Our New Family Regime?

A sexual revolution is taking place among us. All see it, but all do not judge it in the same way. Some celebrate this revolution as the fulfillment of the democratic and modern promise, and seek more ways to deepen and extend it. For these advocates the revolution represents being on the “right side of history.” They judge all proposals for change by whether they keep the revolution rolling. 

Others think or affect to think that the great revolution is a product of happy accidents (“the ’60s” or “the pill”), but sinister forces could rally to reverse it in a backlash so it is crucial to be forward in defense of yesterday’s gains. 

Others see the sexual revolution as an element of an irreversible democratic revolution, and they despair of all efforts to limit the revolution; they retreat or plan a retreat from this new world. 

Others see the seemingly irresistible march of the sexual revolution as part of the democratic revolution, but see how that revolution ignores many human goods and undermines human thriving and political prosperity. 

This last perspective animates my book. To arrive at this perspective is difficult, since few pursue philosophic knowledge about the nature of marriage and family life. People are mostly concerned with today’s controversies, finding little time and energy to invest in deeper understanding about what political communities should seek to accomplish with marriage and family life and what marriage and family life are. Those claiming philosophic knowledge spend their energy working out the principles of our public philosophy, where human things are susceptible to remaking according to our arbitrary human wills. These pretended philosophers of family life conjure ways to establish greater human liberation or autonomy—and leave behind the old marriage and family life. 

A better philosophy recognizes that the human world is not infinitely plastic. Human nature, marriage, and family life cannot be made, unmade, and remade according to any reformer’s fancy, to achieve the goods that the reformer would like. All ways of organizing marriage and family life involve costs and compromises. We may not always be able to see those costs and compromises and we may not always look, but the logic of nature is there, in what we do and what we leave undone. The beginning of wisdom about marriage and the family involves knowing what challenges of nature they respond to. The irreducible core of marriage and family life centers on sex, procreation, education of children, and an adult dyad (at least) who bear common responsibilities. There is also a predictable structure to how the goods of marriage and family relate, though there is not perfect support in nature for how goods are structured. The logic of nature limits how marriage and family life are lived in a particular time and place. 

The way marriage and family life are lived reflects a way of understanding and ranking goods such as love, independence, equality, justice, and community. Consider a few examples. Emphasis on extended family and intergenerational responsibility, characteristic of aristocratic families, comes at the price of individual freedom, emotional attachment, public justice, and choice. Emphasis on independence within marriage, more characteristic of modern democracy, comes at the expense of community within marriage and responsibility to one’s grandchildren or one’s grandparents. Emphasis on romantic love within marriage comes with some cost to stability and endurance and to concern for “external goods” such as children or property. 

Different political communities tend to have different family structures and different rankings of goods, or different family regimes. By family regime I mean a manner of distinguishing the valuable from the non-valuable concerns of family life, of attaching shame or honor, of connecting pride and unconcern to actions within marriage and family life, and of imagining how the various concerns of marriage and family life relate one to another in a particular time and place. Just as, per Aristotle, there seem to be a limited number of political regimes, there are a limited number of family regimes. 

The great changes in marriage and family life, underway throughout the Western world and beyond since the 1950s or 1960s, mark, in the final analysis, a displacement of an older, dependency-making marriage and family regime with one centered on autonomy (more on this in a moment). Marriage and family life are complex interplays of nature and political regime, or culture and law (as we say today). Marriage and family regimes follow the logic of nature—revealing the power and durability of nature. There are different family regimes—revealing the power and durability of political regimes—but there are not an infinite number of marriage and family forms, which would undermine our ability to study and talk about these human things. 

Family Regimes Within the “Fatal Circle” of a Political Regime 

Marriage and family life are embedded in political communities, which transform them to an extent. To use Aristotle’s frame, forms of human association like the household and village, concerned with meeting daily and non-daily needs, do not force inhabitants to ask what it means to live well, but citizens in political communities are free to think about what it means to live well. As a result political communities organize themselves around commonly held ideas, arrived at through speech, about “the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and unjust.” 

