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Evolution, Individualism, and the End of the Family

Philosophies of human life always include directly or indirectly a conception of the family or of a society in which the family role is delineated. Furthermore, a particularly dominant philosophy often precedes the rise of the particular social organization pictured by the philosopher. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus preceded the great period of blind breeding, colonial expansion, and population development in Europe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Marxian philosophy, which by indirection pictured an all-powerful state, beyond ethics, preceded the rise of totalitarian states which has plagued the twentieth century.

The plan in this chapter is to examine the dominant philosophies and movements of the nineteenth century to find what their fundamental implications for the family were. We have already indicated briefly the ideas of the preceding centuries and the destruction of the historical roots of culture through the domination of the ideals of Hegel and Comte. Now this analysis will be carried further. It is particularly important because scarcely a book on the mentality of the Middle Ages or on modern development mentions contemporary thinking on the family. One would think from reading the contemporary philosophers that after Aristotle and Plato the family did not exist. A study of the actual documents of the late Middle Ages, however, shows that throughout these centuries society was as concerned with the organization of the family as with any other problem confronting it. In fact, interest in the family was higher than in most other subjects.

The nineteenth century was to see the rise of a number of movements. We shall comment only on those few that directly or indirectly produced a specific family sociology. In the field of economics, the theory of the free and unrestrained individual arose. This individual was to challenge every value in relation to his profit, loss, and gain in material consumption. Deification of the state arose in Hamiltonianism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and social-reformism. These movements all led to the weakening of the family, to the use of state power to weaken the family. These movements were associated with the evolutionary conceptions of history and the rise of ideas of constant linear progress.

The nineteenth-century idea of evolution, with its vision of unending goal-destined progress, had two very important effects upon the family. In the first place, the philosophy destroyed the concept of historical tradition for the nineteenth century. All any college student learned of social science and sociology from the nineteenth century to World War I was a theory of social relativism, the linear “evolution” of society through the nineteenth century, the need for challenging all social institutions including the family, and the possibility of continued improvement through the destruction of accepted values. Every important social movement accepted by the nineteenth century—from classical economics to liberalism and superficial family legislation—had, regardless of its purpose, one result: the destruction of the strength of the family and of its historical traditions.

Consequently, it is not surprising to find what had been ancient Gaul—the most central, the most important, and the last of the great Roman provinces—leading in antifamily tradition during the nineteenth century. This was but a logical sequence to the interior demoralization that occurred during the French Revolution. France, by adhering to the decadent Roman traditions rather than progressing through adoption of the moralistic northern barbarian cultures, in two centuries lost her position as the leading power in Europe. She became a minor state, overrun by former minor European powers, and consequently suffered an almost total political eclipse in the twentieth century. Other powers had rising birth rates up until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. That of France remained static in the modern period. First the neighboring powers followed the trend of diminished population with its devastating social changes, then the United States, and finally Russia. The last to become concerned were the Eastern or Byzantine remnants of the Roman Empire. The results of this family decay came as a shock to the twentieth century. A century of comparative peace and well-being had intervened since the Napoleonic Wars. Now, once again, the structure of society was destroyed, its value systems broken, and the way made ready for constant and increasingly costly wars. No one Western society found itself rich enough in blood to be able to afford the human price of these wars.

The Economic Individual Cult and Familism

Economic individualism emerged during the Middle Ages. Its first intellectual sign was the theory that interest-taking was a normal human activity and not, as in the past, a usurious sin. This idea became dominant after the fall of the Roman Empire. The canonical theory of interest (and associated business practices) was that money was barren and produced nothing; that time could not be sold, and that no one should take interest because it was the same as stealing.

