Aristotle, the Preservation of Families & the Duties of the State
by Patrick Henry Reardon
While few surprises attend the statistical reports about the religious and moral persuasions of this country’s two largest political parties, I suggest that the recent publication of those figures may serve as a suitable occasion for examining more broadly the philosophical foundations of our public and political life. From time to time we truly need to do this, I believe, if only to forestall an intellectual cramping of our political experience.
It is not hard, after all, to lose the larger philosophical perspective on political matters when we are constrained, as most of the time we are, by the narrowed focus of particular political and social problems. Sustained concentration on individual and immediate concerns, especially of a partisan and polemical sort, may easily obscure in our minds the more ample philosophical considerations ultimately essential to those concerns. Indeed, the dynamics and demands of controversy render such a narrowing of view almost inevitable, as we indicate when we refer to somebody’s argument as “incisive” or when we say that so-and-so “drove the point home.” The argumentative value of a narrow perspective is precisely that it is sharper. It assumes the slender contour of the dagger’s edge, the deeper to cut.
I want to begin with a single example of this polemical narrowing of view, not only as an illustration of the phenomenon itself, but in order to initiate a consideration of our public and political life through a broader philosophical perspective. The example I pick is abortion.
Consider this ongoing conflict, in which our dominant dagger-thrust, in order to go deep, is very thin indeed. Most arguments that we Christians employ against legalized abortion in this country are very narrowly based on the “rights of the unborn.” With all the theological reasons our Christian faith supplies us for opposing abortion, why do we intentionally choose, almost exclusively, a line of argument rooted in Natural Law? We do this, I believe, for four reasons.
First, elementary prudence. This approach to abortion from the perspective of Natural Law, precisely because it is not overtly religious, serves to shield us from the accusation of imposing our own religious views on the rest of the populace. (Our opponents, by the way, are not fooled by this maneuver. Whatever the philosophical considerations we throw at them, they know that our real motives have something to do with heaven and hell, and they resent it.)
Second, the rational, even scientific, demands of the public forum. An argument against abortion based on a point of Natural Law, specifically the human being’s right not to be murdered, places this public controversy exactly where it should be placed—within a rational frame of reference, entirely subject to logical analysis and completely available to anyone who can use his senses and think coherently. This approach, which philosophers call “the principle of intersubjectivity,” is drawn from the discipline of science. It modestly asserts, “Let us all, if you don’t mind, use the same microscope and the identical slide-rule. No tricks or sleight-of-hand, please. Let us eschew arcane runes, magic wands, and special revelations. In this way, at the end of the investigation, we should all arrive at the same verifiable conclusion.”
Third, argumentative rigor and cogency. It is entirely proper and efficacious to contend against legalized abortion on the basis of rights, because it is a fact that certain rights of the unborn child are already recognized and legally safeguarded by the State. By inheritance laws, for example. It is already established that unborn infants may inherit property, and their ownership of such property is both protected by law and subject to challenge by litigation. Thus, on the strength of a legal analogy, opponents of abortion enjoy the considerable leverage of logic when they remark on the incongruity of the State’s protecting an unborn child’s right to property while denying that same child’s right to life. On the other side, the pro-choice advocate is coerced, on the strength of this legal analogy, into declaring that the unborn child, though not possessing the dignity of a legal person, may nonetheless enjoy the prerogatives of a legal heir. In short, a very compelling argument against legalized abortion is made by narrowing the perspective of the case to the simple postulation of rights, or, if you will, a consideration of the child as citizen.
Fourth, rhetorical advantage. The benefits of arguing against legalized abortion in this way are more than logical. An appeal to rights, in the American context, is emotionally persuasive. Those who show themselves solicitous for the rights of the unborn citizen benefit from invoking a very popular and readily admitted premise, a presupposition virtually unassailable in the present culture. Everybody likes rights. Indeed, if there remains a single “self-evident truth” in contemporary American life, it is the primacy and importance of rights. While Americans may be sometimes a bit hazy about the origins and metaphysical underpinnings of their rights, the existence of those rights is everywhere robustly affirmed. Logic aside, then, any public plea based on the narrow perspective of rights enjoys a great rhetorical edge on the American scene. This is all well and good. As long as we are laboring for the very lives of unborn children, let us employ all rational and moral resources that come to hand.