While families and villages are temporally prior to the emergence of the city, the political community is “prior to the household and to each of us,” for Aristotle, since citizens and households take their character from the political community in which they dwell. Placing the household within a particular political community gives the household a particular hue consistent with the principles of advantage and justice embodied in a political community’s regime—its way of life or its common understanding of the advantageous, good, and just. 

Democratic regimes manifest more egalitarian relations between parents and children or husbands and wives, while oligarchies have more oligarchic or hierarchical relations between parents and children or husbands and wives. All political communities are partial in their understanding of living well, emphasizing some idea of justice and some particular understanding of the good and advantageous at the expense of others. All aim at part of the truth, but none grasps the whole truth when it comes to governing a city. All regimes “fasten on a certain sort of justice, but proceed only to a certain point, and do not speak of the whole of justice in the authoritative sense.” 

Recognizing the partial character of each political community is no more than saying that political communities are founded on contested and contestable opinions about the good, true, and beautiful. It is to say, with St. Augustine, that a political community or a people “is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love,” though none of their loves encompasses all lovable things. It is to imagine, with Plato’s Socrates, that the education of citizens is like living as prisoners in a cave, where poets cast shadows on the wall that harden into citizens’ opinions about the advantageous, good, beautiful, and just, though none of those opinions is complete as an idea of good and beautiful things. It is to say, with Alexis de Tocqueville, that “there is a society only when men consider a great number of objects under the same aspect; when on a great number of subjects they have the same opinions; when, finally, the same facts give rise in them to the same impressions and the same thoughts,” and to follow him in recognizing that “the social and political constitution of a people disposes it to certain beliefs and tastes which then become abundant without difficulty; whereas these same causes turn it away from certain opinions and penchants without working at it and so to speak without suspecting it.”

Study of political things reveals that regimes tend to become purer, more one-sided, and hence more exclusive and extreme as time goes on; they become more and more like themselves. A predominant good, virtue, or characteristic, perhaps important at the onset of a regime, becomes of ever-greater and eventually of overweening importance as the regime’s life proceeds. Tocqueville, for instance, shows equality of condition is the “generative fact” in modern democracy, which, as his Democracy in America shows, “modifies everything that it does not produce.” For Aristotle democracy (justice as equality or the rule of the poor) and oligarchy (justice as inequality or the rule of the rich) were the most prevalent regimes. 

Democracies decline when the parts of the city that used to restrain the love of equality or the poor’s thirst to rule erode. Oligarchies at first are broadly based and have low property requirements, but the oligarchs “tighten” the requirements and concentrate more power in fewer, wealthier hands. Aristotle never writes that regimes necessarily have a gravitational pull to become purer, though his treatment of democracy in Book 6 of The Politics, among other places, makes this seem the likely scenario for political life. As regimes tighten, they ignore elements of the human good that a partisan political community no longer sees. 

For Aristotle a regime can resist its own gravitational pull toward extremism, blindness, and purity through mixing its predominant goods with other less dominant human goods. Thus his famed mixed regime. Elements of democracy and oligarchy may be blended—all can vote but juries have property qualifications or vice versa, for instance—or the mean between democracy and oligarchy can be established. The great difficulty of establishing a mixed regime lies in the fact that the “voice” of one side is easier to hear in a particular regime than the voices outside of it. The gravitational pull of a democracy, for instance, makes it difficult to recognize virtues that result from natural inequality, difference, inequalities in property or wealth, and human excellence. No constituency for nondemocratic goods exists in a democracy, and a big constituency arises for exposing nondemocratic goods as elitist, sinister, and tyrannical, and democratic politicians win power by attacking such inequalities mercilessly. 

