Essays Society Family


Frank Pagano

On the Authority of Parents

"Oh generations of mortals, How I still count you living beings equal to nothing." — Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 1186-88

The contemporary discovery of gender has generated a series of disputes involving assertions of conflicting rights. On reflection this development is merely an extension of the modern notion of the willful individual. Modern individuals are characterized by rights. Consequently, each new enterprise of the willful individual is accompanied by the assertion of a set of rights: the right to choose, gay rights, and transgender rights that sit alongside the traditional Lockean rights to life, liberty, and property. Political and legal battles frequently are characterized as contests between competing rights.

In particular, controversies around transgender rights notably involve conflicts characterized as a struggle between the rights of children and the rights of parents. Those who invoke children’s rights intend that the state defend the children against adults, perhaps the parents, who might infringe on the rights of children. Parents’ rights, however, are not considered true rights because the right a parent asserts is thought to be actually held by their child. Rather like the state, the parent is viewed as a custodian for the rights of the child when children cannot assert rights for themselves. The state claims the position of custodian on the basis that it is not a willful individual. It proceeds according to regular rules of what the state determines to be best for children. In the view of the state its approach is properly mechanical. The parents’ strongest claim is that their approach is not mechanical. They love their children.

Parents may recover the reasons that children need to be loved by parents and why anyone loves her children not merely from the Biblical tradition but also from the ancient Greek tragedians. This overarching need of the child for love gives parents the chief responsibility for protecting the child. This piece points to a way guided by some of the deepest works in the Western tradition to make the argument that the parent should be the primary authority in determining the good of the child. The usual responses that love for children is instinctual and that it is natural for children to respond to love are not sufficient. The family is not a project of unadulterated nature. Rather, it is a series of responses to enduring human problems. According to the Greek tragedians, its basis is derived from the deepest laws, what Greeks called themistes. Contemporary parents are unarmed in the struggle with the bureaucratic state because the terms of the conflict—competing rights—ignore the most powerful claims for the authority of parents.

Tragedies present the problem of children in a manner foreign to the contemporary framework. One indication of their unconventionality is that they exhibit a fascination with the murder of children by family members. In Oedipus Tyrannus, Laius and Jocasta intend to expose the infant Oedipus to the beasts inhabiting Mount Cithaeron. The trilogy of the Oresteia begins with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. In the Bacchae, Agave and her sisters rip to pieces her son Pentheus. Theseus curses his son Hippolytus and asks his grandfather, Poseidon, to murder him. Killing children leads to a series of family murders. Although the tragedian Euripides frequently includes the murder of children in his tragedies, the murders are normally condemned. The horror of the murder corresponds to its obvious injustice. Hippolytus did not rape his stepmother, and Theseus was rash to think that his son would violate his chaste relationship to Artemis, the huntress goddess.

Euripides’ Medea, however, is an exception. She is wronged by her husband, Jason, who intends to put her aside and marry the princess of Corinth, but her murder of her own children is so spectacularly horrible that it does not fit the ordinary dimensions of evil human behavior. This tragedy about a mother takes aim at an abuse pervasive in the ancient world—patriarchy. It is important to note that tragedies do not justify the extremes of patriarchy. The true family that responds to resolving the fundamental human problem as much as possible is not a patriarchy. Families do not exist chiefly for the sake of the father or the mother. Patriarchy is merely the most common perversion of the family.

Even before the murder of her children Medea obeys none of the usual laws and conventions pertaining to the family. To help Jason escape her father, she kills her brother and cuts his corpse up to delay the pursuit. She tricks the daughters of Pelias, an enemy of Jason, into chopping up their father in the belief, based upon a deception of Medea’s, that they can thereby make him young and immortal. Although she is a brilliant contriver of schemes, she is rigidly single-minded. Once she decides to destroy Jason, and since it involves murdering her children, for all her apparent wavering, the children are doomed. She recognizes only one sacred law, that the marriage vows must be strictly observed. Wives cannot be put aside. The marriage bed is sacred. These vows subordinate absolutely both husband and wife to the marriage. Once spoken, the vows cannot be revoked. It is as though humans share in the permanence of the divine through making vows and invoking the gods. There are no individuals in a marriage. The vows make a marriage a seamless unity. Jason shatters the marriage, and Medea ensures that he is unable to preserve for himself anything like a human individual with an independent will.