Children & Their Rights
But this very example, legalized abortion, if we examine our arguments against it more closely, illustrates a problem inherent in the narrowed perspective of the argumentative process. From the perspective of philosophy, I submit, and certainly of psychology, it is simply too thin a line of thought. It is really not healthy, you know, to be toting a dagger around all the time. I mean, is there not something distorted, rather unreal even, in considering children from within the narrow perspective of their rights? This is very strange, really. When we think and feel about children, whether before or after birth, we do not normally regard them primarily as citizens, do we? I believe not. Unless some mothers were willing to kill their babies, there would be few occasions to insist on the citizenship and civil rights of those babies.
For this reason, it is healthy to remind ourselves that in confronting the arguments for legalized abortion, our minds are virtually coerced into unnatural and awkward lines of thought, considerations nearly surreal. There is something delirious about the pro-choice position, something downright pathological, and it is very important that we do not mistake that nightmarish context for normalcy. I am serious. Contending with pro-choice arguments is like entering a haunted house, like being trapped in a scene from Kafka or Poe. One finds himself, as it were, trying to convince the little old lady in the psychiatric ward that she is not Margaret of Navarre. Afterwards, a bit of downtime may be required, to allow one to recover equilibrium, rationality, and bright good sense. On such occasions it also helps to pursue more cheerful subjects, topics bolstered by the sinews of truth and healthy with the juices of happiness. The multiplication table, for example.
What we mainly need, surely, is a return to common sense and common sentiment. To help speed the recovery of both, I shall presently summon the support of Aristotle, ever the spokesman for all things common, to argue that we human beings are, first, members of families, and only then citizens. Logically, that is, we are political because we are domestic.
This insight of Aristotle seems especially obvious in the case of children. In the context of the family, manifestly the best setting in which to talk about children, do normal people think very much about a child’s rights? Truth to tell, the very notion of rights within a family strikes me as rather cumbersome, obtrusive, and distracting. I wonder, do any of us, within the family, even have rights? Well, I suppose we do, but not, I think, in a sense immediately significant. Families are constituted and held together, rather, by needs, affections, and responsibilities, not rights. I cannot picture what rights are involved when meals are cooked and floors mopped and garbage taken out to the curb. These are simply things that need to be done, and we do them out of love, and the business of the family is to decide who will be responsible for doing them. Families, that is to say, have needs, affections, and responsibilities.
Within the domestic setting, I submit, the consideration of children’s rights is far less common than a concern for . . . well . . . tigers. Yes, now that I think about it, tigers. Real and robust family life has a lot to do, and sometimes mainly to do, with tigers. For years, in fact, our little son slept with a tiger. Tigers were among our children’s dearest friends, pretty much members of the household. Not every day was blessed with sunshine, but no day was complete without the tiger. The tender babe, in whose bosom lurks not the barest concern for politics, appears to be intimately familiar with all things tigerish. The tiger, you see, is not only stuffed into toys, he is stuffed into stories, and our own son and daughter were not the only children in the world to find their souls in the flowing lines of Kipling, Blake, and Milne.
Oh yes, I know, children are also citizens who do not live by tigers alone. In normal circumstances, nonetheless, the relationship of children to the State is mediated through their parents. In this connection, I recall a table conversation at our home a couple of decades ago, when my wife and I were discussing the relative merits of “liberals and conservatives” in the political world. After several minutes, our daughter, about age eight I think, looked up and inquired, “Which ones are we, Daddy?” That query said it all. Constance intuitively sensed that her own political identity was determined entirely by her parents. I don’t think we ever mentioned to our kids that they even had rights. Of their needs and our affections they were already aware, and we did from time to time mention their responsibilities. Much of the time we were mending their knees and wiping their noses.
In short, the narrow question of children’s rights, while hopefully effective to save those children from the torments of the abortionist, seems not otherwise to be a very helpful concept about children. Another shortcoming of this concept is even more to the point. If “rights” is too attenuated an idea to treat sufficiently of children, then it cannot possibly be a concept adequate to investigate the philosophical foundations of our public and political life. We need a broader, more ample avenue for thought. We need common sense and common sentiment.
The State & the Family
Now the difference between these two outlooks—the restricted concentration on rights required to deal with a particular problem in the political order and the wider perspective of needs and responsibilities demanded by life in the domestic order—serves to introduce two important questions, “Is political life necessary?” and if so, “Why?”
Now let us go to Aristotle. “It is evident,” he wrote, “that the State is a thing of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” That is to say, the political order—the polis—pertains to us specifically as human beings. In the eyes of Aristotle, the State is not Hobbes’s Leviathan, a massive but unavoidable evil, rendered necessary because man, being bad, needs something even worse to control him. The State does not exist, as Han Fei would have it, because of man’s materialism and rapacity, nor do we maintain the State for the Benthamite purpose of keeping selfish people in line by rewards and sanctions. Much less is the State, as Rousseau and Tolstoy imagined, an unwarranted intrusion on man’s otherwise unspotted nature. We have the State, rather, because we are essentially social beings. Or, as Aristotle wrote, “he who cannot live in society, or who, having no need, is sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god.”
There are two reasons for this necessity of the State, Aristotle went on to affirm, indicating thus the State’s two functions.
First, as we considered earlier, the state exists for the sake of families and those small communities formed immediately by families. (Aristotle termed these latter “villages,” but the concept is profitably expanded to include those lesser and mediating institutions, such as guilds and the like, that Tocqueville called les corps intermédiaires.) Families, Aristotle recognized, are not sufficient unto themselves. The State, therefore, exercises a social and economic service to households and groups of households. There are two points to be emphasized here. First, the State exists for the sake of the family, not the other way around. Second, the State is properly related to its citizens, not primarily as individuals, but as members of families.
In both respects it is instructive to contrast Aristotle with Plato. The latter evidently did not see the family as essential to human life as such, because in the Republic he permitted marriage and domesticity only to the lowest members of society. The “better sort” do not require it. The children begotten of the elite and “guardian” classes, he believed, should be raised in non-familial nurseries. Plato’s State could thus bypass the structures and relationships of the family in order to deal immediately with individuals. Aristotle, pouring his scorn on this theory, appealed to the most elementary psychology—man’s fundamental domestic sentiment. In Plato’s arrangement, he argued, human beings would be deprived of the normal relationships of family, because “there is no reason why the so-called father should care about the son, or the son about the father, or brothers about one another.” The State, according to Aristotle, has no business interfering in these relationships by which family members are defined.
To place the State in its proper relationship to the family, Aristotle relied entirely on tradition. This is why, again unlike Plato, he had no theory of an “ideal” State. Recognizing that “the best is often unattainable,” he urged legislators to investigate, through the study of history, “what kind of government is adapted to particular states.” In this way they would discover which form of government is “best, according to the circumstances . . . how the State may be constituted under any given conditions . . . how it may be preserved the longest.” We will learn such matters, according to Aristotle, from tradition. States are constituted within the living traditions of families and those smaller communities formed immediately by families. Families (and more specifically mothers) are the primary bearers of tradition.
Surely the time has come for a reaffirmation of this Aristotelian thesis. To assert that the State exists for the preservation and well-being of families is to lay the foundation for certain kinds of political agendas and policies. It is to indicate, likewise, what should be the State’s attitude toward those theories and practices that show themselves inimical to families. The State must not be neutral in these respects, and basic questions should be posed within this humanizing perspective of domesticity.
What, for instance, should be the State’s attitude toward the homosexual vice, which distorts the sexual attraction on which the family rather seriously depends? Is it rational to think that the well-being of society is properly served by the current disposition to treat homosexuality solely within the narrow perspective of civil rights?
Again, in what ways should the State’s essential ministry to families determine governmental policies with respect to taxation? Marriage licenses? Inheritance laws? Education? Divorce? Extra-uterine fertilization? Cloning? Building codes? Social welfare? Everyone admits that these questions are all pertinent to the proper interests of the State, but why? We should answer, for the public order. But just what is the proper public order? Aristotle believed that it had to do with the preservation and health of the family, and his pro-domestic perspective would certainly influence the State’s policies to move in certain directions on all these questions.
The family is a seamless robe. The home is that sacred union of components that God joined together and that no man may put asunder. Sex and children and the household are supposed to be parts of a single reality. Even our opponents prove this. It is no surprise that those who nowadays promote a “woman’s choice” are most often the same people who see no problem with separating sex from the formation of family. The government, they tell us, should stay out of people’s bedrooms, by which they mean that the government should have no interest in sex. Their advocacy of prenatal infanticide, then, is part of a bigger picture. The separation of sex from marriage and procreation is of whole cloth with abortion. Those things, too, form their own seamless robe.