Education “relative to the regimes” preserves regimes, for Aristotle. Such education counters the manifest tendency of a regime, through appreciating the other side. This educational variant of political mixing is much easier said than done. Tocqueville suspects that such political mixtures do not work, just as Aristotle sees how difficult securing mixtures can be. “The government called mixed,” Tocqueville writes, “has always seemed to me to be a chimera . . . because in each society one discovers in the end one principle of action that dominates all the others.” Time reveals a gravitational pull in politics, though conflicts and events can obscure its direction for a time. 

Tocqueville recommends using a species of the political mixing chimera to combat the gravitational pull. The “whole art of the legislator” consists, he writes, “in discerning well and in advance these natural inclinations of human societies in order to know when one must aid their efforts and when it would rather be necessary to slow them down.” In Tocqueville’s immediate examples, aristocratic times focused on the next world may require a legislator inducing citizens to focus on the goods of this world and even to encourage “new desires” of the body and physical studies bordering on materialism. Democracies, inclined to focus on material well-being, demand statesmen “relentlessly raising up souls and keeping them turned toward Heaven,” spreading a “sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures,” and turning their minds to the long term. Democratic statesmen would find ways to “sell” nondemocratic virtues on more or less democratic grounds. Tocqueville is skeptical that democratic people will have ears to hear and hearts to love what does not strictly reflect equality of condition, but human beings will best thrive in a democracy only with an appreciation for such nondemocratic ways. 

Marriage and family life can be leading edges for the purification of a political regime as it becomes more extreme. As a regime becomes purer, marriage and family life are very likely to mirror the new extremism. Oligarchic families become more oligarchic as political oligarchy tightens. Oligarchic families may emphasize the transmission of property above all else in family life, or emphasize the rule of the man within the family to the detriment of familial love and companionship. Marriage and family life can also be vehicles for mixing a regime or obstacles to the purification of a regime. There may come a point when married couples or families themselves in an extreme oligarchy buck the regime within which they live and from which they receive some of their ideas. Think, perhaps, of a Christian family in a narrow oligarchy—one that refuses to reduce the marriage bond to an economic relationship or one where a father willingly lays down his life for his children or wife, even though he has the power to rule the family with an iron fist. Such experiences cannot be understood in terms of oligarchy. 

Much the same is true of families in democratic regimes. Families tend to become more democratic as democracies become purer or more extreme. The Roman or aristocratic family (where the father had absolute, arbitrary power over children and a wife), Tocqueville writes, in the strict sense did “not exist” in 19th century America. One found only “vestiges of it in the first years” after the birth of a child. Americans of Tocqueville’s day had a special way of understanding sexual equality as well, one that dignified the sexual division of labor or the idea of public man, private woman. 

Vestiges of inequality and difference remain even in our late republic: some parental authority over children exists, many people still marry and live together, and men and women still think of themselves as somewhat different. Yet our late modern regime eliminates many inequalities and seeks, in a manner of speaking, to promote the independence of all. Our democratic family regime has become ever purer as the political order has become ever purer; changes in marriage and family life also abet the making of a more democratic political order. As the family regime purifies, democracy comes up against its own limits. Are elements of marriage and family life so rooted in nature, necessity, and morality that an extreme or purified democratic family would cease to be a family in any recognizable sense? 

An image from Tocqueville, the very last words of Democracy in America, illustrates the fate of marriage and the family within our modern regime. Some people, Tocqueville writes, entertain “false, and cowardly doctrines” that unmanageable forces control human affairs—like many of our advocates today, they trace social change to fate or the “right side of history.” It is not history, however, that moves, but the drama of a political regime. We live in a “fatal circle,” which we cannot leave but within which we are “powerful and free.” Modernity is the “fatal circle” of today’s politics and today’s family regime. All actions concerning the family take place in a regime committed to equality of conditions (among other things), but it depends on us whether this equality leads us “to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”

Statesmen must understand the nature of marriage and family life and the fatal circle within which they can operate. There have been tremendous changes in marriage and family life since the advent of modernity. As politics separated from the Church, so also did marriage move from covenant to contract. As political communities opened the vote to more citizens and accepted women to full citizenship, women’s independence loosened marital and familial bonds. The welfare state became more interested in household issues such as education, health, and income support. As families became less concerned with economic production to meet their daily needs, they had fewer children. Generally, as modern principles shape peoples, marriage and family life have sunk in importance compared to goods such as individual freedom and career achievement; marriage and family life have become more temporary; old marital forms have been undercut with greater acceptance of divorce, living together outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage, and same sex marriage; sex outside of marriage is more prevalent; the culture that seems necessary to cultivate character conducive to marriage dissipates. 

