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Is Patriarchal Authority The Same Thing As Political Authority?

by Tony M.

There is proposed here and there and pretty much all over in conservative circles an analogy between the authority of the patriarch of a family and the authority of the leader of a polity. I think it is easy to show that there are points of connection, points of similarity. What I am asking here is whether the similarity is more than just that of analogy, that it is in fact the SAME thing at root. Is the top leader of a polity, (the executive, assuming there is one) actually the same thing as patriarch-writ-large?

I don’t have an off-the-shelf answer that is complete and developed. I know that I tend to doubt it. My initial inclination is to fuss and pick at that analogy and test it for points of difference. Maybe, upon doing so, we could establish that the possible points of difference are not differences in kind, just degree. Or maybe not.

Some obvious things that look like points of difference: the history of western civilization as a distinct civilization is deeply bound up in the rise of the Greek city-state and Greek culture. The Greeks viewed their city, their civilization, their superiority over the barbarians as being found PRECISELY in having a polity rather than a clan / tribal nature. The very thing that they named as what distinguished them from others was their polity. So, from at least 2600 years ago and forward, to be political meant to be different from familial. The very society that gave us the word and concept of the polis and politics distinguished them from family connections. And one conclusion that one might draw from this is that either they were right, or the very notion of the polity and the political as distinct is wrong – we shouldn’t even have a different word or concept for the political.

The obvious major difference – in practice – between a polity and a patriarchy is that typically a polity includes many separate family groups. There are many heads of families, each of whom are the leaders of their own family but who, between families, are not naturally subject to one another by any familial ordering principle: the 12 tribes of Judah, during the time of Moses, during the leadership of Joshua, during the reign of the judges, had no principle by which men of any tribe was higher or lower in capacity to lead the people, nor was there any basis for the heads of one tribe to submit to the heads of another tribe. Moses, Joshua, and the judges were not in the top familial positions of even a clan, not even close to that of a tribe, and far less in a natural patriarchal position over other tribes. Saul, son of Kish was chosen to be king, being neither come into his father’s position as head of the family, nor elevated by marriage to a patriarchal status over a clan. David was chosen and anointed king while being even in a lesser position for patriarchal position, as last of his father’s many sons. By being put in positions of power without regard to their dynastic position, it would seem that their power was not that of a patriarch over a family or clan.

Another difference is that you cannot generally (by your own decision) change your family or whom you owe filial piety toward, whereas you can change the polity to which you owe loyalty. Your father is your father whether he is a good father or bad, whether he is just or unjust, even whether is alive or dead (you still owe some aspects of filial piety toward your dead father – you ought to pray for his soul, and to speak with filial respect about him.) Yes, there are some exceptions that can change how your filial piety will be carried out, if your family is so dysfunctional that you have to “disown” them, but even saying “I formally dissociate myself from that family” doesn’t eradicate ALL aspects of the filial piety you owe to your parents, doesn’t completely eradicate your debt of gratitude for bringing you into the world. But if you emigrate from your old polity and move permanently to a new one, settling in it for good, you owe your new polity your political loyalty and you do not owe it to your old one.

In tradition almost as ancient as the Greek city-state itself, the polity is described as being large enough to be relatively independent: it should have immediate access to resources to be manage much of its own internal life, it should have enough people to fill most of the needed jobs, crafts, and positions required for relatively secure ongoing operations. It is rare for a family, even a clan, to be large enough for this. Abraham split off household (and direct authority over) Lot when their households measured a few hundreds. Isaac’s household prospered, and he was the head of a large household, but when Jacob took over later and met with his brother Esau, at that time Esau’s men were about 400, whereas Jacob’s was less. And then when Jacob went down to Egypt, only 70 went with him – and he brought his cattle / animals, so he must have brought a good share of his establishment. We don’t have record here of a man overseeing many thousands as a patriarchal head of family.

In addition, according to the Greeks, the other side of the coin of being a polis, of being civilized instead of barbaric, was a community in which men (at least, some men, at least the most capable) could pursue the things that are the highest and best things of man: art, music, philosophy, contemplation – the life of leisure, the life of reason. (Not leisure in the sense of taking your ease, leisure in the classic sense of devoted to the highest things.) Subsistence level society, where there is little or nothing left in the tank for pursuit of the things that make man to be man distinctly, is a lesser form of society. And, thus, the question of material and societal self-sufficiency takes on a special cast: it is not enough for a society to be materially stable and ongoing to be civilized, it is not enough that it have a distinct culture that is passed on. it is necessary also that it be fulsome enough, and well-ordered enough, that the economy be developed enough, that men can pursue their own distinctive specialties and gain enough surplus material thereby to generate a period of leisure, and ideally a whole cadre of men whose primary pursuits are those of leisure – the artists, the philosophers. Because the effort to pursue deep learning usually requires a multi-generational effort – requires “speaking with” the greatest minds of your and other societies both now alive and in the past – this normally requires developed, written language and book making and preservation. And all these things, typically, are not found in an independent family, clan, or even tribe. It requires a city – which is why, again, the word for civilization comes from the word for city.

