Thursday, April 4, 2013

Some Philosophers on the Family

Although marriage as a civil institution is a social convention, historical it has rested on the biological reality of two genders.

I do not recall any philosopher of any note before our current generation that considered marriage anything else.

A few snippets:

Aristotle described marriage as “ a union of those who cannot exist without each other, namely, male and female, that the species may continue.” In a less obvious judgment, he contended that “mankind has a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves.”

Nearly 2,000 years later John Locke described marriage “as a voluntary compact between a man and a woman [that] consists chiefly in such a communion and right in each other’s bodies as is necessary to its chief end, procreation.” Immanuel Kant offered a similar view. “The natural union of the sexes, “ he wrote, “proceeds either according to the mere animal nature or according to law. The later is marriage, which is the union of two persons of different sexes for lifelong reciprocal possession of the sexual faculties.”

Procreation is not the exclusive purpose of marriage. Otherwise, the marriage would end once the first child is born. Offspring must be reared. John Locke observed that “the end of conjunction male and female [is] not barely procreation but the continuation of the species.” Marriage lasts long after procreation, “so long as is necessary to the nourishment and support of the young ones who are to be sustained by those who got them till they are able to shift and support for themselves.” Locke attributed the lengthy biological development of human offspring for establishing “a more firm and lasting bond in man than in other species of animals.” The lengthy period that passes before a child reaches adulthood encourages the maintenance of the marriage. Even modern observers not that  spouses in an unhappy marriage recognize this fact when the elect to keep the marriage together “for the sake of the children."

Intercourse and reproduction , of course, are not the only purposes of marriage. Marriage facilitates natural psychological functions as well. Human beings by nature are social animals. They gather together in a variety of social and political associations. Companionship in marriage is the most private and intimate of those associations. Locke wrote that "it draws with it mutual support as assistance and a communion of interests."

And in the modern era, marriage usually involves expressions of love. Love is often misused for acquisitive desires, the impulse to acquire and use the object of desire for one’s own satisfaction. When the object of desire is sexual, lust is the more appropriate word. Love should only be used of benevolent desires, the impulse to benefit or bring good to the person who is the object of desire. When these benevolent feelings intertwine with sexual desire, it is erotic love. The marital relationship is the setting for the expression of erotic love between a husband and wife. And because love is a benevolent desire, it sustains the commitment of the couple even as sexual desire diminishes and disappears with age.

Finally, marriage performs economic functions as well. When a couple marries, they become husband and wife and form a household. Husband means householder; wife means woman. (That is a hint, at least for those in the English speaking world, that natural, biologically based marriage is nature's norm.) One or both spouses work to contribute to the family’s material well-being. Before the modern era, children, too, worked in support of their family. Aristotle wrote that “The so-called art of getting wealth is according some identical with household management, accord to others the principle part of it.” The family can be described as a domestic economy. In fact, the term economics derives from its original use as a description of a household. Originally, polity referred to the state, and politics the governing of a political community. Economy referred to a family, and economics to the operations of a family or domestic economy.

In Aristotle’s view, the family serves as the foundation for more complex social organizations. According the Aristotle, the next stage in social development is the village, “the first association of a number of households for the satisfaction of something more than daily needs. It comes into being through the processes of nature in the fullest sense, as off-shoot of a household and set up by son and grandsons.” The final association to come into being is the state, “formed of several villages.” According to Aristotle, with the formation of the state, “self-sufficiency has been reached” and the state serves as “a means of securing the good life.” The state, like  the village and the family, are natural.

That is why some observers suggest that marriage is the foundation for civilization.

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