The difficulties of educating relative to the family regime are manifest in marriage and family life—there may not be ears sufficiently willing to hear or strong enough countervailing opinions with which to mix. Countervailing opinions and experiences exist in marriage and family life, however. Marriage and family life can correct political regimes, since an irreducible core related to the permanent issues of love, procreation, sex, and education makes marriage and family life more necessary than institutions of political justice. A family can be a “haven in a heartless world” (in Christopher Lasch’s phrase), supplying individuals with attention and demanding the loyalty of individuals as few other institutions do. It is private to an extent and hence escapes the shaping effects of the political regime somewhat. 

The Modern Family Regime of Autonomy, Properly Understood 

Our modern world has a family regime, a way of imagining marriage and family life and love. I explored the rise of this purer, more extreme family regime in Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (2011). Two ideas especially transformed marriage and family life in modernity. First, the idea of marriage as a contract slowly displaced the idea of marriage either as a sacrament or as a moment creating a community transcending the individualistic standpoint of contract. Individuals now mostly think of themselves as free to determine the terms of the marriage contract—its duration, its form, its purposes, its depth and breadth. In early modernity, individuals conformed to an idea of marriage that society made; society inhibited divorce, for instance. In late modernity, individuals seem to decide for themselves the nature and duration of marriage; society’s role has receded. Once society upheld marriage as important to the perpetuation of society through its role in the procreation and education of children, but today marriage is seen to be, in the words of Obergefell v. Hodges (the Supreme Court decision mandating same-sex marriage), about an adult’s “expression, intimacy, spirituality” centered on choice. With the triumph of contract, marriage and family life are more made for the individual and less able to take on public purposes or reflect publicly approved forms. 

The second powerful modern idea is that human beings should seek to bring nature under rational human control. Many of the things that appear as “givens” of the human condition—for instance, the birth process, procreation, the differences between the sexes, the fact that children are taken care of mostly by their birth parents, our dependence on others—might be remediable parts of the human condition if we but created new institutions to deal with them. The greater our control over the “givens” of life, the greater our freedom and power. Perhaps single parents can replace the two-parent family. Perhaps other ways of engineering children will replace the genetic lottery of sexual reproduction. Perhaps state institutions could replace the family as primary vehicles for education. Perhaps society can overcome sex differences. As modernity proceeds, human beings, in a sense, exercise their wills more over their condition and create a new moral and physical continent for future generations. 

The ideas of contract and of conquering nature merge in the contemporary concept of autonomy. Autonomy demands more than consent. Truly autonomous choices must, on an ever more radical understanding, be made without the influence of imposed habits, human reason, education, social pressure, legal pressure, cultural expectations, previous decisions, our sex or bodies, or any other external demand. Autonomous choices spring from an individual’s will alone, lest they be traceable to something alien to the individual. This affords individuals a chance to make themselves what they, for whatever reason, want themselves to be. 

Autonomous people may still forge bonds with others, but autonomous bonds must be continually re-willed and renewed. If bonds were “natural,” “corporeal,” “habitual,” or “divine,” our liberty would not proceed from our will alone and individuals would be less than autonomous. People must be free to form relationships and to exit relationships when they stop serving their life plans. This means close, intimate relations must be open as to the form and number of partners and the extent of their commitment. 

With the rise of autonomy, contemporary liberalism, which makes autonomy its chief concern, appears as the goal of modern political thought as such. Before the 20th century, the concept of autonomy hardly appeared in political discourse. Each thinker and most laws had good reasons to embrace ideas of contract or movements toward conquering nature, but also to mix the embrace of such modern principles with other principles that restrained, limited, and regulated them. 

