26 November 2016

Family, Community, and State

Modern conservatives and liberals both naturally focus on the individual when considering the questions of the purpose of life, happiness, virtue, rights, and equality. And both usually move from rights and equality to analysis of the state--the political community to which individuals belong and the authority structure established by the people in order to protect those rights and to secure equal protection of the laws. Usually some kind of contractual scheme describes this process.  Insecure in their rights within a pre-political state of nature, individuals contract together to establish a government to protect those rights.

Again, using Aristotle as a conservative touchstone, a different perspective emerges of the origins of the state. Contrary to modern conservatism and liberalism, the state is not made up of autonomous rights-bearing individuals who compact to form a state.  In Aristotle's words, "the state is made up of households."

Aristotle's analysis of the state begins with family formation:

"In the first place, there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other, namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind  have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both my be preserved."

In his Politics, Aristotle devotes extensive treatment to the household. He conceives of the household as the fundamental economic agent in the production and management of wealth to meet the bare needs of its members. In fact,  the Greek word for household means economy.

As children mature, they form their own households. By the multiplication of households, the village emerges.

"But when several families are united, and the association aims at more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village."

The village is the first cooperative society. It members work together to secure a greater abundance of goods than mere daily needs.

Finally, as villages multiply, the state arises.

"When several villages are united in a a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bares need of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life."

In Aristotle's world, this means the Greek city-state. The emergence of the city-state provides the conditions by which the members of the community can acquire the external goods necessary for "the good life."

Aristotle's account is, of course, historically more accurate than the contractual model. Moreover, it lays out a conservative hierarchical scheme for society and how its members secure their natural needs. Family first, local community next, and the state last.

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