There is also a natural limit to the authority of a father over his children that is insufficient for political order: if a young man leaves his father’s household and makes his own way, either as learning a trade from others or as a farmer or husbandman with other resources than from his father, his father can no longer command obedience from him. Yes, the young man still owes his father honor and piety, and this may take the form of obedience in some things still regarding what remains of his interactions with his family, but that does not extend to obedience with respect to the young man’s own profession or his own household. But this is not quite the sort of situation in the polis: the young man is still under the authority of the political leaders generally.

So what do you think? Is there enough here to conclude that the patriarchal authority and the political authority are analogous only? Or are they univocal?

Comments (7)

Athens was divided amongst tribes which made up various parts of the city and had a degree of political power. Also, Athenians all believed the were descended from common ancestors, which would mean they were mostly a large extended family. There are many ways for tribes to come together without giving the patriarchal status of the society. Marriage between clans could unite them into a larger group while maintaining it's familial nature or as with the joining of the Alans to the Vandal it could operate like a whole sale adoption of the weaker tribe. Many medieval societies viewed their government as operating like a giant family and were still able to rule whole countries. Also civilization does not need cities to flourish the Irish and the Kingdoms of the Himalayas did alright with just monasteries, while Anglo-Saxon England and Commonwealth Iceland produced quite a bit of culture without any major cities. As for parents losing some authority over their children after they acquired their own profession, that is a distinctly modern concept. So I believe the two concepts are univocal.

As for parents losing some authority over their children after they acquired their own profession, that is a distinctly modern concept.

So your position is that in an ideal world a father should have the same amount of authority over his adult son as he does over his child aged son?

Also, Athenians all believed the were descended from common ancestors, which would mean they were mostly a large extended family.

That's a good point. I thought also of the Romans and their "history" of being descended from Romulus and Remus, and/or from the Greeks of Troy, or other source myths.

However, you will notice, with both of them, that the "believed were descended from common ancestors" is far enough in the past that at the time of government it was no longer clear how the exact lineage ran. And, therefore, there was no longer any specific reason to account X rather than Y with the headship of the extended family. So any basis for X claiming the rule was no longer on the principle "after all, I am the head of the family now that my father has died." Which means that his rule was not that of a familial patriarch, but something else.

In my understanding, strict patriarchal authority must pass strictly through direct lineage from father to son and nothing else.

Many medieval societies viewed their government as operating like a giant family and were still able to rule whole countries.

Specifics, please. One might say "George Washington was 'the father of his country' " and be no closer to a univocal usage.

Also civilization does not need cities to flourish the Irish and the Kingdoms of the Himalayas did alright with just monasteries,

I am not as familiar with the Himalayas, but it is certainly the case that the monasteries of the Irish were borrowing their civilization off a pre-existing civilization, (as, indeed, it borrowed its very people who were the constituents of the monasteries), these can in no sense be understood as self-contained units of civilization, or nor polities.

As for parents losing some authority over their children after they acquired their own profession, that is a distinctly modern concept.

Did you notice my point about "making his own way", away from Dad's lands etc? As a practical matter alone, if Johnny is a day's ride away, he simply isn't under his father's direct authority, whatever the nominal theory might be.

If you examine the account of the separate tribes, I think you see this: even when it is explicitly understood that tribe A and tribe B had, at some point in the past, a common ancestor, they were also split off from each other by some kind of separation, and that separation could be nothing more than one brother walking away and starting his own group. Think Esau and Jacob.

If parents always have _exactly the same_ authority over their children in a tribal society when the children are grown that they had when the children were two years old, it's difficult to see how the children will fare when their parents are dead or how they could ever get to the point of being able to hunt, raise their own children, etc. HOwever honored the parents are when the children are grown, the very fact that the children become acknowledged to be capable of ordering their own affairs eventually shows that the authority as the children grow older cannot be _exactly the same_ over time even in a tribal society.

Perhaps I am just naive to think it is this easy to answer this question, but to me it is absolutely obvious that I do not owe to Barack Obama, as leader of my country's polity, or to Rick Snyder, as governor of my state, anything like the type of love, respect, affection, and helpfulness that I owe to my father. Nor have I ever owed to the President or to the state Governor, nor to any political official simply qua political official, the degree and type of obedience that, when I was a child, I owed to my father. QED.

In reflecting on this during the day, I realized that I may have inadvertently allowed an ambiguity to creep in, both in my own mind and in the opening post.

My purpose here is not to compare political authority with that held in a clan or tribal group, especially not in a tribe of a few thousand people.