When early modern thinkers embraced ideas of contract or recommended the conquest of nature, they may have been offering, in the spirit of Aristotelian mixing, principles that balanced the patriarchal and otherworldly nature of the previous feudal or aristocratic regime. Marriage was a contract (acknowledging individual freedom), but for necessary purposes involving the procreation and education of children (acknowledging the limit on the contractual mode of thinking), for instance. Parents had rights and power to oversee the education of their children toward independence, without thinking that children were either consigned forever to live within the extended family or that they were already independent. 

The situation appears different now and the mixing history has given way to a view that all thinkers sought autonomy, but had only just begun to work out its meaning. Changes in family practice and “family law are fully in accord with the rise of a modern, secular, individualistic state.” All aspects of marriage and family life are being reconceived in terms of liberal autonomy as contemporary liberals march across marital and familial institutions. This march is what I call the rolling revolution in marriage and family life. By rolling revolution I mean the seemingly unfinishable series of changes in marriage and family life toward the realization of individual autonomy. 

Virtually all changes in law, practice, and opinion in this area have had the effect of stripping away the Christian or traditional aspects of marriage. Cohabitation, fornication, and adultery are not only no longer crimes, but are more and more accepted as matters of course and perhaps even as highly recommended practices. Contraception and abortion are legal, widely available, used, and honored. People have fewer children. Marriage is no longer limited to heterosexual couples, and hence less related to the needs of the body or the state’s interest in the procreation and education of a future generation. Gender identity, in decisive respects and ever more, is seen as the product of choice or assertion. The gravitational pull of regime-level politics makes these developments appear as “living up to our ideals” or applying modern principles to all facets of life. What from the perspective of political philosophy appears as purity and tightness, and hence as destructive of the regime, appears as progress and the realization of justice to our rolling revolutionaries inside the regime. 

A new balancing effort is required in a world that itself seems new. Political and familial health require education against autonomy that points to and appreciates human limits. These human limits are grounded in the body. They also implicate crucial moral goods that attract human beings—including most prominently the goods of love and human happiness. This new balancing ethic, integrated into a public philosophy, emphasizes responsibility and duty, not rights; the long term over the short term; the body and its necessities, not autonomy; the goods associated with human dependence such as love, not the glorification of autonomy and independence; and the virtues associated with sexual difference, not gender neutrality. 

Perhaps the most striking feature of today’s marriage and family landscape—where one finds little public support for marital roles or for marital stability, and where people can live together and drift apart at will—is that marriage is as strong as it still is today. Call me an optimist, but things could be much worse! Still a majority of children in America are raised in intact marriages by their biological parents. Still more than half of marriages last until death. Still most women have children and manifest no little desire to care for them. Still men and women, by and large, act differently within marriage, though they may be embarrassed about that. Luckily the goods to which family life appeals are still grounded in practice, though our regime of autonomy makes it difficult to see these sources of marital and familial health and the public benefits that accrue from that health. Those who would defend marriage and family life lack the vocabulary to do it and have a hard time showing that the rise of autonomy is hardly an unmixed blessing. 

The fact that things could be worse does not make a defense of a mixed family regime any easier. One must divine, as Tocqueville suggests, when to aid the efforts of reformers and balancers, when to slow them down, and, I would add, when to resist further rolls in the revolution. One must seek resources and arguments suited for the hearing of today’s ears, though there may not be enough ears to hear and the ears have been trained not to hear. Any defense of marriage and family life in our situation must expose the hidden assumptions and blind spots of those who advocate for the rolling revolution. This often means defending Old Wisdom, on topics that touch on people’s identity, pride, and passions.

In any event, the demands of statesmanship coincide with a philosophic respect for truth, and it is almost impossible to be a statesman at our late date without possessing philosophic or at least genuine wisdom. 

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About Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University. His book The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies was published in 2020 by Baylor University Press.

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