Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
2. The Family Vis-à-vis
the Individual, the
At this point several questions arise. What is the family’s relationship to the bodies that mediate between the individual and the State? More specifically, what is its relationship to these bodies according to their various connections to the common good? Above all, what is its relationship to the body that encompasses, unites, and governs all the other bodies, that is, the State and its supreme directive organ, the government?
We have already referred to the family as one of the intermediate bodies. We may add here that its situation vis-à-vis these other bodies is entirely unique. While the latter tend to differ from each other, the family, for its part, tends to permeate them all. None of these bodies can exercise over the family an influence equal to that which the family can exercise over them.
a. From the individual to the family, from the family to the gens, and finally to the tribe—the process toward the foundation of the civitas—the State is born
Marriage is the common state of man. Therefore, it is as a member of his family that a man joins the great fabric of families that make up the social body of a country.
The social body is also formed of other intermediate groups such as guilds, universities, and local governments. An individual’s admission into one of these groups is also a means of integration into the social body.
When we consider the State’s origin, we see that, in one way or another, it arose from entities whose “raw material” was the family. The family had given rise to large family blocs that the Greeks termed génos and the Romans gens. The gens, in turn, formed larger blocs still of a familial nature, but whose genealogical correlations tended to be diluted and lost in the night of time. These were the phratries of the Greeks and the curiae of the Romans. “The association,” explains Fustel de Coulanges, “naturally continued to grow larger in the same manner. Many curiae or phratries grouped together and formed a tribe.”124 Later, the ensemble of tribes formed the city, or better, the civitas; and with it the State.125
b. The main elements of the common good of the intermediate bodies, the region, and the State are already present in the individual and the family— the fruitful family: a small world
Experience shows that a family’s vitality and unity are usually in direct proportion to its fecundity.
In large families, the children normally look up to the parents as leaders of a sizeable community, given the number of its members as well as the considerable religious, moral, cultural, and material values inherent to the family unit. This surrounds parental authority with prestige. The parents are, in a way, a common good of all the children. Thus, it is normal that none of the children try to monopolize all the parents’ attention and affection, making of them a merely individual good. Jealousy among siblings finds scant favorable ground in large families. On the contrary, it can easily arise in families with few children.
Tension between parents and children is also frequent in small families and tends to result in one side tyrannizing the other. For example, parents can abuse their authority by absenting themselves from the home in order to spend their free time in worldly entertainments, leaving the children to the mercenary care of baby-sitters or scattered in the chaos of turbulent boarding schools devoid of any real affection. Parents can also tyrannize their children through various forms of family violence, so cruel and so frequent in our de-Christianized society.
In larger families, these domestic tyrannies become less likely. The children perceive more clearly how much they weigh upon their parents, and therefore tend to be grateful, helping them reverently, and, at the appropriate time, sharing the burdens of family affairs.
On the other hand, a large number of children brings to the home liveliness and joy, and an endless creative originality in ways of being, acting, feeling, and analyzing reality both inside and outside the home. Family conviviality becomes a school of wisdom and experience made up of a tradition solicitously communicated by the parents and prudently renewed by the children. The family thus constitutes a small world, at once open and closed to the influences of the outside world.
The cohesion of this small world results from all the aforementioned factors. It is strengthened mainly by the religious and moral formation given by the parents in consonance with the parish priest, and by the harmonic convergence of inherited physical and moral qualities that contribute to model the personalities of the children.
c. Families: small worlds that interrelate like nations and states
The characteristics that differentiate the small world of one family from that of another bring to mind the differences between regions of a country or between countries in the same area of civilization.
A family constituted in this way usually has a common temperament as well as common yearnings, tendencies, and aversions. It has its own way of living together, resting, working, solving problems, facing adversities, and profiting from favorable circumstances. In all these fields, large families show patterns of thought and behavior reinforced by the example of ancestors who are frequently idealized by nostalgia and the passing of time.
d. The family and the world of professional or public activities—lineages and professions
Continually enriched by new aspects modeled by a tradition that is admired, respected, and loved by all family members, this incomparable school of continuity greatly influences individuals in their choice of a profession or charge to be exercised in favor of the common good.
As a result, it frequently happens that members of a family choose the same profession, forming professional lineages. In this way, the family’s influence permeates the professional world. In this consortium between the professional or public world on the one hand and the family on the other, the former also influences the latter. A natural and highly desirable symbiosis is thus established. However, it is important to note that, by the very nature of things, the family’s influence on the extrinsic activities is normally greater than the influence of these activities on the family.
When the family is authentically Catholic, its natural and spontaneous cohesion is enhanced by the supernatural strength of mutual charity derived from grace. In such conditions, the family is optimally poised to influence all, or almost all, the intermediate bodies between the individual and the State, and finally the State itself.
e. Family lineages form elites even in the most plebeian professional groups or milieus
With these considerations, we can see how the presence, in all social classes, of lineages filled with tradition and creative force is a precious and irreplaceable ordering factor in individual life, the private sector, and public life.
We can also see why the administration of some private bodies customarily ends up in the hands of lineages that prove to be the most gifted in understanding and coordinating the social group, to which they impart a robust tradition and a vigorous impulse toward continual improvement.
In view of this it is legitimate that a para-nobiliary elite or dominant para-dynastic lineage arise within some of these groups. Its appearance contributes to the formation, in rural sub-regions and regions, of local “dynasties” analogous to a family endowed with royal majesty.
f. Human society is hierarchical and, as such, participative—kingly fathers and fatherly kings
In this light, a nation is an ensemble of social bodies. At times these are likewise constituted by gradually lesser bodies, down to the individual.
If we follow the inverse order, we will clearly perceive the gradational and, as such, hierarchical character of the bodies between the individual and the highest level of government.
Since the social fabric is an extensive network of individuals, families, and intermediate bodies, we may conclude that, from a certain viewpoint, it is also an ensemble of diverse hierarchies that coexist, collaborate, and intertwine. Above them hovers, in the temporal sphere, the majesty of a perfect society, the State; and in the spiritual sphere (the highest one) the majesty of the other perfect society, the Church.
This society of elites is highly participative. In it, refinement, influence, prestige, wealth, and power are shared from top to bottom in diverse ways according to each degree by bodies with particular characteristics. Thus, in the past it could be said that in the home, even the most modest home, the father was the king of his children, while at the summit the king was the father of fathers.126
(124) Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique (Paris: Hachette, n.d.), bk. 3, p. 135.
(125) On this theme, see the texts of Fustel de Coulanges, Frantz Funck-Brentano, and Msgr. Henri Delassus in Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites, Documents VII, VIII, and IX, respectively.
(126) It is interesting to mention the commentary contained in Frantz Funck-Brentano’s L’Ancien Régime which quotes the memoirs of the peasant Retif de la Bretonne: “The State is a large family composed of all the private families, and the Prince [that is the monarch] is the father of all the fathers.” About this close link between the condition of a king and that of a father, Saint Thomas Aquinas declares: “He who rules a home is called a father of a family, not a king. Still, he bears a certain resemblance to a king, on account of which, kings are sometimes called the fathers of peoples” (On the Governance of Rulers [London: Sheed and Ward, 1938], p. 39). Saint Paul magnificently teaches us about the sacred character of paternal authority: “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). See also the text by Msgr. Henri Delassus in Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites, Documents IX.