There is (at least) one definite, certain, and universal sort of authority held by humans that is natural: that of parents over their own children. This authority is given to parents not by any supernatural grant of authority through signs and wonders and supernatural revelation, but by nature. It belongs with all parents in virtue of being parents properly speaking, they don't have to "earn" it by any special act that is apart from being parents. They don't have to get social approval for this authority, it comes from nature without society doing anything about it. THIS was the sort of authority I was looking at to contrast with political authority. I guess I used a shorthand of "patriarchal" authority, intending thereby the authority of a father over his children, merely because in some sense it is more complete than that of the mother over their children (though not in every sense). I did not mean, from that, the sort of patriarchal authority that is wielded by the Chief of the Clan Chiefs over the many clans, for example.

Why not? Well, I am trying to identify whether there is, other than the wholly natural authority of parents, any sort of authority that exists automatically, by nature, without requiring any specific acknowledgement from a social order and whose form and content is comprised by that society's structure and customs. Parental authority may be exercised in certain ways due to social customs, but the BASIC content of that authority does not depend on customs or on society.**

If you have 2 different societies that are parallel in origin (say they both derive, in the distant past, from a single set of parents) but grow in separate lands, it may well be the case that above the level of the parents, one society may grow and develop with clan chiefs and eventually a chief of the clan chiefs who holds his title for life, where as the other may grow and develop with both clan chiefs and the position of chief of the clan chiefs taken in 3-year slots by rotation. Or another pattern. There seems to be nothing in nature that insists that one model is the "right" one over another, as a universal. Either one can be in accordance with nature, because (so it seems) nature is not determinate at that level. Still less, it seems to me, is nature determinate at even higher levels where there are even more layers between the top guy and the parents ruling their own little family.

So, I think that in order to say that political authority is the same thing as that of a father over his kids, you have to be able to explain why the nature and basic substance of a father's authority is given by nature herself, but that it isn't true of authority above the father's level.

It also requires explaining, in the face of Lydia's point, how a grandfather's authority (or great-grandfather's, or that of great-uncle patriarch of the clans) can be the SAME authority when it isn't the SAME relationship. Here's what I mean: a father's and mother's basic authority over their kids exists simply in virtue of being their parents. It doesn't exist in virtue of being their parents AND something else. But a grandfather who is the patriarch of the clan isn't the father of his own grandchildren, his son or daughter is. Which means that in order for him to hold authority over his grandkids, he has to have it in virtue of something else than being a parent to the grandkids.

Or, to put it another way: since Able's being father to Baker is what gives Able fatherly authority over Baker, then by that very fact Baker being father to Charlie is what gives Baker fatherly authority over Charlie. And since Able cannot occupy the exact same role of authority over Charlie that Baker has in virtue of his more direct relationship, Able CANNOT POSSIBLY have fatherly authority over Charlie while Baker occupies that post. Just as it is a physical impossibility for both Able and Baker to actually be Charlie's physical father, it is a moral impossibility for Charlie to owe them both the exact same piety, and it is impossible that Charlie should be obliged to obey BOTH Baker and Able in the very same sense - one will be the master and the other will be subordinate with regard to any given matter, and this is not the SAME authority. So if one is that of father, the other is something else.

It would seem a necessary conclusion that to the extent Able has authority over Charlie, that authority is derivative or secondary: Able's primary authority is over Baker, and that means he has some indirect authority over Charlie, but it's not direct.

It also seems impossible that Able's authority over his grown son Baker could be identical to his authority over Baker as a child. For if Able's authority over Baker is simply in virtue of being a father, then Baker will have that SELF-SAME authority over Charlie and thus is not answerable to Able for his decisions in that regard. It is impossible for Baker's authority over Charlie (when Charlie is a child) to be the same as Able's over Baker when he was a child, if Baker has to answer to Able in how he uses that authority over Charlie. That is, it seems that parental authority itself cannot be the self-same thing during the son's childhood and upon his reaching independent adulthood. Which (again) implies that a clan chief ruling over families is not exercising the same authority as parents over their minor children.

[**For example, parents, simply in virtue of being parents, have the authority to determine the education of their children: Cf. Canon Law 226: "Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them"

774 "Before all others parents are bound to form their children, by word and example, in faith and in Christian living.

Thus no form of society can eradicate this basic authority of parents, it isn't a right dependent on social forms.]

I find it difficult to think of any situation in which political authority would "just be" as a kind of natural law in the way that this is true of parental authority. I suppose I can think of scenarios in which a child is adopted in a very natural way, an informal way, by someone other than his biological parents and in which this confers parental authority. E.g. There is a terrible natural disaster in a third-world country. A kindly passer-by picks up an abandoned baby and raises him as his own. A child's parents die when he is very young, and he is raised by his grandparents. Those kinds of things could happen so seamlessly and informally that no official recognition of the adoptive relationship by any higher political authority would be necessary, and the filial piety and obedience owed by the children to the adoptive parents would seem to be just as binding as that for a biological parent.

But there is a strong sense there that the automatic nature of that parental authority arises from the fact that the relationship *directly mimics* the biological parental relationship.

That cannot be true of any political authority of a ruler over a whole larger group of people, including adults.

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