The dark days which preceded and followed the break-up of the Roman Empire had brought a reaction in economical matters, which, in its turn, had the natural result of strengthening the old hostile feeling against interest. . . . The Christian Church lent its arm. Step by step it managed to introduce the prohibition into legislation. First the taking of interest was forbidden by the Church, but to the clergy only. Then it was forbidden the laity also, but still the prohibition only came from the Church. At last even the temporal legislation succumbed to the Church’s influence, and gave its severe statutes the sanction of Roman law. . . . Thus Gonzalez Tellez: “for the creditor who makes a profit out of a thing belonging to another person enriches himself at the hurt of another.” And still more sharply, Vaconius Vacuna: “Therefore he who gets fruit from that money, whether it be pieces of money or anything else, gets it from a thing which does not belong to him, and it is accordingly all the same as if he were to steal it.” (For this, see Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest, William A. Smart, ed., Brentano’s, New York, 1922, chs. I–III. Quotations from 18 and 23)

However, with the revival of trade in Southern Europe in the twelfth century, antagonism to this conception grew up among the learned people, so that the growth of practices taking interest under fictional names increased. Damnum emergens et lucrum cessans: one cannot take interest, but one can pay the lender for the damage accruing to him or for the profits he loses. Through the centuries the idea of the economically motivated man gradually emerged.

By the seventeenth century these ideas had emerged so far that men wrote books and advocated programs related to the connection between the activities of the individual and his standard of living. During this and the succeeding century, the idea was thoroughly developed in such writings as B. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and the “Political Arithmeticks” of such men as William Petty, Gregory King, Richard Dunning, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Massie, Arthur Young, David Davies, Sir F. M. EdenA. Lavoisier, and J. L. LaGrange. It became established that consumption was the major goal of man and that by trying to get more to consume the individual would produce more. Thus all of society would benefit, as Mandeville earlier argued in his Fable. The Fable of the Bees was an economic version of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly; it had the same central idea of cultural determinism—that is, the automatic-internal-control conception of society.

At the same time, the standard of living of the laborer was not always as high as it had been at previous times. This standard fell during the seventeenth century; it reached a very low point during the period of the English Revolution. From that time on it climbed, reaching a period of comparative plenty about the middle of the eighteenth century. Then it fell again and was very low during the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic dynasty. After that time, economists (of what is known as the classical school) became increasingly interested in the problem of conquering the misery of the masses by increased production and consumption of economic goods. The primary emphasis was on production at first. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the Mills all held fundamentally to the idea that the individual should increase production. At about the same time, the theory of T. R. Malthus gained popularity. Essentially he held that the standard of living was closely related to population and also to family size. Man could either breed himself into the poorhouse and die from misery or marry late, abstain from having too many children, and live comfortably.

Malthus himself was almost puritanical. He had no idea that his theory eventually would be expanded to complete abstention from childbearing. Neo-Malthusianists took up the suggestion and introduced birth control into the family on a large scale. They argued that marriage prevented sexual promiscuity and that birth control would mean that these limited families could live in a greater degree of comfort than the previous unlimited families. One income divided among a small family meant more per individual than the same income divided among many. And from the individual point of view they are, with some exceptions, fundamentally right. From this developed the idea that no children were better than a few.

This theory, tantalizing as it seems, and valid as it is if not carried too far, pervaded the economics and sociology of the nineteenth century in the same manner that we have seen the discoveries of sulfa drugs and penicillin sweep the medical practice during the past decade. It involved breaking up social mores regarding the family and substituting for them individualistic mores. The sentiments of familism were difficult to uproot. No such attempt had been made since the first four centuries of our era, but little by little it was achieved. Excessive birth control was accepted as a family practice in almost all Western countries by the end of the nineteenth century. It spread rapidly from the upper to the lower classes and from city to country.

The rapidity of this movement, once it gained headway, may be illustrated by the decline of the birth rate in Sweden, a more or less isolated northern country. Knut Wicksell introduced the idea in 1880 in a lecture on “The Causes of Human Misery.” It fell like a bombshell and had repercussions in every class of the provincial society of that country. The press, the pulpit, and the public raged. Yet the birth rate of about 30 per thousand per year in 1880 fell to about 26 per thousand from 1901 to 1910, to less than 15 per thousand per year by 1930. The net reproduction rate alone fell from about 96 percent of enough to reproduce the population in 1925 to about 75 percent by 1937. The momentum gained by this movement was enormous.

What began as a reform to prevent physical misery became a mania to avoid social duty, particularly the economic burdens and social tasks involved in having and rearing children. The movement went so far that supposedly learned men devoted great attention to the theory that the only way of holding the family together was to find so perfect a form of sexual adjustment that there would never be the least cause for the childless or small-family couple to separate. Such perfection, such a basis for the union, was deemed necessary since there were insufficient children in most marriages to hold the family together. Germany developed its Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. We did the same repeatedly, but on a larger scale; however, in typical American fashion, our institutes were given more roseate titles.

 The Ruling Groups of the Family

As we have shown, historically the smaller, or household, family has had three types of ruling or governing bodies. One of these has been the large family itself, which held responsibility and authority over the actions of the family, including those of members against the family, attacks against other families, and individual or collective attacks by members of other families. The very essence of trustee familism is the sovereign power it holds over the family.

Fustel de Coulanges and G. Glotz, among other writers, clearly describe this period for the ancient commonwealths of Greece and Rome. Glotz devotes the first part of his work to an analysis of the early period of Greece when the family was sovereign. Here we have what we know today as government functioning through the family group. What we know as civil law is undertaken by the family.

The same family sovereignty existed after the decline of the ancient Roman Empire, during the medieval period:

When we speak of the “kindreds” of earlier times, we imply, by the mere use of that comprehensive term, something more than this. We imply that not only do individual kinsmen act on occasion so as to further a kinsman’s prospects or shield him from a penalty, but that this kinsman becomes the center of a united group of kindred, who act on his behalf, partly because they have his prospects at heart, but mainly because public opinion, the law, and their own view of life, make them guilty with him, and almost equally liable to penalty; or, in the event of his death by violence, throw the responsibility for vengeance or satisfaction upon the whole group, not only a few near kinsmen. . . .
. . . the cohesive kindred would rally round a member threatened with a lawsuit, and that it probably performed the functions of an insurance society, besides keeping a jealous watch on the inherited land belonging to its members. (Bertha S. Philpotts, Kindred and Clan in the Middle Ages and After, Cambridge University Press, 1913, 3, 247, et passim)

The second type of ruling group has been a religious dynasty or church. This is most clearly illustrated by canon law in the Middle Ages. At all times religion played a considerable role in family rule. Even today, with the tremendous growth of state power and its laws regarding the family, the most influential factors in familism are still the religious, or extramundane beliefs. Call it what you may—religion, mores, belief in right or wrong—it is still the same thing. However, in the Middle Ages, beginning with St. Augustine and up until the golden age of canon law, the church became more and more the dominating power over the family.

Religion has always been a very important ruling factor in the family. In the trustee type it is essentially a family religion. The organization of the Greek phratria and the Roman curia or familistic super-families larger than the trustee families was also associated with religious developments patterned after the family religion, but still not domestic. The early Western states, Greece and Rome, were founded upon definite religions of the state, the something which integrated the tribes and sub-units. As Fustel de Coulanges says, “What is certain is, that the bond of the new association was still a religion,” even though the state be formed voluntarily, through the superior force of one tribe or the domination of one man (The Ancient City). The unusual domination of the family alone by the Church in the Middle Ages was an historical accident due to the failure of state power, but the principle is as old as is the family and religion itself.

The national state constitutes the third ruling group. This may be illustrated by the Greek city-states at the height of their development, by the numerous family laws of imperial Rome, and by the many modern states which, since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have claimed the right—and now, almost the exclusive authority—to govern the family. During such periods any other authority—such as that of churches, either Catholic or Protestant, which formerly dominated the families—is permitted only to the extent that it does not interfere with the absolute power of the state. Marriage is no longer, as Montaigne said, “a religious and devout bond.” Rather, marriage is a secular and civil bond made with the consent and under the guidance and regulation of the sovereign state.

