The Family vs. the State

Time is short tonight, so rather than propose anything carefully thought out or suggest solutions to any of life’s problems — surely that’s what readers want from a blog — I’m just going to quote some Robert Nisbet, a practice likely to be revisited rather often, and add some idle speculation.

In “Kinship and Power in First Century Rome,” which appears in Tradition and Revolt, Nisbet argues — and shows pretty persuasively — that the militarism of the late Roman republic undermined the traditional Roman family. In a nutshell, the legal and social power of the Roman head of family, the pater familias, withered as the army and its chain of command increasingly dominated young men’s lives. For this and other reasons, the Roman family (and particularly the old patrician families) was in decline. Once Augustus had established himself as what we call the first Roman emperor, he tried to repair the family through state power. As Nisbet says:

The professed object of the famous Leges Juliae in 18 B.C. — and in particular the two laws de adulteriis and de maritandis ordinibus — was moral: to clean up the moral delinquencies and to restore marriage to its once proud estate. We need not question motive. The austerity of Augustus’ personal life — unchallenged by contemporaries — is perhaps sufficient proof of this. But neither can we overlook the fact that in the establishment of these laws on morality and marriage, we are dealing with the first official limitations in Roman history of the historic authority of the patria potestas over these matters. It must further be kept in mind that the new laws, far from being isolated manifestations of moral reform, constitute an integral part of that larger reconstruction of Rome which, whether dealing with water supply, fire control, education, religion, or corn dole, was to lead to complete centralization.

There are some exaggerations there, but Nisbet certainly gets the tendency right. Whatever good Augustus may have thought he was doing with his moral legislation, the effect was to weaken the Roman family even further by superseding its authority and social function.

As institutions, marriage and the family — and for that matter, the military and the state — are in the U.S. very different from anything that ever prevailed in ancient Rome. But at the risk of peddling the kind of generalities that I normally detest coming from social critics, I think something analogous to what happened there can happen here. Albert Jay Nock used to say (in Our Enemy, the State and elsewhere) that government has no authority or power of its own, just as it has no money of its own. Its revenue derives from seizing what you and I earn, and in much the same way its power to manage human behavior, and the willingness of individuals and social groups to accede to that power, can only come at the expense of society.

Showing how and why that should be is more than I can address in this little blog post, but it’s a theme to which I’ll be returning in the future.


3 thoughts on “The Family vs. the State

  1. Wilco January 9, 2007 / 10:16 am

    Thank you very much for your post, you gave me some missing info i needed for my study

    I have bookmarked your site and hope to see more great stuff coming


    Wilco Breek

  2. shelly January 22, 2007 / 8:41 pm

    i love that wood!

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