In Defense of the Family
Essays Society Community

In Defense of the Family

Anthony Daoud

Charles De Koninck & the Modern World

In the present world, it’s difficult to imagine the family has ever been so volatile. The BBC recently reported that birth rates in the West are reaching historic collapse, far below replacement levels.[1] Divorce has become ubiquitous throughout society, afflicting all socio-economic classes. Whereas previous generations saw marriage as a step toward adulthood, the family persistently carries the negative connotation of unfreedom for much of the contemporary juvenile mind.

The crisis of the family has crept up on the West gradually such that “each generation has become acculturated to the changes. . . each generation thus accepts as normal what would have shocked their grandparents had it happened all at once.”[2]2 Families have regressed in a culture that celebrates laissez-faire individualism and the norms that ensue from it. Our collective enthrallment to a Dionysian existence, which degrades life’s meaning to the satisfaction of immediate desires, has led to the prioritization of superficial and illusory goods over the objective ones cherished for most of history. We are constantly instructed to embrace radically individualistic maxims as normal and to seek immediate pleasures correspondent with an ambiguous happiness.

Political communities are unsustainable without their constituting families. The family is a product of our social nature and is the precondition for a perfect political community oriented towards the common good.

One of the 20th century’s foremost expositors of the family and common good was Thomistic philosopher Charles De Koninck. In a 1943 essay against personalism, which gives primacy to individuals as the common good's basic unit, De Koninck instructed: “Just as the intellect depends on the senses being well disposed, so the good of the city depends on the integrity of the family and of its members.”[3] The family’s resolute social role promotes the common good, which De Koninck differentiates from the alien good (bonum alienum), or the singular good. Whereas the former denotes the individual’s exclusive good, the latter is centered around the exclusive good of another. De Koninck’s definition of the common good (commonweal), drawn from St. Augustine, is the “greatest perfection of each created person” and has weight according to the commonness of each object of love; “The more common the object of love, the more loveable it is—and since God is the most common object of love. . . God is the most loveable common good of all.”[4]

For there to be a “good” shared among people, however, there first ought to be a shared community. And to ensure individuals reach their perfect end, the community must be ordered towards the common good. This should not be misconstrued as a collectivist ploy. In fact, the good of the individual is de facto universal because it is the highest end with participation accessible to all. For a political community aimed at the common good, the family is required because it constitutes the “whole” and is correspondingly dependent on the political community to achieve its end.

De la Primauté du Bien Commun was a prescient warning. De Koninck traces the family’s endangerment to harm from the personalist emphasis on personal goods and temporal, material goods.

De Koninck’s Influences

To better comprehend De Koninck’s position on the family and the common good, it is necessary to examine his two greatest influences: Aristotle and St. Augustine—both of whom wrote substantially on the family’s intimate link to the political community. Not only is De Koninck’s definition of the common good drawn from St. Augustine, De la Primauté du Bien Commun begins with the Aristotelian statement: “The good is what all things desire insofar as they desire their perfection.”[5]

Aristotle first expounded on humans being naturally inclined toward philia, a type of friendship arising in the family that propels us toward our telos, happiness (eudaimonia). Philia’s essence is “loving,” as opposed to being loved, and it is the impetus for the transmission of virtues and the cultivation of practical wisdom (phronesis). Once philia is exported from private to public domain, the environment for a political community tailored towards the common good can be cultivated.

St. Augustine made similar arguments in Civitate Dei wherein he explores marriage (copula copulation) as the wellspring of social order in the City of Man. The copula copulation is society’s indivisible cell that naturally grows into a household with the arrival of offspring. Children bestow on parents a new set of responsibilities. Proper parenting ensures children can become “saints” acting out of love for others, capable of participating in the political community and enhancing its commitment to the common good.

De Koninck synthesized these positions in a 1950 lecture, discussing marriage as the foundation of family and the family as complementing the political community.

Aristotle and the family

The family’s (oikos) purpose, for Aristotle, is as a natural precondition for any political community (polis). The polis, in turn, arises from the human instinct towards community building. Insofar as the polis comes into being, the oikos is protected and its potential can be actualized. Proper household management cultivates phronesis that, when applied to the political sphere, becomes political wisdom. This is required for the polis to achieve its common good.

Aristotle’s Politica opens with an anthropological claim that humans are political and gregarious beings. Due to our lack of individual self-sufficiency, we are inclined to live with others in political communities. Contingent on their securing the common good, they bring us to our natural end, happiness (eudaimonia), and enable us to overcome our lack of self-sufficiency.

Families are critical in political communities because the household’s filial sentiment is extended outward to “illuminate” the political community.[6]

Among the four types of friendship, philia is animated by a sincere love for the other. This process begins when parents are brought together in the “natural and “necessary” conjugal union.[7] The mutual dependence between spouses culminates in philia, and it is this love that gives the family vitality.