Medea must kill her children whom she views not as individuals but rather as an essential component of the marriage. They embody the unity of the marriage expressed and bound by the vows of the husband and wife. Ironically she trumps the patriarchal order that Jason assumes in which the marriage is not one of unity but one of male privilege. Patriarchy in its fullest expression claims for the father the privilege of life and death over the children, especially the sons. The Roman republic, as opposed to Athens, adopted the perspective that the father should be treated by his children as a sort of divinity, and filial piety was the organizing principle of the Roman family. Patriarchy tries to defy human limitations. Like a goddess, Medea exits from the tragedy in a flying chariot provided by her ancestor the Sun in which she carries away from Jason the corpses of his sons. He is not allowed to participate in their burial. For all Medea’s divine-like splendor, her tragedy reveals in its awesome horror the ugliness of patriarchy. Humans are not gods, and no one in the family, man or woman, even in a shattered family, has a right to prevail absolutely over the other members of the family. The real family molds creatures characterized by mortality into human beings.

In contrast to the action of Medea, the gravity and intricacy of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus show that the purpose of the family is the development of the children. It gives them the means to combine their disparate stages of growth distributed in the passing times of their lives into one integrated being. There is something recognizable that unites the Oedipus at the opening of the tragedy, who is unknown to himself, and the blind man at its close. In the course of Oedipus’ self-discovery, the tragedy displays how the incest prohibition is the primary ancient custom of the truly human family. Oedipus Tyrannus explores the human problem, and how the incest prohibition established the conditions for a solution to the problem. The tragedy begins with allusions to the riddle of the sphinx that Oedipus is famous for answering. The tragedy works through the most adequate answer. The oldest extant Greek statement of the riddle of the Sphinx, I believe, appears in Apollodorus’ Library sometime in the first century BCE. At most we can say that the oldest statement of the riddle appears well after the performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus. Still the formulation is revealing (Apollodorus III, v, 8): “What is it that has one voice that becomes four footed and two footed and three footed?”

The creature of the riddle is one and many, at rest and in motion, subject to counting and out of order. Its being is to become alternative versions of itself. The riddle, as we know it best—what walks on four in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening—turns out to be part of the answer to the riddle. The creature of the riddle is the human, the time being, that can be one and many in time. The real human problem is how to make one being out of its various temporal manifestations. Oedipus Tyrannus indicates some solutions to the problem that involve the proper understanding and implementation of the incest prohibition.

Once Oedipus’ violation of the prohibition comes to light, the chorus sings out the lamentation quoted at the head of this piece. The generations of mortals cease to add up because it is the incest prohibition that produces the generations. A generation is not merely some older people who give rise to younger people. As a consequence of the prohibition, one set of people have a complex relationship to another set. It is not primarily an older generation but rather a parental generation that generates the younger family members. An aunt and uncle are often younger than their niece and nephew.

Sophocles indicates the central effect of the incest prohibition by giving Oedipus two sets of parents: Laius and Jocasta, the Theban parents who generated him, and Polybus and Merope, the Corinthian parents who nurtured him. What in Oedipus is divided, is brought together where the incest prohibition is in effect. Parents both generate and nurture their children. Oedipus then is caught in a trap produced by the prophecy at Delphi (that he will kill his father and generate children with his mother). He should not proceed to Thebes, where his generative mother unknowingly awaits him, nor return to Corinth where his nutritive mother resides. Readers often take for granted that Oedipus killed his father at the fateful crossroads. Yet the investigation of Laius’ murder is never completed because Oedipus is distracted by the possibility that Jocasta, his wife, is also his mother. Patricide is secondary to incest because the father, who has a slight relationship to the birth and initial nutrition of the child, is of all the family members most completely a product of the incest prohibition. The male prohibited from intercourse with his own offspring becomes the father.