The Rise of Statism and the Family

As shown in the preceding chapters, the modern movement toward secularization of the family and the feeling that it should be under state control started early and was part and parcel of the whole humanist movement. The Protestant Reformation, eighteenth-century rationalism, and the liberal and reform movement since the Middle Ages were all factors in its development. It is true that opinions differed as to the nature of the state that was to be set up and its absolute and unbreakable powers, but these differences were merely minor variations in the gigantic pattern of the rising national states. From the time when Machiavelli in The Prince set forth the idea that the prince or ruler could do no wrong and that expediency rather than moral principle should guide him in establishing state power, all other thinkers, like Hobbes and Locke, held the opinion that the national state should take on more and more of the business of governing. We have passed from the domination of men by local government, familism, and “the moral idea” to domination by statute law, the product of the national state.

Students of Locke, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine and of the whole rationalist school of the eighteenth century may wish to deny this on the grounds that those thinkers were opposed to extreme state power. All of them made a fine distinction between society and the state and ruled that society had the right to withdraw from the state contract if it proved unsatisfactory, and to form another society and make another state contract. This enabled them to distinguish between monarchy and republican forms of government. It also enabled them to oppose the state contract in one sense and to promote it in another. Thus, Condorçet and Paine give the ultimate logic of their position in the Bill of Rights drawn up for the French government after the Revolution and signed by Louis XVI. While the natural rights of everyone are “liberty, equality and resistance to oppression” they are also “security, property and social protection.” “The preservation of liberty depends on submission to the Law, which is the expression of the general will” (Declaration of Rights, paragraphs one and three). This “general will” is the earlier doctrine of Rousseau. Locke also has it in his conception that power is given to the community, not to the sovereign. Thus there is no difference between the fundamental position of Filmer and Hobbes on the one hand and Locke, Rousseau, and Paine on the other. For Paine’s devious reasoning on this subject, see the first part of his Rights of Man, an attack on Edmund Burke because Burke attacked the French Revolution. There you see from Paine’s references that he is but staging the general position of the whole rationalist school.

The nineteenth century saw the final development and dominance of the state in all fields. At the beginning of the century America was struggling to set up her central government, after the weakened confederation had failed to function in the colonies. Distinct differences of opinion existed in the United States between the Hamiltonian view of broad interpretation of the Constitution, which gave the federal government powers in addition to those mentioned in the Constitution, and the Jeffersonian view of strict interpretation of the document, reserving to the states and the local communities all powers not expressly specified as central in the Constitution.

The states grew to be the dominant factor. The fact that they were unable to control familism, or that they lacked a specific doctrine of control, is another matter. The first part of the nineteenth century saw the state emerge clearly above the church and the family, but actually it directed the family very little.

France at that time was just recovering from the Revolution and Napoleon was carving out his scheme for ruling Europe. England was over the shock of the loss of her colonies in America and was bracing herself for the internal struggle with her own revolutionary forces and for the external struggle with Napoleon. Revolutionary talk was rife. Thomas Paine, a former Englishman and the author of our Common Sense, was in France, afraid to come home to America because English ships were hovering about the harbor and Paine knew he was wanted for imprisonment in England for writing the British revolutionary document Rights of Man. Germany was not a national state, but a collection of petty principalities. Russia was still in her Middle Ages and was a relatively small power, having 25 million people in 1789, as compared with the 26 million in France and the 28 million in the various German states. The states were weak. Beyond state duplication in some countries of the church registers on vital statistics and marriages, modern family legislation had hardly begun. The development of the state and of modern-state family legislation was to come in the nineteenth century.

Four main philosophies of the nineteenth century set forth the conception of the national state and finally the inculcation within that state of state rule of the family. In the United States the idea of the Hamiltonians, that government should rule, kept increasing the powers given the central government. The state governments in turn legislated widely on the family. In an earlier chapter we have discussed some of this legislation and the effects it had upon forcing further laws. Omnibus divorce legislation forced laws against omnibus divorce. The Married Women’s Acts led to the Lazy Husband laws. The Civil War made the national government paramount.

Second, the idea of socal reforms by law grew at a rapid rate in the United States. Law piled on law, and government agency upon government agency. Beginning slowly, but spurred on by wars and crises, this movement gained headway rapidly at the end. By 1900 the state had become master of the family. The state recognizes the individual; it pulls him from family sovereignty whenever it deems this expedient. It is not a question of morality of the state. When the family rules the family, it does so for religious ends. When the state rules the family, for good or bad, it rules the family for state ends. If it wants the individual freed from the family, as was the case in the nineteenth century in the Western world, it frees him and family demands must take second place. It is the same in the United States as in other Western powers, although here individualism, as opposed to the family and the state, has for the present gained greater sway.

In Europe, Hegelian and Marxian philosophies held the attention of the people, but in spite of this, the trends in Europe have been essentially the same as those in the United States. In countries openly espousing dictatorial forms of government, the expression of these trends has been exaggerated. Hegel’s philosophy of the state (by which he is best known, no matter how much more refined are his other arguments) is given in his Philosophy of History. There are several different Hegels and also different groups of Hegelianists, according to whether one follows his theories of causation and social change or his ultimate philosophy of history and the deification of the state. This former Protestant minister and excellent logician, who had fallen from favor for the same reason that Thomas Paine finally dropped into disgrace, became the intellectual Beau Brummell of Berlin and the leading contemporary philosopher of the German state, as Martin Luther had been at an earlier date. Hegel’s philosophy was that the course of history had been the course of the development of the idea of freedom. This had taken three essential movements. In the early Orient, the individual was free; in classical societies, a few (the citizens) were free; in future state, all were to be free. “The Final Cause of the World” was to “realize its own freedom by Spirit (Geist),” and this was to be achieved by perfecting the German state.

The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness, that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence.

We have seen since that the German state, far from freeing people, was the first in the twentieth century to assume absolute control over the family, to organize and supervise it with full intention of using the family for the furtherance of its designs. From marriage to the grave, from birth to senility, the individual was made a slave of the state. He became merely a tool, an instrument for achieving the state’s purpose.

Early Marxism, however, made Hegelianism international. It revealed thoroughly the real meaning of the nineteenth-century trend of the state and the family. Marxism (from the first Communist Manifesto, written for the Revolution of 1848, down to the last volume of Das Kapital and the final writings on the family and its institution by Engels and the other followers of Marx) was anti-institutional as far as the family was concerned; it was pro-institutional for communist state purposes. To use terminology that applies equally to Rousseau, Paine, Hegel, and Marx, all social institutions were to be dissolved in order to “free the individual,” so that the purposes of the communistic order could be achieved through the final and absolute state. As we have seen from parallels in earlier chapters and from the Russian Revolution, in the early stages of the revolution this meant the legal dissolution of the family, in the later stages, its re-creation and rigidification for the purposes of the state. The power assumed was as absolute in Russia as in Germany. After each modern revolution—English, French, and Russian—that has partially or totally dissolved the family, there has been a countermovement to recreate the family as an indispensable agency for the social order. There is no substantial difference between the attitudes of Hume regarding the newly created English family, de Bonald regarding the French family after 1816, and of the Communist leaders after the new Russian family law of 1944. The revolutions varied in their treatment of the family and so did the reactions. The family is now truly the agent, the slave, the handmaiden of the state. As the state varies in intention, so will the family.

These four outstanding philosophies of the nineteenth century—Hamiltonianism, social-reformism by law, Hegelianism, and Marxism—led to the increase of statism and to the gradual development of the idea of absorbing the family for purposes of statism. In this sense they were essentially unfamilistic.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the state dominant and the family with little power to resist. The judge who failed to give easy divorces soon lost his position and prestige. In contrast, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the family was so strong that secularization of marriage by civil registration caused more trouble for the Puritans during the English Revolution than anything else they did. John Milton, who wrote on divorce during that time and who was a Puritan leader, was saved from death after the return of the royal family by some “miracle” which is not even yet understood by historians.

Familism and Evolutionary and Linear Progress Cults

In the nineteenth century, in addition to the other challenges to the strength of the family bond, new “scientific” explanations of the family were offered. These completely divorced it from history; they arose from the schools of anthropology and primitive sociology, where the early and later courses of the family were traced through an evolutionary series.

There were numerous attacks upon various doctrines, but fundamentally, the nineteenth century saw the rise and acceptance of the evolutionary conception of the family. Its proponents gave us instead of history, imagination. Instead of the constant struggle between familism and individualism, they gave us various evolutionary pictures. These have been reviewed in chapter one.

The evolutionary cultists were shortly joined by the adherents of the school of linear progress. This is illustrated in outstanding detail by the works of Herbert Spencer. With the exception of a very few thinkers, from that time to the present these dogmas and schools of thought have to a remarkable degree dominated thought on the family. Since then, books on the family (except relatively few by religious writers and conservative clergymen, both Protestant and Catholic) have become works on evolution, the progress and rise of individualism, or adaptations advisable in the family to bring about improvements, rather than works on the family.

Bury has written a most authoritative work on the rise of the idea of progress. He divides it into three stages. The first was one of casual treatment, and lasted until the French Revolution. After the Revolution, as shown in the works of Hegel, Comte, and the positivist writers associated with his analysis, significance was given to the idea of constant forward movement toward a desirable goal. The Origin of Species, by attaching Darwinism to progress, as these ideas were fused by Herbert Spencer, established, in Bury’s words, “the reign of the idea of progress.” It synthesized the movements predicated in evolutionary thinking and combined them with the idea of a desirable goal, which had been inherent in thinking since the Reformation. This gave us the theory of ultimate development, of necessary progress toward perfectibility.

Thus in the seventies and eighties of the last century the idea of Progress was becoming a general article of faith. . . . Within the last forty years nearly every civilized country has produced a large literature on social science, in which indefinite Progress is generally assumed as an axiom. (J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress, New York, 1932, 346–48)

Two interesting problems are presented in the rise of the school of evolution and linear movement in social phenomena, which thoughts combined to produce the family philosophy of the nineteenth century. These are the causes of its appearance and its results in thinking about the family. We do not know much about the causes of the movement, except perhaps that the world was ready for some such approach to existing problems. Such theories made social change easy by providing a grab bag for any argument needed. The era of peace, comfort, and semiscientific plundering of the remotest parts of the world, which occurred in Europe after Napoleon and in the United States after the Civil War, may have been instrumental. The most important question is the effect of this synthesization upon thinking in regard to family problems. Briefly, it destroyed history as a fundamental study in social science. Historical life experience became only a moment in evolution. The field of study was muddied by the admixture of man’s historical struggle with the family and a weighty group of facts from allegedly primitive societies, so that grounds could be found for any conclusions about the family. The family was driven toward inevitable change because “evolution in a linear direction never ends”; the individual was made the unit of social study because we (a) never knew primitives very well, and (b) the new “noble savage” was either too good (with no wars, perfect communism, and the ideal individual) to need a family, or was too bad (with wife stealing, patricide, primitive promiscuity, and the slavery of women) to get along with a family. Finally, skepticism and nihilistic attitudes toward the family could become a cult because anyone could see that we were better off in our family life than the savage, either good or bad, and that we were capable of improving still further.

Disappearance of Family “History” as a Frame of Reference

Before the development of the evolutionary-progressive formulas, history played a definite role in the formation and knowledge of family theory. Church discussions of the family always began with the Old Testament, progressed through the New Testament to known practices during the Roman Empire, and continued through the early Church Fathers (St. Augustine and his group), the canon law doctors, and later discussions by the church councils. Similarly if Montesquieu, Voltaire, Milton, or other writers disagreed with certain practices, they had recourse to known historical documents which they quoted in detail in their arguments. If thinking on the problem of the family had continued along the lines established by the beginning of the nineteenth century, adequate interpretations of the family would have developed, based upon its different relations to other cultural aspects during different stages in national history. One can see great evidence of this in the analyses of Hume, Voltaire, the natural-law school, the social-compact school, and especially in that inspiration of so much of modern thinking, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. As he pointed out:

Laws; in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things. (Spirit of the Laws, vol. I, 1)

But the rise of the nineteenth-century evolutionary-progressive theories put a stop to this trend. Historians of the family began to neglect the time element and to force their ideas into systems. Instead of history, systems of evolution were created, and the facts of history were made to adapt to the family. We see this process working with great exactness in the books by Henry Sumner Maine, where the period from the early Hindu Codes of Manu to the Roman Twelve Tables is rejected as being nonessential to his theory. Later he skips from the Twelve Tables to medieval law and the modern period. Developments within the family during the Roman Empire were to him of no consequence, because he was intent upon establishing the linear theory of development from early status to later contract in human relations.

