumstances usually surrounding a child raised in a standard nuclear family. By its very nature, the modern nuclear family offers little variety by way of people, making family life rather monotonous. Consequently, family members tend to prefer the street over the home, when they are not bringing the street into the home via television, sometimes with different channels playing simultaneously on various sets scattered throughout the house.
When this child goes out on the street, he is alone. When such a boy goes to school, when such a girl is out on the town, they are on their own: having no support framework at home, they have no resistance to peer pressure and to the dictates of fashion and the mass media. The message the child perceives is very clear: either you behave like everyone else, or else you will be ridiculed, bullied, and/or ignored by the rest. Either the individual has a very strong personality or he will suffer from uncertainty, insecurity, self-doubt, isolation, and finally capitulation. After ten or twenty years of this treatment, he will eventually become so dependent upon the opinion of others that he will even need to read the newspaper or watch the television in order to know how to react to events to which he was an eyewitness. At this stage, his unique personality will have been utterly destroyed.
Children who can stand up to the world will change it
The impact of media-induced public opinion is jarred when families are strengthened by the double-helix of heredity and tradition. In a society where such families exist, public opinion ceases to be the mere product of newspapers, television, and radio. Mass media will continue to have influence, but individuals will be more influenced by the family, since it is the habitual dwelling place where their opinions are formed.
Consequently, public opinion would become a contexture of family opinions, in which the microscopic individual would no longer cower under the omnipotent media, but rather the omnipotent media would be filtrated by the family in the broader sense.
This would create a double current in public opinion: on one hand, there would continue to be a “downwards” flow in which families would filter the moulding influence of the mass media over public opinion. However, as the numbers of such families grow, there will also be an “upwards” flow: since the mass media need popularity in order to survive, they will adapt their information to find favour among family opinions and the broader opinions of families. In this fashion, public opinion would be transformed from the precarious, unstable, fallible, and capricious entity it has become everywhere in the world today, into a constant, structured, normal, and healthy medium for divulging thought on a broad scale, and consequently even a defence against the frequently tyrannical solicitations of demagoguery.
In our previous article on the family (cfr The Family: the life source from whence flourished the originality and cultural diversity for which Europe is still renowned, TFP Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 4, September 2007) we stated that there is only one form of living society, and its life source is the traditional family: the alternative being an androgynous and dying “society”. To demonstrate this, we recalled the central role the family played in the transformation of Europe from the Dark Ages into Christendom. We then outlined the subsequent power shift of influence from families to centralised public authorities in the West during the last five centuries and its detrimental impact upon society. This process, as decried by Pope Pius XII, reduces “people” to amorphous “masses”, the latter being easily manipulated by ambitious and selfish leaders to the detriment of the former.
(*) Cfr. Battista Mondin, Dizionario Enciclopedico del Pensiero di San Tommaso D’Aquino, s.v., “Antopologia” and “Uomo” (Bologna: 1991) Edizioni Studio Domenicano.
(**) The author attached such importance to this factor that he coined a new meaning to the term “aseity”, which we will expound in another future article.
(***) We concede that both heredity and tradition warrant further discussion, which we also intend to oblige in 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 have legalised 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.
TFP Viewpoint, Vol 14 No 5, December 2007, pp 2-5.
TFP Viewpoint is published by the Tradition, Family, Property Bureau for the U.K.