In the tragedy Oedipus’ violation of the incest prohibition is not separable from the failure of those who begot him to take on the responsibility of nurturing what they begat. Laius and Jocasta sent the babe Oedipus to be exposed on a mountainside because they received a prophecy that he would kill his parents (In the Greek text, the wording, which Laius and Jocasta receive, is “parents” and not “father.”). Oedipus’ incest with Jocasta is linked to her failure to nurture her child. A parent in the common parlance is a product of the incest prohibition. But the destruction of the coincidence that produces the single begetting and nurturing parent also permits the other extreme possibility that all that is human is manifold. Without the incest prohibition leading to the nurturing of the child, those who beget are no more parents than the plant sending off its pollen into the wind. Humans in these circumstances are children of fortune. Time after time scatters the fortunes of individuals so that no one can be called happy because no human life adds up. Accordingly, Oedipus the king at the beginning of the tragedy would be a different person than Oedipus the outcast at the end. Fortune fractures his person.

The incest prohibition creates moral time. It establishes the family by placing the generations in a moral relation that distinguishes parents from their children. The parents erect an order around the children. They enlist the generation of adults who are related to the parents and their children by the connections established by the incest prohibition. Uncles and aunts help maintain the moral time of the family. Apollo, in his capacity as the god of prophecy, disrupts the moral time of Oedipus’ family. When his generative parents learn through a prophecy that he will kill them, they no longer treat him like a baby that deserves the protection of his parents. They see him as the adult who will destroy them. The times of his life collapse into a single moment and a single event when he murders the people who generated him. For them he ceases to be a human being as described in the Sphinx’s riddle.

In the final scene of the tragedy, Creon brings to Oedipus his two “beloved” daughters, Antigone and Ismene. He worries about their future and fears that he has poisoned their relations to their fellow citizens and their prospects for marriage. The last glimpse of Oedipus that the tragedy displays is Oedipus the parent. He laments that he cannot protect the girls up to their maturity and calls upon Creon, their uncle/great uncle, to be their defender. After all the disclosures about his relations to his begetting parents, he tries not to abandon his duties as a parent. Parents lead their children through their growth into adults. They provide the moral continuity required for the children to come into their own. The cause for their care is parental love. Love is constant and changes. It is one and many like the developing human being. Parents love their children continuously, and their love assures the child that she remains the same person. Parents love their children in fits and starts to accommodate the changes that the children undergo. Love is continuous and discontinuous and thereby assures the child that she is constantly loved and abruptly loved at every moment of her development.

The tragedies then provide a touchstone by which contemporary humans can judge the proper authorities for determining the good of children. How do the claimants for authority over children affect them? Do these authorities help the children develop into adults? Do children remain the beings that learn and play, learn by playing and learn when play becomes consequential action? On a recent flight a toddler and her mother sat in front of my wife and me. With great delight the little girl played peek-a-boo with us. Each time she popped up above the back of the seat she laughed. She appreciated that we recognized her, and in turn she recognized us as part of humanity. Already she had expectations about the character of the human being. She found it in her game. Her mother was protective, and yet she spoke to her daughter as an intelligent being. Parents delight in the display of their children’s humanity. It is not that they see in them their own immortality. This hope belongs to the patriarchy. Rather they see the proof of their own humanity. They generated, nurtured and protected a human being who is not a mere extension of themselves, but rather an extension of their providence. Parents are good because they love children. Love is required to understand the good for the developing person who has manifold experiences and passions. The doctrine of rights envisions the human as an egoistic individual. The family hopes that the child grows up to be strong enough to act providentially to needy humans. Human life is a serious game of peek-a-boo. Every expression of love is a surprise. Bureaucrats working for the state regulate the world. They do not love surprises.

Frank N. Pagano is a tutor at St. John's College, Santa Fe. He also teaches in the Hudson Institute's Political Studies Program that recruits students from distinguished colleges worldwide.

Featured image: Mother Playing with Child painting (c. 1897) by Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons.