Elshtain and Marcel on the family

I’m grateful to Erika Bachiochi (see the previous post) for sharing, via Twitter, an extended quotation on the importance of the family from the work of the late feminist theorist, Jean Bethke Elshtain.

I first became aware of Elshtain’s work some years ago, via her contributions to the online political journal Democratiya (which I mentioned in this post), through which I was introduced to her writings on democracy, terrorism and war.  However, until I read the quotation reproduced on Twitter, I have to confess I hadn’t read Elshtain’s seminal work of feminist political theory, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought, from which it’s taken. I shall certainly do so now. 

Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941 – 2013) via rsn.aarweb.org

As a result of my recent reading and research on personalism and care theory, I’ve come to see, increasingly, the importance of ‘given’ affective ties for an ethic of care, and to feel a growing uneasiness with the tendency of some feminist care ethicists to downplay familial relationships and to see the solution to the care deficit as greater state involvement in the provision of care. Of course there is a role for the state, and even more so for the intermediate agencies of civil society, when family-based care breaks down, or becomes inadequate to meet care needs. However, Elshtain, a feminist who was also a person of faith (a lifelong Lutheran, she converted to Catholicism shortly before her death in 2013), reminds us that familial ties of some kind are vital for human flourishing and cannot be ‘suffused into or displaced by a wider social network’.

The following extract, which is a slightly expanded version of the quotation shared by Bachiochi, is from pages 326 – 337 of the UK paperback edition of Elshtain’s book, published in 1981 in Oxford by Martin Robertson:

I begin with a reaffirmation: familial ties and modes of childrearing are essential to establish the minimal foundation of human, social existence. What we call human capacities could not exist outside a familial mode; for human beings to flourish a particular ideal of the family is necessary….Aristotle and all the other political theorists down through the centuries who asserted the primacy of politics, and viewed man (the male, at any rate, if not generic humanity) as preeminently a political animal even as they downgraded…or simply took for granted the private sphere, were guilty of a serious distortion…. It is the family that constitutes our ‘common humanity’…. This makes the family ‘the universal basis of human culture.’ To be sure, the feminist political thinker must sift what gets ‘packed into’ the family as understood by non- or anti-feminist thinkers….Children will incur an assault to their humanness, an affront they will know in the tissue of their biopsychic beings, if they suffer from the diseases of neglect and nonattachment….These ties cannot emerge, pace Plato and [Shulamith] Firestone, in abstract, diffuse, nonfamilialized settings. In the absence of special, specific ties, familial feelings cannot be suffused into or displaced by a wider social network…

The feminist concerned with a reconstructive ideal of the private sphere must begin by affirming the essential needs of children for basic long-term ties with specific others…to attain and affirm an ideal of family life as the locus of humanization is to put pressure upon social structures and arrangements, not to affirm them. For to the extent that the public world, with all its political, economic, bureaucratic force, invades and erodes the private sphere, it, not the private world, should be the target of the social rebel and the feminist critic…It is the isolation and debasement of women under terms of male-dominated ideology and social structures that must be fought, not the activity, the humanizing imperative, of mothering, or of being a parent, itself...To affirm a vision of the private-familial sphere as having its own dignity and purpose is to insist that particular experiences and spheres of social relations exude their own values and purposes, and have ends not attainable by, or within, others spheres… 

I am here calling for the redemption of everyday life, a recognition of its joys and vexations, its values and purposes, and its place in becoming human…. That is where the heart of ‘politics and the family’ should lie, not in overpoliticizing our most intimate relations and turning the family into the war of all against all to be negotiated by contract, but in fighting the pressures at work from the outside which erode, impoverish, or preclude the flourishing of our most basic human ties.

Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote beautifully, as well as (unusually for a political theorist) accessibly, and her writing is full of phrases you know you’ll want to go on quoting: I particularly liked her call for ‘the redemption of everyday life’. Someone else with a gift for the memorable turn of phrase was the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, whose writings I’ve been immersed in over the past year, as part of my work on care theory. I’m trying to write something on Marcel’s philosophy as a resource for a personalist ethic of care, and I’ve been particularly taken with his concept of ‘mystery’, which he distinguishes (in his 1949 essay ‘Being and Having’) from that of the ‘problem’:

A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity.

Gabriel Marcel (1883 – 1973) via neumann.edu

A prime example of a mystery for Marcel is the body, or the fact of human embodiment. But the family is another. Reading the quotation from Jean Bethke Elshtain reproduced above brought to mind a discussion of the mystery of the family in Marcel’s Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope, the English translation of which was published in 2010 by St Augustine’s Press. The extracts that follow, from pages 63 – 71 of the book, contain some of Marcel’s most memorable – and I’d say poetic – statements about the family, and they certainly resonate with my own experience. Like Elshtain, Marcel identifies a deep connection between the emergence, and flourishing, of the individual human person, and familial ties. I love Marcel’s notion of the family as ‘the upstream region of myself’ and as ‘the very essence of the atmosphere a human being almost unconsciously inhales’, and his characterisation of the human individual as the incarnate ‘reply’ to a ‘reciprocal appeal’ between two beings ‘flung to each other in the unknown’:

I want to point out right away that there is a deep similarity between the unity of soul and body and the mystery of the family. In both cases we are in the presence of the same fact, or rather of something which is far more than a fact since it is the very condition of all facts whatever they may be: I mean incarnation….Under the abstract words of paternity and sonship, I have gradually come to guess at occult and forbidden realities which make my soul dizzy. They attract me, but because they attract me, and because I think I should commit a sacrilege if I gave in to this attraction, I turn away from them. At the very least, I come to believe that, far from being endowed with an absolute existence of my own, I am, without having originally wished or suspected it, I incarnate the reply to the reciprocal appeal, which two beings flung to each other in the unknown and which, without suspecting it, they flung beyond themselves to an incomprehensible power whose only expression is the bestowal of life. I am this reply, unformed at first, but who, as I become articulate, will know myself to be a reply and a judgment. Yes, I am irresistibly led to make the discovery that by being what I am, I myself am a judgment upon those who have called me into being; and thereby infinite new relationships will be established between them and me.

On the other hand, I have to recognise that behind the lighted but much restricted zone which I call my family there stretches, to infinitude, ramifications which in theory at any rate I can follow out tirelessly. Only in theory, however, for in fact an impenetrable darkness envelops this upstream region of myself and prevents me from exploring any further. I can discern enough, however, to enable me to follow this umbilical cord of my temporal antecedents, and to see it taking shape before me yet stretching back beyond my life in an indefinite network which, if traced to its limits, would probably be co-extensive with the human race itself…Between my ancestors and myself a far more obscure and intimate relationship exists. I share with them as they do with me – invisibly; they are consubstantial with me and I with them….

The family [is]  the very essence of the atmosphere a human being almost unconsciously inhales, an essence which imperceptibly impregnates and saturates his thinking, his appreciation and his love.


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