In fact, the Holy Scriptures themselves prompt us to see the connection between sexual sins and the killing of children. The Holy Scriptures manifest, moreover a discernible “attitude” toward that connection. Those Canaanite and Phoenician (including Carthaginian) cults that gave us ritual prostitution also gave us the ritual sacrifice of babies on the altar of Baal Moloch. And from this example we do well to take warning, at least if I understand correctly those prophets that God sent of old to the Northern Kingdom. In the ninth century before Christ, Elijah denounced and condemned the fornicating, baby-killing government of Samaria, as represented by that fine Phoenician feminist Jezebel and her cowardly consort Ahab, for the very sins we have been considering. To describe their offense in Aristotle’s terms, we should say that the government at Samaria, forgetting its proper service to families, had succumbed to the selfish impulses of political and economic power. They gave themselves over to lust and the murder of children. Halfway through the following century, Hosea repeated the denunciations of Elijah, and Amos added the prophecy of Samaria’s destruction, which swiftly came to pass in 722 B.C.
Back to Samaria
Thus chastened by the warning of the prophets, we may turn once more to the pressing matter of abortion. Taking Aristotle’s insights seriously, it seems we should be arguing against legalized abortion, not simply as a violation of an unborn child’s individual right to life, but as a direct, determined, government-sanctioned attack on the relationship between mother and child, the most important relationship between any two human beings, the essential bond that nature itself puts at the heart of the family. We must contend that the State cannot de-criminalize abortion, because the act is criminal by its very nature.
Legalized abortion, then, accomplishes two things profoundly offensive to a sane conscience. First, it deprives the weakest and most defenseless of our citizens of their elementary protection against violence and death. Any society, including any political party, that sanctions such a deprivation forfeits thereby even the smallest claim to intellectual seriousness and moral rectitude. Second, it directly affronts the very purpose and intent of the established public order, which is the preservation and support of homes and domestic relations. Abortion is not just a crime; in a proper sense abortion is the crime, the most manifest attack on the very purpose for which the State is established. We must assert, therefore, as a certainty, that any government that legally permits a mother, or anyone else, to take an innocent life has gone a long way toward surrendering its own raison d’être. The God who put both family and State into the human heart will curse such a land and its government. The barren hill of Samaria stands forever in witness to this truth.
For our part in the war against abortion, let me suggest a further and, I hope, practical consideration. I believe that if we do not broaden our argument against legalized abortion by placing it within a larger context, there is reason to fear that we may inadvertently strengthen the hand of the adversary. If we permit the abortion debate to be waged completely within the context of individual rights, we are in danger, it seems to me, of giving up too much of the battleground before the sword has even been drawn.
Observe, for example, how frequently the “abortion dilemma” is framed as the conflict of two opposed “rights,” the child’s right to life and the mother’s right to choose. Opponents of abortion rather often find themselves maneuvered into asserting that a child’s right to life is more important than, and takes precedence over, a woman’s right to choose. This is no field on which to carry on the fight. Once the narrow defile of “rights” is established as the site of the battle, the high ground is gone, and the opponent of abortion discovers himself without sufficient clearance to wield his pike, his halberd, his battle-ax, and the other instruments of persuasion at his command.
Another disadvantage of dealing with abortion narrowly as a conflict between two competing rights is that rights are rather abstract and invisible things, whereas the mother is much larger and more in evidence than the unborn child. It is not surprising that the child is rather often the one gored on the horns of this alleged dilemma.
The plain point, of course, is that there really is no such dilemma. There is here no conflict between two valid but opposed claims. There is no logical contention between a child’s right to life and a woman’s right to choose, for the simple reason that no woman has, or ever will have, a “right to choose.” Very simply, the mother may not murder her child, for any reason whatever. Our rights come from God, and God gave her no such right. Nor can the State.
In summary, then, if we Christians continue to conduct our opposition to abortion solely within the narrow limits established by the consideration of “rights,” there is a danger of inadvertently weakening our case by placing it in a context that permits no adequate room to consider the more ample principles pertinent to the moral problem.
The Purpose of Man
The second reason Aristotle gives for the existence of the State goes beyond the economic and social purpose that it serves for the family. The State is natural to man, Aristotle wrote, in order to safeguard and advance the supreme good and goal of man, his intellectual and moral life. To understand what this means, it is necessary to move from Aristotle’s Politics to the Nicomachean Ethics, where he portrays the end of man in terms of “intellectual and moral virtues,” described as “praiseworthy dispositions.”
Contemporary folks, of course, tend to reduce such matters as intellectual and moral virtues to the “private” realm, not regarding them as an immediate concern of the State. While most people, I suppose, would concede that at least some virtues, especially moral virtues, are required for our life in society, they would limit the strict requirement of virtue to such things as public decency and a congenial spirit of tolerance for others. Otherwise, we are told, the State “may not legislate morality.”
