There is so much worth commenting on in the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics that it is difficult to choose just one or two things to discuss here. For now, I will confine myself to a thought that occurred to me while reading this and which links Aristotle’s ideas to events in the modern world. This is the notice I took of Aristotle’s linking of the family and the state.
While it is difficult to discern the direction in which causality flows, there can be little doubt, from an objective historical perspective, that the erosion of the traditional family in the modern world has been coincidental with a dramatic increase in state power. This is especially true of the increase in state control of matters which formerly were the prerogative of church, community, and family. The very existence of such things family courts and public schools testify to the truth of this proposition.
In the light of the relationship between the family and the state in the modern world, Aristotle’s discussion of the family as the most basic unit of the state here is quite fascinating and illuminating. What do you make of the relationship between the two in the light of Aristotle’s comments on the matter?
Each time I read the writings of any of the Church Fathers, the one impression with which I continually walk away is the central position which the Scriptures held in their lives. For all of them without exception, the Scriptures were living documents of the utmost importance. In a world filled with distractions, this is a point about which the modern person must constantly be reminded.
Most of us today live according to a busy schedule that might include obligations to work, family, and children. I am certainly no exception. I am a fulltime teacher, a fulltime student, and a father of two young children whom my wife and I homeschool together. The obligations are nearly endless. From the time my alarm clock rings early in the morning until I finally lay down in bed late at night, my day is filled with teaching, reading, writing, taking children to doctor’s appointments, grading students’ tests, attending meetings, and, when it can be sneaked into my schedule, actually being able to enjoy the life I have worked so hard to build and spending some quality time with my family. In the midst of all of this, it is too tempting and too easy to see things like prayer, quiet meditation, and the devotional reading of and reflection upon the Scriptures as superfluous things, as if they could be pushed to a later time or even ignored altogether.
This, of course, stands in stark contrast to what we find in the writings of the Church Fathers. They lived and believed in a world saturated, informed, and pervaded by the Scriptures. The readiness with which they could reference any verse or story of the Bible and apply it to their own lives and to the events of the world around them is impressive. For them, the Bible was perpetually relevant; it was, in fact, the most relevant book ever written and remained so in all ages. It was not a stale record of the past and reading it was no superfluity. Illiterate monks memorized the entire Book of Psalms and prayed it daily. Great Christian leaders like St. John Chrysostom, a fourth century archbishop of Constantinople, memorized the entirety of the New Testament. And I, it seems, can barely find the time or motivation to read just a chapter or two of the Scriptures each day.
St. Augustine’s words in his On Christian Teaching sound as if they were addressed directly to me: “men,” he says, “… in their eagerness to enjoy the creature instead of the Creator … [grow] into the likeness of this world.” This is a basic principle perhaps captured in the modern idiom “you are what you eat.” Yet, in spite of its obviousness, it is easy to forget the truth of this. Whatever we spend our time taking into ourselves, whether into our minds or our bodies, we will become.
More than any specific point on the interpretation of Scripture, I believe this is the point which myself and perhaps most other modern men of faith should remember from the Fathers and put into practice. Reading from and reflection upon the Scriptures should again become central to our lives. For those like me, this will take a serious readjustment of priorities and, no doubt, more than a little rescheduling of other important things, but, in the end, as the Fathers tell us so plainly by both their words and deeds, this is ultimately to put all things in their proper place.
1 Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, Book I, Chapter 12.
For I ask, if what is not known must not be believed, in what way may children do service to their parents, and love with mutual affection those whom they believe not to be their parents? For it cannot, by any means, be known by reason. But the authority of the mother comes in, that it be believed of the father; but of the mother it is usually not the mother that is believed, but midwives, nurses, servants. For she, from whom a son may be stolen and another put in his place, may she not being deceived deceive? Yet we believe, and believe without any doubt, what we confess we cannot know. For who but must see, that unless it be so, filial affection, the most sacred bond of the human race, is violated by extreme pride of wickedness? For what madman even would think him to be blamed who discharged the duties that were due to those whom he believed to be his parents, although they were not so? Who, on the other hand, would not judge him to deserve banishment, who failed to love those who were perhaps his true parents, through fear lest he should love pretended. Many things may be alleged, whereby to show that nothing at all of human society remains safe, if we shall determine to believe nothing, which we cannot grasp by full apprehension.
St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Profit of Believing, 26
For a woman the physical act of producing a child is a long, tremendous enterprise, which fillers her (whether she likes it or not) with purpose and responsibility and vitality. For a man it is brief and, in feeling, almost purposeless. The rest of his share in the child’s life before birth is auxiliary at best. But after it is born he can being to share equally with the mother in helping it to live and learn. As it grows able to think and talk, he will share that job more and more, whether he knows it or not, whether he wants to or not. Large numbers of fathers do not know this, do not care, and hope it is not true. They try to live as though the child had never been born. They leave it to its mother, or to the schools, or to the other children. Sometimes they true completely to adapt themselves to it when it brings in new ideas and lets loose new forces in their home. Yet by doing all that they are teaching the child just as carefully and emphatically as though they were concentrating on it several hours a day. They are giving it ideas, patterns of emotion and thought, standards on which to base future choices. A child cannot make up its own mind with nothing to work on. It has to see how people behave. For this, it watches other children, and people in the movies, and characters in books; but the people who bulk largest and whose acts have most authority, in the time when its formless mind is being shaped, are its mother and its father. Enormous in size, terrible in strength, unbelievably clever, all-seeing and all-knowing, frightful in anger, miraculously bountiful, unpredictable as a cyclone, cruel even in kindness, when they speak, a child’s mother and father are its original King and Queen, Ogre and Witch, Fairy and Giant, Mother-Goddess and Saviour-God. It obeys them and makes itself to suit them, it watches them to copy them, and, often without knowing it, it becomes them — or else it becomes an opposite of them in which their power is still expressed.Whatever the father does, his child will learn from him. It is far better then for him to decide what to teach it, and how. As he does so, he will be giving up some part of his own personality, and some of his time an energy. But afterwards, when the results being to show, he will be astonished to see that the sacrifice is repaid: his character (when he was perhaps becoming a little tired of its inadequacies) reappears with new strength and new originality in his child. Then he will really be able to say that he made it, and that he is its father.Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 222-24
The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.
62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).
63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1
64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1
65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1
66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2
67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.
68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.
Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.
Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6
These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.
1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.
2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.
3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.
4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.
5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.
6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.
7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, http://www.constitution.org/sps/sps01_1.htm (accessed 24 March 2013).