When partners procreate, they “aim for a mutually procreative good.”[8] The child therefore becomes the parents’ common good and a medium of self-completion. Raising children also allows for parents to stimulate their philia. Aristotle suggests as much in comparing philia to the relationship between mother and child: “it seems to lie in loving rather than being loved, as is indicated by the delight mothers take in loving. . . and so long as they know their fate they love them and do not seek to be loved in return”.[9] Ideally, however, children reciprocate the affection. Each member’s contributions pave the way for the mutual dependence fundamental to the common good. The family is thus a vessel for the instruction of virtues and love, one in which each partner is valued because they contribute to the common good.

Although philia from the family is exported to the political community, familial philia cannot be directly applied in the polis because filial ties are impossible to replicate among non-family members.[10] Nonetheless, the cultivation of virtue in the family develops phronesis. Phronesis guides household management toward the common good and, when introduced into the political community, evolves into political wisdom.[11]

Political wisdom provides the community with the ability to coalesce individual talents into a single, harmoniously proportionate, “whole.” A filial sentiment for others in the community complements political wisdom as it safeguards the common good from being overtaken by a multitude of singular goods. The polis’ common good materializes when political wisdom creates an environment conducive to Eudaimonia and the replication of virtuous behaviour.

St. Augustine; the Copula Copulation and Saints

In book XIX of Civitate Dei St. Augustine builds on Aristotle’s notion of the family’s integral role in securing the political community’s common good.

Augustine begins by affirming that man’s social character is a product of the Natural Law. He supplements this thought by recognizing that the primary union under the Natural Law is marriage. Akin to Aristotle, he declares friendship in the family as being among the highest forms. As the saint and martyr elucidates, the married couple (copula copulation), not the family as a whole, represents society’s irreducible atom that begets social order.[12] Whereas Aristotle refers to the entire family as the primal unit in political communities, Augustine argues married couples are the seed-bed (seminarium) of society, followed by the domus and familia.

A social life corresponds to the wisdom elemental in marriage that conditions the political community for “saints.” Parents are responsible for raising children to be “saints” who play a binary role in the political community when they enter the public sphere. Augustine expresses that a saintly person assumes the task of “enumerating” and rectifying the City of Man’s errors.[13] Due to their saintliness, these citizens act out of love; the one described in Augustine’s definition of the commonweal, and corresponding with Aristotle’s philia. These individuals serve as a “check” to measure the political community’s adherence to the common good, ensuring it does not go by the wayside. Because Augustine considers human nature to be inherently tarnished by original sin, the City of Man is consistently exposed to corruption and lust for power (libido dominandi). Saints are therefore the leaders needed to countervail social ills to conserve the community’s well-being.

The path to turmoil

De Koninck repeatedly stressed to his audience that personalists inadvertently defend the ideas they argue against and elevate the individual above the common good. In doing so, their philosophy cripples the natural “bond” with others, including family members. It is replaced with a contorted notion of fraternity that artificially unites individuals on the assumption that each person is a common good in himself for others to enjoy. In this context, the individual solely matters, not the “whole” political community composed of families oriented towards the common good.

This shift can be found in the two philosophies personalism is inadvertently welcoming towards; Enlightenment liberalism and Marxism. By relocating agency in human rationality as opposed to in God, both movements are incapable of structuring society towards the common good.

Given Enlightenment Liberalism and Marxism have had powerful effects on how we think today, they are worthy of attention.

Hobbes and Locke’s Liberalism

The modern era’s first assault against the family and common good was waged during the Enlightenment era by liberalism’s two architects, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Their fanciful outlook on the state of nature germinated into a hauntingly conjoined aversion to the common good.

According to Hobbes, knowledge of universals is impossible because concepts are socially constructed by language.[14] As a result, he fiercely denies the immaterial soul or the spiritual realm, as all knowledge for him is simply the amalgamation of sensory input. We are born mechanistic on a quest for self-preservation among others who are equally aiming to survive. Locke, like his predecessor, also denied the “body and soul” union. Selfhood was rather a river of consciousness that develops atop the tabula rasa through lived experiences.

Hobbes repeatedly attacks Aristotelian universals, including the concept of the common good. For Hobbes, there is no summum bonum, but there is a summum malum, the fear of violent death. All that mattered for Hobbes was the fear that propels self preservation. Akin to Hobbesian tradition, the common good is alien to Lockean philosophy as well. The common good, which requires a firm social order, could not be properly assimilated into his hedonistic moral philosophy that weakens restraint on human action.[15] Therefore the private good predominates in the zero-sum society envisioned by the prophets of Enlightenment liberalism.

The family, wherein all members are mutually dependent and delight in filial love, threatens Lockean possessive individualism defined as lordship over “person and possessions. . . and subject to nobody.”[16] Peace in this otherwise chaotic world solely arises when individuals engage in freedom-preserving contracts. Endorsing divorce, in his Two Treatises on Government, Locke extended the same contractualism to the family. He reduced marriage to the temporary union of individual agents bound only by a revocable and revisable contract, not by Divine or Natural Law. Marriage for Locke only lasts for as long as there is a mutual benefit between the married couple after childbearing. As such, the family is no longer needed because the common good is superseded by the desire for individual private goods.