Aristotle would find this theory strange and incoherent, because he saw no logical separation of man’s social, political life from the virtuous cultivation of his mind and will. He permitted no alienation of the humane interests of the State from the moral and intellectual life of the citizens. All efforts at virtue, for Aristotle, are social and political efforts. Ethics and political science are indistinguishable, inasmuch as “the Good (agathon) of man must be the goal (telos) of the science of politics.” Indeed, “the Good is identical for the individual person (heni) and for the State.”
To appreciate this Aristotelian vision of the ultimate unity of “man as moral” and “man as political,” I propose to examine a single moral and legal problem, one that is still very much with us. It is a matter, indeed, about which we Americans may very soon be fighting in earnest. That problem is suicide.
In recent years suicide has come widely to be regarded as almost a civil right. Indeed, I have had private conversations with folks who believe suicide is exactly that—a civil right—and they regarded my vigorous dissent from their view as an effort to “impose my religion on others.” Some opponents of legalized suicide, moreover, simply plead guilty to that charge. I have run across any number of conservative Christians who insist on basing their opposition to legalized suicide entirely on the tenets of their Christian faith, not on any philosophical consideration. In fact, they sometimes deny that there can even be a good philosophical argument against suicide. It will be instructive to consider why Aristotle disagrees with them.
Suicide would seem to be the most private of moral decisions, if only, in the memorable mot of Leonard Levinson, as “the severest form of self-criticism.” Back in old Athens, however, there were laws against that kind of thing. For instance, Aeschines tells us that the Athenians were accustomed to cut off the hand of the suicide and bury it apart from his body, symbolizing the separation of the murderer from the one murdered. (A current controversy compels me to remark here that Socrates, in spite of a widespread misconception on the matter, did not commit suicide. Indeed, like all good Athenians, he would be shocked and horrified at the notion. Socrates, when he drank the hemlock, knew very well that he was acting as an official executioner on behalf of the Athenian court. According to the Athenians, that is to say, suicide was most definitely immoral, whereas capital punishment was perfectly moral, and the death of Socrates was an exercise of capital punishment, not a suicide. If Jack Kevorkian, the Hemlock Society, and other folks find that distinction too subtle, I think maybe they would benefit from reading a bit more Greek philosophy.)
So why is suicide immoral and illegal? Because it is an act of injustice, answers Aristotle. An injustice against whom? That is an excellent question, constantly put forth as unanswerable these days by those who see nothing wrong with taking one’s own life. After all, it is argued, no one willingly suffers an injustice, so if someone kills himself willingly, the act cannot possibly be an act of injustice. Let me say that those who employ this line of reasoning usually prize it as an exercise of airtight logic.
It is very refreshing to realize that that identical question—“Against whom is suicide an injustice?”—was put into discussion by Aristotle many centuries ago. It is even more refreshing to reflect that Aristotle did not think the question unanswerable. In fact, the more obvious response to it he dismissed as impertinent! When a man willingly takes his own life, said Aristotle, it is true that he inflicts no injustice on himself, because no man willingly suffers an injustice. But that consideration, he went on to insist, is quite beside the point. The point is that the suicide has violated his responsibility to the State. Without proper authorization, he has taken the life of a citizen, and the State, in turn, must punish his unjust act in the only way left to it, by burying the criminal with dishonor (atimia).
A Genuine Danger
Aristotle’s reflections about suicide are cited here, not simply because they address the philosophical dimensions of a specific problem that is still with us (and threatens soon to get worse), but for what they reveal about the moral life of man as a citizen. According to Aristotle, just as there is no area of existence where man stands outside of moral responsibility, so there is no area of life where he stands as a being distinct from a member of society; “the Good is identical for the individual person and for the State.” All aspects of the moral and political life are considered together for a fundamental reason—the unity of man as a domestic, intellectual, ethical, and social animal. Man is one thing with many interrelated aspects that must not be separated, so indivisible did Aristotle believe to be the moral and political life of the human being.
I believe this ancient view of Aristotle points us in the right direction. The two essential purposes that he regards as proper to the political order—the preservation of families and the advance of virtue—place the State in its correct role of service. Neglecting such an insight, there is a genuine danger that our entire political life may become increasingly isolated from the humane concerns of the family and the intellectual and moral dimensions of the soul. That isolation would lead directly to the doom suffered long ago by Samaria.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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