Thus, history was eliminated from family sociology. As a substitute, we received a miscellaneous body of primitive practices, varied in type, which were often casually studied and generally misinterpreted. When the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century thinkers wanted to advance some doctrine about the state, imaginary states of nature were set up to justify the ideas the scholar wanted to promote. Examples are Hobbes’s defense of absolute monarchy and Rousseau’s attack upon this and other institutions. Hobbes imagines nature to be a state of war. To avoid this “natural” conflict, man made an unbreakable contract with the monarch and divine state—the leviathan. Rousseau imagined a state of nature of perfect peace and contentment and maintained that social institutions set up since that time had enslaved men. From these divergent states of imagined nature, these philosophers could reach opposite conclusions.

After the beginning of the nineteenth century, different theorists advanced any desired argument for changes in the family from heterogeneous and casual studies of primitivism. Consequently, the nineteenth century was one in which all agreed on developing goals for the family, but no one seemed to agree on what those goals were. It was like the earlier argument over divorce during the Reformation. One authority would quote the Bible to prove that marriage was a sacrament, another to prove that divorce should be allowed for adultery, and a third to prove that divorce should be granted for any marital dissatisfaction. In the nineteenth century, one quoted primitivism to prove that monogamy had always existed; another stated that we had evolved from primitive promiscuity to monogamy; a third, that our change from matriarchy to patriarchy had given us repression of the Oedipus complex; a fourth, that our evolution had been from patriarchy to the freedom of women and children from domination, and so on. Any school of thought could find an antecedent primitivism as an example of what we should try either to achieve or to avoid.

During all this time, the real history of our family and the reason for the various forms it had taken never entered the discussion. Ever since the Reformation the Catholic Church has been roundly berated in many circles for holding to the sacramental theory of marriage. The leaders in this antisacramental argument apparently have not been aware of the moral conception in the Roman Empire, against which the church reacted, nor of the degraded state from which it strove to raise the family. As far as the family was concerned, all values had so decayed that the question of a population sufficient to carry on civilization was no longer a primary concern of the people. The new generation’s main concern was not to carry on the race, but to avoid the filthy, loathsome scourges of venereal disease that sapped the whole Western world after the cross-fertilization of germs that occurred from the mixture of populations. People simply wanted some human relation which would last just beyond the moment.


To a large extent unintentionally, but surely and dramatically, the three great philosophical movements of the nineteenth century—individualism, statism, and evolutionary progressivism—drove familism to the farthest extreme of atomism. In most states, the industrial revolution loosened the family from parental control. Its first result was a rapid increase in the birthrate of these industrial countries, followed by a rapid decline. By 1870–80, the birth rates had begun to decline in almost all European countries. Except in the peasant-agrarian countries of Eastern Europe and Southern Italy, they were below reproductive levels by 1930.

Legal backstays of the family—some degree of manus, potestas, coverture, and mutuality—were destroyed on a large scale, more so in some countries and periods than in others. The individual arose and became the subject and the dependent of the state. Theories of the family as but a nominal group, a private contract to be broken at will, gained ascendancy. The minds of the people were being filled constantly with the idea that “happiness,” as defined by individual egotism, was the goal of life. Marriage and family must justify themselves according to this concept of “happiness” or be abandoned. Happiness is a very subjective term, being defined each moment, each day, and in each age by different psychological considerations. Consequently, the family had no understandable objective for its guidance.

Of course, familism has been retained throughout the most disturbed periods by certain ethical, religious, traditional, and other types of people. Depressions have forced familism simply because during an economic catastrophe no other choice was possible. Many other circumstances have affected the situation. Fundamentally, however, this period led us organizationally, philosophically, and factually to an extreme development of antifamilism.

Carle C. Zimmerman was a historian and professor of sociology at Harvard University.

Adapted from Chapter 8 of Family and Civilization (1948). Republished with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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