Marx and Engels

De Koninck extensively criticized the modern prioritization of temporal goods. Materialistic fanaticism has prominently manifested itself in Marxism, which upholds the political community’s common utility over the common good. Unlike the latter, the highest good for all of society, the common utility engenders egalitarianism, but its pursuit of material benefits obfuscates justice. As De Koninck put, it was Marx’s “ideal” that “each [person] puts himself in the place of the common good.”[17] Social order rests upon the individual and once all obstacles to the reconfigured social order are removed, Marx dreamt the state would disintegrate.

However, the family stymies this dream by sheltering the individual from participating in a “blind and violent” collective and being engulfed by the totalitarian state. De Koninck understood that Marxism could not be properly implemented if the family restrained the individual from becoming social order’s nucleus.

More insidiously, Marx and Engels both held the family culpable for perpetuating class conflict and for preserving capitalist ideals. To impose the common utility’s egalitarianism on society, the individual would need to become the basis of social order. Yet doing so would necessitate the family’s dissolution, as Marx and Engels brazenly declare in the Communist Manifesto.[18]

Final thoughts

It is evident that the common good is anathema to Enlightenment liberalism and Marxism, which pine for the private and material good respectively. There is a recurring theme in Hobbes, Locke, Marx, and Engels. Not only do they effect a complete break from Aristotle and St. Augustine’s deliberations on the common good, but they also depreciate the importance of families in their idyllic social orders. While Aristotle wrote on the family as the wellspring of philia that extends outward to cultivate the common good in political communities, and St. Augustine expanded on the importance of “saints” stemming from the copula copulation to rectify the City of Man, Enlightenment Liberalism and Marxism view the family as unnecessary.

Enlightenment liberalism’s worldview is incompatible with De Koninck’s theory of the common good. Hobbes and Locke’s atheism and deism, respectively, are palatable (even laudable) to modern readers, but for De Koninck this disqualifies their philosophy from constructing a political community conducive to the common good:
“the negation of the very notion of the common good and of its primacy is a negation of God. In denying the universality of the end to which man is ordered, one denies the dignity which man receives from this ordination, and one leaves him with nothing but his inalienable personality.”[19]
But the “inalienable personality”, a mere stream of consciousness, is the outcome of the Hobbesian and Lockean synthesis built on the private-good. Preserving individual freedom to maximize personal gain against the intrusion of others is a universal task in a “state of nature” wherein good and bad are reduced to “pleasure and pain” and relationships are simply rescindable contracts.

Stressing the material-good, Marxism also depends heavily on individualism to realize its aspirations. Individuals, who are understood to be in place of the common good, are the pillars upholding political communities and are hence deserving of an equal share in material wealth. But to establish this collective of “tyrants,” De Koninck believed, the government needs complete and unencumbered access to individuals. Families hinder this access and thus have no place in a communist utopia.

Enlightenment liberalism and the Marxist synthesis have left their marks on Western society. An adequate conception of the common good has become near foreign to political leaders, academics, and citizens. Despite being published over 70 years ago, De la Primauté, provides striking clarity in a directionless age. Inspired by Aristotle and St. Augustine’s perennial wisdom, De Koninck’s theory of the common good is anchored in our intrinsic need for family and community. It acknowledges that individuals are defined by their relationships, the first being family.

  1. James Gallagher, “'Remarkable' decline in fertility rates,” BBC News, November 8, 2018. ↩︎

  2. Stephen Baskerville, “The Family Crisis and the Future of Western Civilization,” The Imaginative Conservative. ↩︎

  3. Charles De Koninck, “De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes,” The Aquinas Review, Volume IV (1997), trans. Sean Collins. ↩︎

  4. CC Pecknold, “False Notions of the Common Good,” First Things Magazine. ↩︎

  5. Charles De Koninck, “De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes,” The Aquinas Review, Volume IV (1997), trans. Sean Collins. ↩︎

  6. Thomas W. Smith, "Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good." The American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (1999). ↩︎

  7. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. 1162a. 16. ↩︎

  8. Thomas W. Smith, "Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good." The American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (1999). ↩︎

  9. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. 8.25. ↩︎

  10. This is why Plato has Socrates make a family of the entire City in the Republic. It is the only way of fostering filial love between each member of the city. ↩︎

  11. Thomas W. Smith, "Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good." The American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (1999). ↩︎

  12. Brent D. Shaw, "The Family in Late Antiquity: The Experience of Augustine," Past & Present, no. 115 (1987): 3-51. ↩︎

  13. St. Augustine, Civitate Dei, Book XV ↩︎

  14. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. ↩︎

  15. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXVII: “Good or evil is nothing but pleasure or pain, or that which occasions or procures pleasure or pain to us...” ↩︎

  16. John Locke, The First & Second Treatises of Government. ↩︎

  17. Charles De Koninck, “De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes,” The Aquinas Review, Volume IV (1997), trans. Sean Collins. ↩︎

  18. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain.” ↩︎

  19. Charles De Koninck, “De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes,” The Aquinas Review, Volume IV (1997), trans. Sean Collins. ↩︎

Featured Image: Photo by Bertrand Bouchez on Unsplash.

Anthony Daoud is a Political Science and History undergraduate at McGill University. He has previously been published by The Post Millennial and The National Telegraph. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.