Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Family and Civilization

By Carle C. Zimmerman, 335 pages, ISI Books.

“There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this [atomistic] family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well....Under any assumptions, the implications will be far-reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.”

The author's above words reflect his broad view. He focuses not so much on the sociological theory of the family and its disintegration over the last decades and centuries. Perhaps he goes too far by mocking the theorists as lonely or in “sterile, or unhappy marriages.”

Rather than building theories divorced from reality, Zimmerman finds from history that family and resulting civilizational patterns repeat themselves. The trustee family system, with weak religion and outside political authority, establishes itself first. The family essentially rules itself and maintains its own religious traditions. This is the time of extended family feuds and polytheism, as in the beginnings of ancient Greece, then ancient Rome, and lastly the Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages.

Next, Church or state limit the power of kinship, especially the never-ending feuding, and implement political and religious laws. In the European Middle Ages, canon law and feudalism determined who could marry whom and what kinds of households they could have. Beginning in the eleventh century, urban development limited family power even more, severely punishing blood feuds.

Historical eras with a mixture of trustee and domestic families feature many children and obedience to rules of right and wrong out of respect for one another and common decency. This allows the state to grow increasingly powerful by, for instance, taking the many male offspring for the army. The great Greek and then Roman armies that conquered vast lands and peoples were built at such times.

The downfall of both of these great and powerful civilizations was not caused by the barbarians, since barbarians had always been around. Instead, when atomized families developed, people no longer cared for kin or nation. They focused on pleasure and money. Women refused to stay at home to tend to their offspring, and wanted to travel and live independently instead. With fewer sons serving the army, building businesses, and working he fields, the nation could no longer fight off invaders. Empires fell, first the Greek and then centuries later, the Roman.

For Zimmerman it is as simple as that. The ancient Greeks, then the ancient Romans, were great because their families were great. After the atomization of households, these civilizations imported people to fight in the army, look after the crops, and do menial work in the cities. This led to societal tensions and a lack of social cohesion and shared values.

Zimmerman spends a great deal of time on the development of the intellectual and sociological basis for the modern atomistic household, which started to develop with the Reformation. He warns that civilizations without meaning die off because people refuse to have families, and invest in immediate pleasure rather than in having children.

Books like Family and Civilization that offer sweeping generalizations usually fall prey to hefty criticism. Yet Family and Civilization prophetically examines the spiritual crises of Western countries, something best analyzed from this broad view. If readers can stop themselves from picking apart minor inconsistencies, this book makes satisfying, challenging reading.

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